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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 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) 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.

I use Reed-Kellog (traditional) diagrams with minor modifications. These have less apparatus than Aspects-model tree diagrams in rhetorics using transformational 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 Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. 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 at the University of South 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 English Department in Southbury, Connecticut.

Kathryn Gunderson was formerly instructor of linguistics in the English and of business in the business departments at California State University in Hayward. She was employee-development specialist for the Dublin San Ramon Services District in 2005, the latest information I could find.

Michael Kischner who teaches English at North Seattle Community College was the Carnegie Foundation's Washington Professor of the Year in 1997.

R. Michael Medley is Associate Professor of TESOL and Director of the Intensive English Program at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Max Morenberg, Professor and Chair of the English Department at Northwood University in Oxford, Ohio, 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.

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 Community College in Largo Maryland.

Middle of the Road

Larry Beason (February 14 and May 8, 1996) taught a required English Major and Minor grammar course at Eastern Washington 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 phrases, infinitive 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 diagramming.
 [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 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 verb with one of four labels: PVp(transitive-passive), PVl(linking), PVt(transitive-passive), and PVi(intransitive). For units left over after a passive verb, she uses the traditional term reserved or retained object. 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 teaching in public education. This has remained the case in the United States. 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 option.

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, 2003 2006. diagramming.html [College-level publisher's website uses sentence diagrams to illustrate textbook grammar-lesson excerpts.]

Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 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, 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 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 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 publications.]

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 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: 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.) 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. 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: Chicago; Linguistics Ph.D, SUNY 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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