How many of you remember diagramming sentences in elementary school? Where you shuffled, with great trepidation, to the chalkboard to draw a straight line and bisect it to show the “subject” (noun) and “predicate” (verb). And then the diagonal line(s) underneath one or more of those words to show “modifiers.”
I have to make a confession—I liked diagramming. Although some have likened it to a mathematical equation, I see it more as putting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle (I’m not mathematically inclined, but I do like puzzles).
It is easy enough to figure out “The horse galloped” or “The cat hissed.” But what about “John’s horse galloped around the paddock and then ran into the woods.” Oh my. Now you’re getting into lines underneath the lines beneath the subject/predicate line. And where does “around the paddock” go? OK, maybe that’s easy enough (under the verb galloped seems logical). But where does the rest of it go? And why do we care? Do we need to know how an airplane is designed before we fly? Do we need to know the terms and parts of a sentence before we write?
Well, yes and no. You don’t need to know the terms “participle,” “gerund,” or “appositive” to write well. But sometimes you need to know the rules before you can venture into breaking them.
According to Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Dog Barking, diagramming was introduced in 1877 in the textbook, Higher Lessons in English, by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg to “reform the cold-blooded murder of the English language.”
Florey writes, “By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like ‘him and me went’ and ‘I ain’t got none,’ until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper.”
Florey also asks a teacher who is presently teaching diagramming to her seventh graders, why?
“‘It just makes grammatical ideas clearer,’ she says. ‘It’s a tool for teaching them how to construct a sentence correctly.’”
“Does it make them better writers?”
“She dismissed the idea. ‘Maybe it will make them better editors, but it does not improve their writing.’”
Aha. Maybe that’s why I’ve ended up as an editor! And as for making my writing better, maybe something subliminal in the back of my brain helps me draw upon my diagramming experience to decide questions like whether to use “he” or “him” as the object of “who.”
What are your experiences with diagramming and what did you learn from it?
A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.