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Sentence diagramming: no unanimity among users.


A minority of educators question well-publicized research purporting that classroom grammar teaching is futile, time wasting harmful etc. Generally, such educators agree in rejecting a return to traditional grammar In linguistics, "traditional grammar" is a cover name for the collection of concepts and ideas about the structure of language that Western societies have received from ancient Greek and Roman sources.  teaching. However, disagreements exist regarding what grammar to teach and how, in what sequence and at what ages. This article addresses just one area of disagreement: sentence diagramming among those finding it useful in any way. The major source is the Assembly for the Teaching of English (ATEG ATEG Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar ) listserve archive.

Nobody Diagrams Anymore, or Do They?

Diagramming didn't die in the seventies or eighties. Devotees diminished but did not disappear. Websearch keywords, sentence diagramming, returned 20,699 entries. The first few entry pages nearly all dealt with sentence diagramming. Entries included textbooks, workbooks, online resources, and specialized pages serving college writing or language courses.

Diagramming books in print include (Davenport 2004; DeVincent 1995; "Diagramming ..." 2004; Florey, 2006; Lobeck 2000; and Vitto 2003). Information available on DeVincent and Vitto do not specify a grade level. Davenport's book is used in grades 7 through 12; Lobeck's book is college level. Though due in 2006, Florey's book has not yet been published at this writing.

This sample of diagramming websites is representative and of general interest: (Broughton 2003; Macintosh 2006; MacNamara 2004; Moutoux 2005; Orozco 1995; and Rogers 2000). The Broughton and Moutoux sites have some commercial purpose, but the others share material originally designed for specific populations. The Broughton, Orozco, MacNamara and Rogers works are college level. The Moutoux work serves middle and high school. The Orozco material is designed for elementary use.

Personal View

The following combines my views expressed in (Hoffman 2003:202 and 2006: 224). Time expended, and limited success I have in, teaching diagramming outweighs the returns. I teach a course, teaching language, to elementary and secondary education students. A third of any class benefits; another third is confused, intimidated, resentful, learning nothing; and the remainder just gets by. Consequently, I no longer teach students to diagram, nor suggest that they teach it. I ask them to learn to read diagrams, using a map-reading analogy: map readers do not need to be cartographers Cartography is the study of map making and cartographers are map makers. Before 1400
  • Anaximander, Greek Anatolia, (610 BC-546 BC), first to attempt making a map of the (known) world

I use Reed-Kellog (traditional) diagrams with minor modifications. These have less apparatus than Aspects-model tree diagrams in rhetorics using transformational grammar transformational grammar
A grammar that accounts for the constructions of a language by linguistic transformations and phrase structures, especially generative grammar.
. Modern theorists no longer use Aspects-model diagrams. However, more modern counter-intuitive diagrams called X-bar trees or alternatively, brackets within brackets, would just glaze my students' eyes over.

I use diagramming to compare and contrast structures, and to represent ambiguity. Although Reed-Kellog diagrams were not originally intended to distinguish underlying from surface structures, bracketing missing/deleted elements enables displaying such distinctions. Even students with limited grammar facility understand sentences sharing surface but not underlying structures.

ATEG Postings

The formerly independent Association for became the National Council of Teachers of English Mission
As stated on their official website, the NCTE ( National Council of Teachers of English) is a professional organization dedicated to "improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education.
 Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar English grammar is a body of rules specifying how meanings are created in English. There are many accounts of the grammar, which tend to fall into two groups: the descriptivist . People post to its listserve who use or consider grammar use in the classroom. In the late 1990's, the listserve had clusters of postings concerning diagramming. These postings, archived online, provide informed opinion on sentence diagramming with the added advantage of participants responding to one another's views.

Affiliations of Selected Educators Posting

Larry Beason is Associate Professor and Composition Director of the English Department Noun 1. English department - the academic department responsible for teaching English and American literature
department of English

academic department - a division of a school that is responsible for a given subject
 at the University of South Alabama The University of South Alabama is a public, doctoral-level university in Mobile, Alabama, USA. It was created by the Alabama Legislature in 1963, and replaced existing extension programs operated in Mobile by the University of Alabama.  in Mobil. He is co-author of two works with Mark Lester. They are The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage (2005) and A Commonsense Guide to Grammar and Usage (2006.)

