THE INVENTION OF DIAGRAMMING.

I’m betting few readers under, say, fifty know anything about diagramming sentences, but my generation had to do it a lot in elementary school; it was one of the basic ways we were taught to understand our own language, and compared to a lot of the claptrap people are taught under that rubric, it was surprisingly useful. Perhaps also surprisingly, for me, my wife, and apparently quite a few other people, it was actually fun. This NY Times blog entry by Kitty Burns Florey tells the story of how it was created in 1847, which was new to me:

The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y. … Stephen Watkins Clark was the principal at the Cortland Academy, where he also taught English. Like many schoolmasters, he was frustrated trying to beat proper grammar into the heads of his students by means of parsing. Mr. Clark was not the first reformer to identify its problems, but he was the first to solve them by arranging the parts of a sentence into diagrams. He didn’t consider the idea particularly radical. As he notes in his preface, making the abstract rules of language into pictures was like using maps in a geography book or graphs in geometry.

Read Florey’s post to discover the horrors of parsing and see the evolution of diagramming from Clark’s awkward bubbles to the simple and pleasing branching lines we codgers came to know and love. (Thanks, Bonnie!)
Update. Mark Liberman has posted on this at the Log; a number of commenters there have fond memories of the practice, and Arika Okrent wrote: “Measuring emotional response to sentence diagramming tasks in children would be a good diagnostic tool for identifying future linguists.” Andrew Dalke said he had learned sentence diagramming in Miami in 1983/4:

The teacher loved the concept, and she talked about an ex-student who after becoming a lawyer came back to tell her that sentence diagrams really helped her understand some of the complicated sentences she was reading.
I, on the other hand, could make no sense of the rules. It didn’t help that the first sentence of a test was “Have you ever seen a pilot fish?” The rest of the sentences were about pilot fish and sharks, but as my uncle, the United Airlines pilot, also fishes, I diagrammed a rather different structure than the teacher expected, and I thought they were just random sentences.

That’s an astoundingly bad sentence to put on a test, but it makes for a great story.

Comments

  1. it was actually fun
    When I was 11 we had an English teacher, a nice man, who decided to teach sentence diagramming rather than literature. I was terrible at it, I don’t know why. Maybe it was coincidence, but he died of cancer the following summer.

  2. dearieme says:

    I had never heard of “diagramming” until recently. I assume it’s mainly an American custom: was AJPC at school in the US? I’m not sure that we bothered parsing English sentences in secondary school: I suspect that the subject had been flogged to death in primary school, but I wouldn’t bet on it because my memory of those days is pretty patchy.
    In Latin class we were taught to parse a sentence before we construed it. That’s probably why I recoil at every American use of “parse” to mean “construe”.

  3. That’s probably why I recoil at every American use of “parse” to mean “construe”.
    You and me both.
    Diagramming sentences was something I liked to do for hours when I was in school in the ’50s. I also amused myself with manually extracting the square roots of large numbers that I wrote down at random.
    Somehow all that did not send me flying down the garden path to linguistics, but to darker and hotter climes.

  4. Bathrobe says:

    Ok, I’ll repeat my comment: Did diagramming lead to phrase structure grammar, thence to our beloved transformational grammar?

  5. No, at that time I was at a grammar school in London. Apparently he thought sentence diagramming would teach the cockney kids to talk proper. A prescriptivist before his time, he wouldn’t give me a mark for ‘bow window’, he said it was ‘bay’. ‘Bow window’ is in the OED, though.

  6. Dearie, ‘diagramming’ means you draw curved arrows and boxes and underline things, it is actually diagramming.

  7. When did diagramming die? We were still doing it in elementary school in New Hampshire in the late 70s, but I suspect we were behind the curve. I never really enjoyed it. I always lumped it in, probably unfairly, with transformational grammar as a language study tool for people who don’t really enjoy languages or writing. With a little more perspective today, I think I can see the attraction, certainly compared to parsing.

  8. Some of you will be happy to know that sentence diagramming was still being taught in my eighth-grade English class in 2000. I remember feeling at the time that it was an old-fashioned approach, mostly because the teachers who taught the other two sections of the same year did not use it.
    I enjoyed it, though, and I would support its reintroduction. I always find it odd that grammar instruction is considered incompatible with a progressive education. Although I’ve since forgotten the intricacies of the lines and slashes, I think that it has influenced my approach to language learning ever since.

  9. I love it. I still love it. It pretty much goes on in my mind as I speak and write; although I expect it’s not very accurate any more. I didn’t know it had fallen out of use.

