Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Diagramming Sentences ~ A Lost Art?

I have no doubt that the English language is always changing—usually extremely noticable in time-spans of centuries.

Still, grammar has remained remarkably stable—except for certain maverick creative writers.

Some folks gain the title “grammar nazi” while others leave all that boring stuff up to an editor.

Grammar is a branch of linguistics that deals with syntax and morphology (and sometimes also deals with semantics).

I still remember slowly slogging through books on grammar but spending hours happily diagramming sentences.

If you’ve never seen a diagrammed sentence here are a few examples (images from Wikipedia):

If you’d like a good read about the history of sentence diagramming, check-out Kitty Burns Florey‘s article in The New York Times, A Picture of Language.

Kitty says: “The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y.”

Did you ever do sentencing diagramming?

Was it taught to you in school or did you learn it on your own?

Over the years, I’ve asked many folk if they’d heard of the technique but found very few who have

However, with many people considering self-publishing and simultaneously being unable to afford an editor, I thought I’d add a few links where you can learn it.

The first resource, called simply Diagramming Sentences, includes the download of a Power Point presentation so you can watch diagrams being constructed.

It begins with this quote by Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.

The last resource, 500 Sentence Diagrams, amongst many other aids, includes sentences diagrammed from Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Graves, Edith Hamilton, Henry Fielding, Thomas Wolfe, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Milton.

Hope these help :-)

If you explore this technique, I’d love to have you report your feelings in the Comments.

And, of course, if you learned it in the past, please let us know what you think in the Comments
Our Comment Link Is At The Top of The Post :-)
For Private Comments, Email: amzolt {at} gmail {dot} com

30 responses to “Diagramming Sentences ~ A Lost Art?

  1. Simone Benedict March 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Do I know how to diagram sentences? Oh My Gosh! It’s my fav hobby! My 7th grade teacher taught us how to diagram and it changed my life. My oldest child is learning it in school this year (4th grade).

    Sorry to gush, but diagramming sentences is one of the few topics that will send me there :-D


    • Alexander M Zoltai March 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm

      So, Simone, you Do have something in common with Gertrude Stein :-)


      • Simone Benedict March 28, 2012 at 3:17 pm

        Heehee, so do you Alexander :-)


      • Once April 5, 2012 at 7:16 am

        …Everyone has something in common with Gertrude Stein; we all know by now that there is no “there” in Oakland, California, en esoteric yet perspicuous fact that is right up there with Santa Claus, the presidential electoral system, and modren Greco-Roman economy, and the way Einstein learned the hard way while walking along a lakefront in Switzerland in 1905. California became a copula verb that led both Stein and Eistein to the Pomised Land of Singularity in the beginning of the Twentieth Century just as it is about to achieve the same distinction in this auspicious openning of the Twenty-First Century. Not that it matters a hoot to expose this information, but, since you asked, I, too, found diagramming sentences my only solace when I was in junior and senior high school, and I might well have gone mad without its soothing effects in any given moment, something almost as comforting as saying the rosary or attending a complete set of novenas. Of course neither Gertrude nor Albert ever had that pleasure.

        So, yes, I was taught to diagramme sentences, in turn, I taught secondary English courses using this method, and both my students and I survived to tell the tale!


        • Alexander M Zoltai April 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm


          Thanks for the humorous set of facts and letting us know that sentence diagramming was a “solace” to you—a structuring of those slippery metaphysical entities that you and I both hope the Maid of Heaven will bless with inner meaning :-)


  2. Simone Benedict March 28, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Tho’ off-topic of your post, I wanted to share a post about a delightful, lesser known one of Gertrude’s books with you Alexander.


  3. tsonoda148 March 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Wow, I had forgotten about diagramming sentences! I loved it in school, way way back when! I was a nerd even then. I’m going to visit some of the links offered and go over the process once more. I am sure it would be of benefit to me, and consequently, my readers. Thanks Alex!


  4. Catana March 28, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Diagramming sentences was my #2 nightmare in high school (math was #1). I couldn’t diagram to save my life, but I made up my grades with my writing assignments. When my husband was teaching, and I was helping him grade compositions, we discovered that the ability to diagram sentences or reel off the parts of speech had no relationship to the ability to write. Some students who could turn out perfectly diagrammed sentences couldn’t write a decent paper if you held a gun to their heads.


  5. Jane Watson March 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    I do agree with Catana about the lack of connection often between good writing and diagramming and with Alex about good writing being absorbed. Diagramming however is fun, diagrams are such visual word art, a bit like the electric circuitry of language laid out on the page;)

    I’d forgotten all about this too, thanks for reminding me Alex!

    If you’d like to read a really good book on diagramming rush off and get: “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog:the Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences” by the same Kitty Burns Florey mentioned above, a copy of which has been somewhere on my bookshelf for quite a few years …

    You won’t regret it.


  6. jacobdp March 29, 2012 at 1:36 am

    Reblogged this on Reasonable Anarchy and commented:
    Some interesting techniques to inprove your writing. The structure of your inked thoughts is as important as the thought itself.


  7. Pingback: Redneck Verb Conjugating « Simone Benedict's Blog

  8. tinychaptersontherun March 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    This is a great post – I don’t know of diagraming in the UK. We learn by rote and so forget as soon as the teacher stops badgering us. Sorry it’s taken me so long to follow your blog – dim brain light bulb I have. (Diagram that if you care…). Tiny Chapters on the Run is being published soon under a new title ‘The Panic Ruminations’. You were so very supportive of it so I’d love to give you a free copy to review as soon as it’s out – if you’d like. SophieX


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