Paul E. Doniger, past secretary of the ATEG, teaches English and theater for the Pomperaug High School Pomperaug High School (PHS) is a public high school in Southbury, Connecticut. It is part of Pomperaug Regional School District 15. External links
  • Pomperaug Regional School District 15 website
 English Department in Southbury, Connecticut Southbury is a town located in western New Haven County, Connecticut, United States north of Oxford and Newtown and east of Brookfield. The population was 18,567 at the 2000 census. .

Kathryn Gunderson was formerly instructor of linguistics in the English and of business in the business departments at California State University Enrollment
 in Hayward. She was employee-development specialist for the Dublin San Ramon San Ramon (Spanish for "Saint Raymond") may refer to one of the following places:

  • San Ramón de la Nueva Orán, a city
Costa Rica
  • San Ramón, Costa Rica, the municipality of San Ramón
 Services District in 2005, the latest information I could find.

Michael Kischner who teaches English at North Seattle Community College North Seattle Community College (NSCC) is a two-year public college. It is one of the four colleges comprising the Seattle Community College District, and one of the 32 member colleges of the Washington Community and Technical Colleges system.  was the Carnegie Foundation's Washington Professor of the Year in 1997.

R. Michael Medley is Associate Professor of TESOL TESOL
1. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages

2. teaching English to speakers of other languages
 and Director of the Intensive English Program at Eastern Mennonite University History
Eastern Mennonite College was founded in 1917 as a Bible academy to "provide a setting for young men and women of the Mennonite Church to deepen their biblical faith, study the liberal arts and gain specific skills in a variety of professions.
 in Harrisonburg, Virginia Harrisonburg is an independent city in Rockingham County, Virginia. The population was 40,468 at the 2000 census. It is the principal city of Rockingham County and is included in the Harrisonburg, Virginia Metropolitan Statistical Area. .

Max Morenberg, Professor and Chair of the English Department at Northwood University Northwood University is a private university, with locations in many U.S. states. Northwood hosts three residential campuses in Midland, Michigan (opened in 1959), West Palm Beach, Florida (opened in 1984), and Cedar Hill, Texas (opened in 1966) as well as the University College  in Oxford, Ohio Oxford is a college town located in the southwestern portion of the U.S. state of Ohio in northwestern Butler County in Oxford Township, originally called the College Township. The population was 21,943 at the 2000 census (approximately 16,000 students are included in this figure). , is author of Doing Grammar (2002.)

Johanna Rubba is Associate Professor of, and Linguistics Minor Advisor for, the California Polytechnic State University's English Department in San Luis Obispo San Luis Obispo (săn l`ĭs ōbĭs`pō), city (1990 pop. 41,958), seat of San Luis Obispo co., S Calif., near San Luis Obispo Bay; inc. 1856. .

Ronald Tuch identified himself as a high-school English teacher in the posting to be cited. However, I have been unable to learn his affiliation then or now.

Wanda Van Goor is Professor of English at Prince George Prince George, city (1991 pop. 69,653), central British Columbia, Canada, at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako rivers. It is a railroad division point and a distribution center for a lumber region.  Community College in Largo Maryland.

Middle of the Road

Larry Beason (February 14 and May 8, 1996) taught a required English Major The English Major (alternatively English concentration, B.A. in English) is a term for an undergraduate university degree in the United States and a few other countries which focuses on the study of literature in the English language (the term may also be used to describe a student  and Minor grammar course at Eastern Washington
For the university, see Eastern Washington University.
Eastern Washington is a region of the United States defined as the part of Washington east of the Cascade Mountains.
 State University. He used traditional diagramming with a text by Mark Lester: Grammar in the Classroom. Beason stressed, "it is simply a visual attempt to represent structure," so students learn what syntax means and what traditional grammar lacks.

In the May 8 posting, Beason warned that focus on one language level may make students overlook other grammatical connections. "At times, they can diagram a sentence w/o understanding much about the whole sentence structure or even the individual words."

In a May 14, 1996 posting, Beason recounted a discussion with his graduate students on why diagramming only works for some students. They concluded that diagramming is a visual metaphor representing complex hierarchy and word interrelations in sentences more simply as lines in diagrams. Although Beason persisted in advocating diagramming's utility, he acknowledged that this metaphor fails for some students. He noted that metaphors only succeed when people understand one concept expressed in terms of a more familiar, less complex concept. Diagramming is not familiar for all, and many students do not see it metaphorically.

Fairly Positive

In May 19 and December 6, 1995; and May 8, 1996 postings, Michael Kishner described a course which he and a colleague taught at North Seattle Community College. From an in-house text, they used a variation of traditional diagramming to teach syntax and used sentence combining to practice style. In his May 19 posting, Kischner explained:
   For our diagrams, we use a space-saving variation on the
   Reed-Kellog diagrams. ... Instead of slanted lines for modifiers,
   for instance, we use lines that come down vertically and then
   branch off horizontally to provide lines on which to place the
   modifiers. This permits you to stack modifiers on top of each

Kischner also mentioned an edition of a Martha Kolln text Understanding English Grammar (1994) which uses diagramming. Like Beason, Kischner found traditional diagramming useful. In both a May 8, 1996 and an April 8, 1997 posting, he contrasted traditional with tree diagramming. He claimed that little enthusiasm for sentence diagramming exists, many denying that diagrams are reliable representations of how sentences' structure creates meaning. Most modern grammarians believe that phrase-tree structures do that much better. Phrase-trees may show better how the mind composes sentences, but diagramming can effectively clarify already-composed sentences for visual learners.

An Atypical Supporter

In his May 21, 1996 and April 19, 1997 postings, Tuch supported diagramming for a less common reason than others. "Grammar is a tool for analysis, not merely a list of rules and regulations whose purpose it is to write a functional business letter." Tuch contended that "Grammar should be taught in conjunction with poetry." Once students learn "subordinate clauses, participial phrases, gerund ger·und  
1. In Latin, a noun derived from a verb and having all case forms except the nominative.

2. In other languages, a verbal noun analogous to the Latin gerund, such as the English form ending in -ing
 phrases, infinitive infinitive: see mood; tense.  phrases, etc," these can be used in the study of meaning. Tuch used diagramming to better understand language choices made by authors like Dickinson and Shakespeare.
   --how, ... does grammatical knowledge help us understand the
   philosophical implications of his [Shakespeare's] usage? ... The
   issue ultimately for me has not been diagramming in itself, but
   rather the treasures of philosophical issues that are unearthed in
   understanding how ... sentences ... generate meaning.

Some Critical Review, Some Repetition

In an April 14, 1997 posting, Rubba discussed her use of Martha Kolln's Understanding English Grammar (1994) for diagramming. Her comment on student reaction echoed remarks by Beason and me: "a number of the students appreciated the chance to analyze sentences this way; another number of them thought it was an arcane nuisance." Rubba closed, noting that Kolln's text diagrams were traditional in its body but tree-based in an appendix. This served "those who want to have it both ways."

In a February 20, 1998 posting, Rubba remarked that visual models for diagramming sentences are unlimited.
   There are many ways of graphically indicating sentence structure.
   The best-known method after Reed-Kellogg is the use of tree
   diagrams in generative linguistics (Chomsky and the school of
   thought that has followed him). But there are other ways: brackets,
   nested boxes, and almost anything you can imagine. Many writers of
   grammar books have come up with their own schemes. I imagine that
   with computer graphics there could be some neat ways of moving
   things around and using graphics to represent sentence structure.

In her latter posting, Rubba discussed tree diagramming difficulties, possibly more explicitly expressing what had bothered Beason. From this, she concluded what I had regarding pedagogical ped·a·gog·ic   also ped·a·gog·i·cal
1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of pedagogy.

2. Characterized by pedantic formality: a haughty, pedagogic manner.
   [T]hey get very cumbersome with large phrases and sentences, and of
   course you have problems as soon as you try to deal with
   'transformed' sentences such as questions, relative clauses, and
   the like." ... Diagramming should probably only be used as a visual
   aid, and should not become the exclusive way to teach parsing. ...
   For students who respond well to visual aids, diagrams can be a
   help. But they shouldn't become a hindrance for students who have
   trouble learning how to make them.

Problems with Reed-Kellog Diagrams

In an April 8, 1997 posting, Michael Medley noted that traditional diagramming restores there and question transformations to normal/underlying word order. Passives are not. Medley conceded that Reed Kellog diagrams were invented before the modern underlying versus surface dichotomy. He could not satisfactorily address the problem and questioned whether Reed-Kellog diagrams should continue in use.

In his April 8, 1997 posting Michael Kishner discussed using squiggly squig·gle  
A small wiggly mark or scrawl.

intr.v. squig·gled, squig·gling, squig·gles
1. To squirm and wriggle.

2. To make squiggles.
 rather than straight lines to intersect the subject-verb line. He and his colleague used squiggly rather than straight lines to set off direct objects in passive transformations of indirect object sentences. "He was given a prize." They also used squiggly lines to set off object complements in passive transformations to indicate that such are not subject complements. "He was considered a genius."

In an April 11, 1997 posting, Wanda VanGoor reported using a system other than Reed Kellog. "It's all done with underlining and brackets, so the sentence never has to be recopied." The passive problem does not arise because the system requires labeling the predicate In programming, a statement that evaluates an expression and provides a true or false answer based on the condition of the data.  verb with one of four labels: PVp(transitive-passive), PVl(linking), PVt(transitive-passive), and PVi(intransitive in·tran·si·tive  
adj. Abbr. intr. or int. or i.
Designating a verb or verb construction that does not require or cannot take a direct object, as snow or sleep.

An intransitive verb.
). For units left over after a passive verb (Gram.) a verb, or form of a verb, which expresses the effect of the action of some agent; as, in Latin, doceor, I am taught; in English, she is loved; the picture is admired by all; he is assailed by slander.

See also: Passive
, she uses the traditional term reserved or retained object re·tained object
An object in a passive construction that is identical to the object in the corresponding active construction, as story in Susan was told the story by John.

Noun 1.
. The object being retained is in the same relationship to the verb that it had in its PVt state.

In an April 8, 1997 posting, Beason answered the criticism that traditional diagramming cannot represent certain syntactic relationships well or at all. He argued that, since all forms of diagramming have defects, people should not abandon an otherwise useful system simply because of flaws. Beason's better answer was disclosure: simply tell students about traditional diagramming's various failings, alerting them to problems.

Student Problems with Diagramming

In a December 13, 1998 posting Paul Doniger concluded that his experiment, teaching traditional diagramming, was unsuccessful. He had used traditional diagramming for students to think about language, not to improve their writing directly. In a Feb. 20, 1998 posting, Kathryn Gunderson reached similar conclusions regarding tree diagrams in her classroom. In a May 14, 1996 posting, Max Morenberg cited an outspoken student anonymously.
   Diagramming gave me a visual image of all the parts of a sentence
   flying off in varying directions. Given this visual image, it never
   would have occurred to me to think of grammar as hierarchical or as
   a system. Sentences that were diagrammed seemed to be an explosion.
   Explosions are not systematic. ... Diagramming was a maze.... By
   the time I had traced the lines to the right places, 1 had no clue
   to the meaning behind the exercise of diagramming.

My Source for Sentence Diagramming

Teaching grammar persists despite the research findings which led the Anglophone world to largely abandon formal grammar In computer science and linguistics, a formal grammar, or sometimes simply grammar, is a precise description of a formal language — that is, of a set of strings over some alphabet.  teaching in public education. This has remained the case in the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. . Not everyone has accepted the majority view, and the questioning of such research is briefly discussed in (Hoffman 2006: 223-224.) Diagramming, when it is taught, is taught as part of a larger framework of grammar instruction. My most accessible source of information on diagramming was the informed opinion of those who actually chose to use it in the classroom. The ATEG with a journal, an archived listserve, and acceptance by the National Council of Teachers of English as an assembly can make a claim to being just such an informed source.

Generalizing about Sentence Diagramming is Difficult

No general agreement exists among the sentence-diagramming sources cited. The teacher/instructor's personality and personal values obviously play a role. Pupil/student ages, mix, and milieu vary greatly across the United States. Thus, appropriateness of use or appropriate use of sentence diagramming may vary. Imposing sentence diagramming (in the traditional-grammar teaching past) made many unhappy. Many teachers found it time wasting; many students found it confusing and frustrating. Prohibiting sentence diagramming, however, deprives some teachers of what they consider a valuable language-arts' fostering tool. For the near future, sentence-diagramming's destiny seems to be as an idiosyncratic id·i·o·syn·cra·sy  
n. pl. id·i·o·syn·cra·sies
1. A structural or behavioral characteristic peculiar to an individual or group.

2. A physiological or temperamental peculiarity.


References (Annotated)

ATEG. [The main ATEG archive page with links to archive pages by year with links to archive pages by month.]

Beason, Larry. Feb. 14. [Link from ATEG Feb. 1996]

--. May 8. [ Link from ATEG May 1996]

--. May 14. [ Link from ATEG May 1996]

--. Apr. 8. [ Link from ATEG Apr. 1997.]

--. and Mark Lester. McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, Columbus, OH, 2005. [A handbook co-authored by an ATEG poster cited.]

--. A Commonsense Guide to Grammar and Usage 4th. Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006. [A grammar and usage text co-authored by an ATEG poster cited.] Broughton, Marilyn. Focus on Florida: Writing Paragraphs and Essays, First Edition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Houghton Mifflin Company is a leading educational publisher in the United States. The company's headquarters is located in Boston's Back Bay. It publishes textbooks, instructional technology materials, assessments, reference works, and fiction and non-fiction for both young readers , 2003 2006. diagramming.html [College-level publisher's website uses sentence diagrams to illustrate textbook grammar-lesson excerpts.]

Chomsky, Noam Chomsky, Noam (nōm chŏm`skē), 1928–, educator and linguist, b. Philadelphia. Chomsky, who has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, developed a theory of transformational (sometimes called generative or . Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology , 1965. [Tree diagrams used here are now obsolete for linguistic theory. However, language-arts applications in school-oriented texts using diagramming generally employ either tree or traditional diagramming.]

Davenport, Phyllis. Rex Barks: Diagramming Sentences Made Easy. Kerhonkson, NY: Paper Tiger paper tiger
One that is seemingly dangerous and powerful but is in fact timid and weak: "They are paper tigers, weak and indecisive" Frederick Forsyth.

Noun 1.
, 2004. [Used in 7-12]

DeVincent,-Hayes. Nan. Grammar & Diagramming Sentences. Advanced Straight Forward English Series. Garlic Press: Eugene, OR, 1995 [Does not specify a grade level intentionally; many reviews are from home-schoolers]

Diagramming Sentences. Paperback. St. Paul St. Paul

as a missionary he fearlessly confronts the “perils of waters, of robbers, in the city, in the wilderness.” [N.T.: II Cor. 11:26]

See : Bravery
 MN: Mark Twain Media/Greensboro, NC: Carson-Dellosa Publishing Co. Inc., 2004. [Middle School: 4-8]

Doniger, Paul E. Dec. 13. [ Link from ATEG Dec 1998.]

Florey, Kitty Burns. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog : The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. St. Paul, MN: Melville, 2006. [Not Yet Released]

Gunderson, Kathryn. Feb. 20. [Link from ATEG Feb. 1998.]

Hoffman, Melvin J. "Grammar for Teachers: Attitudes and Aptitudes." Academic Exchange Quarterly 7.4 (Winter 2003): 199-203. [Decisions relating to relating to relate prepconcernant

relating to relate prepbezüglich +gen, mit Bezug auf +acc 
 grammar in teacher preparation.]

--."More Grammar Gaps." Academic Exchange Quarterly. 10.1 (Spring 2006): 220-225. [The absence from and eventual return to classroom grammar topics in venues like NCTE NCTE National Council of Teachers of English
NCTE National Centre for Technology in Education
NCTE National Center for Transgender Equality
NCTE National Council for Teacher Education (India)
NCTE Network Channel Terminating Equipment

Kischner, Michael. May 19. [Link from ATEG May 1995.]

--. Dec. 6. [Link from ATEG Dec. 1995.]

--. May 8. [Link from ATEG May 1996.]

--. Apr. 8. [Link from ATEG Apr.. 1997.]

Kolln, Martha Understanding English Grammar 4th Edition. NY: MacMillan Publishing Co.,1994. [Not current, the edition formally cited in Rubba's Apr. 14, 1997 posting, and my best guess for the edition informally cited in Kischner's May 8, 1996 posting.]

Lester, Mark. Grammar in the Classroom. NY: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1990. [Not current, my best guess for the edition informally cited in Beason's Feb. 14, 1996 posting.]

Lobeck Anne C. Discovering Grammar : An Introduction to English Sentence Structure. NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. [College Level]

Macintosh, Robert. Diagramming Sentences. Arcadia Valley Arcadia Valley is rural area in Missouri located 80 miles south of St. Louis in the St. Francois Mountains of the Ozark Plateau. The valley includes of the cities of Arcadia, Ironton and Pilot Knob, all founded in the 1800s.  Elementary School. 2006. [No specific grade level is identified.]

MacNamara, John. Capital Community College Foundation, Hartford, CT. 2004. [Website has Power-Point presentation on diagramming.]

Medley, Mike. Apr. 8. [Link from ATEG Apr. 1997.]

Morenberg, Max. May 14. in ATEG May 1996 [Link from ATEG May 1996.]

--. Doing Grammar. 3rd. ed. New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: Oxford University Press, 2002. [A grammar authored by an ATEG poster cited.]

Moutoux, Eugene R. One Way of Learning English Grammar. 2005. [Middle or High-School Level]

Orozco, Monica. Diagramming Sentences. Student Learning Assistance Center (SLAC SLAC Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
SLAC Student Labor Action Coalition
SLAC Scapholunate Advanced Collapse (wrist disorder)
SLAC Salt Lake Acting Company (Utah)
SLAC Student Learning Assistance Center
.) San Antonio College, 1995. handouts/English/diagramming_sentences.htm [Online student resource.]

Reed, Alonzo and Kellog, Brainerd. Higher Lessons in English. Rev. NY: C. E. Merril Co., 1909. [Rev. of Prior Rev. NY: Clark and Maynard, 1885.]

Rogers, William E. A Simplified Structural Syntax. Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina

For other places with the same name, see Greenville.

Greenville is a mid-sized city located in the upstate of South Carolina. It is the county seat of Greenville CountyGR6
. College 2000. /%7Ewrogers/syntax/ [Employs a unique diagramming method.]

Rubba, Johanna. Apr. 14. [Link from ATEG Apr. 1997]

--. Feb. 20. [Link from ATEG Feb. 1998.]

Tuch, Ronald. May 21. [Link from ATEG May 1996.]

--. Apr. 19. [Link from ATEG Apr. 1997.]

VanGoor, Wanda. Apr. 11. [Link from ATEG Apr. 1997.]

Vitto, Cindy L. Grammar by Diagram: Understanding English Grammar Through Traditional Sentence Diagramming. Spiral-Bound. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003. [No clear information on level]

Melvin J. Hoffman, Buffalo State University College, NY

English BS & Linguistics MS, IIT IIT - Integrated Information Technology : Chicago; Linguistics Ph.D, SUNY SUNY - State University of New York  Buffalo; and Religious Studies MA. Canisius College: Buffalo; Courses: Composition, Linguistics, Biblical and Classical Literature.
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Author:Hoffman, Melvin J.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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