  10. Bathrobe: Ok, I’ll repeat my comment: Did diagramming lead to phrase structure grammar, thence to our beloved transformational grammar?
    I also wish someone would comment on that. All I know is that in Chomsky’s 1956 and 1959 papers quoted below, he is dealing with rule-based, automatic mechanisms for investigating natural languages. Both “diagramming” and classical language grammars are older, but they do not involve automation.
    From the 1956 paper Three models for the description of language:

    The major import of Theorem (27) is that description in terms of phrase structure is essentially more powerful (not just simpler) than description in terms of the finite-state grammars that produce sentences from left to right.

    From the 1959 paper On Certain Formal Properties of Grammars :

    This paper is concerned with the effects of a sequence of increasing heavy restrictions on the class F [of formal grammars] which limit it first to Turing machines and finally to finite automata and, in the intermediate stages, to devices which have linguistic significance in that generation of a sentence automatically provides a meaningful structural description.

    This was great stuff at the time, and the Chomsky hierarchy was taken over by IT people as a baseline for designing programming languages and compilers. In its purely computer science form, however, the linguistics component had been chewed off like gristle, stuck under the table and forgotten by the 1970s. The IT techniques were a useful by-product of activities directed to other goals, like the astronaut foil that came out of the race for space but is now used by ambulance services.
    Only in computational linguistics, it seems, is chewy meat still being served up. The non-linguistic IT spin-off was wrapped up long ago, but many people have been unable to get closure on Chomsky’s linguistics. All they would have to do, though, is bite the bullet and spit out the gristle.

  11. Whoa, flashback. We did sentence diagramming at college, in the English Grammar course (first year, I think). Except we didn’t use diagrams, we used rows of boxes (that’s what called them), i.e. tables. I’m pretty sure I still have some around somewhere…

  12. Stu,
    Only in computational linguistics, it seems, is chewy meat still being served up.
    Sorry, I got lost in the metaphor. Can you clarify?

  13. Garrigus Carraig (f/k/a komfo,amonan) says:

    I loved diagramming sentences (high school in the ’80′s). I wonder if similar methods are/were used outside the U.S.

  14. We did a bit of sentence-diagramming in school when I was about 11. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it had much instructional value.
    I am used to the word “parse” being used vaguely or figuratively, but I’ve never been sure exactly what the narrow/literal/original meaning is.

  15. From The New Hacker’s Dictionary:
    parse: v.t.
    1. To determine the syntactic structure of a sentence or other utterance (close to the standard English meaning). “That was the one I saw you.” “I can’t parse that.”
    2. More generally, to understand or comprehend. “It’s very simple; you just kretch the glims and then aos the zotz.” “I can’t parse that.”
    3. Of fish, to have to remove the bones yourself. “I object to parsing fish”, means “I don’t want to get a whole fish, but a sliced one is okay”. A parsed fish has been deboned. There is some controversy over whether unparsed should mean ‘bony’, or also mean ‘deboned’.

  16. bulbul: Sorry, I got lost in the metaphor. Can you clarify?
    Damn. I didn’t want to say “gristle” in three places, so in one of them I used “chewy meat” instead. As a result my riff can be parsed, but not construed.
    I meant: computational linguistics seems to consist of humdrum math and conceptual gristle. The math is a smokescreen for sectarian squabbling over dogmatic obscurities. I am dead set against technicality – whether mathematical or of any other kind – being played off against intelligibility.
    Most people in any field of work are not accustomed to expressing themselves so as to be understandable to those outside that field. Those who can express themselves clearly run the risk of being dismissed by their colleagues as trivializing. Another word for it is popularizing.
    There is one contributor to this site who excels at clarity and restraint in their comments on linguistic matters. I expect everybody would agree with me on that without reservation. Thus it would only cause unnecessary embarassment if I, a layman after all, were to turn a spotlight on her name.
    I see a slight resemblance between certain linguistic theories bandied about here (Chomskyian variations), and those arising from string theory in theoretical physics. The big difference is that physics has always had some results about whose practical usefulness there has never been doubt. Anticipating a formulation at the end of the quote which follows below, I wonder if computational linguistics has a “scientific soul” that was ever in anything but a parlous condition.
    At the moment I am reading Brian Greene’s excellent discussion of the controversies about string theory in physics. This is in Chapter 7 of The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. The subheading is “On Inference, Explanation,[sic] and Prediction”, and the chapter starts like this:

    When David Gross, co-recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics, inveighs against string theory’s Landscape Multiverse, there’s a fair change he’ll quote Winston Churchhill’s speech of October 29, 1941: “Never give in … Never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in.” When Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton University and co-discoverer of the modern form of inflationary cosmology, speaks of his distaste for the Landscape Multiverse, the rhetorical flourishes are more subdued, but you can be pretty sure a comparison to religion, an unfavorable one at that, will at some point appear. Martin Rees, the United Kingdom’s Astronomer Royal, sees the multiverse as the natural next step in our deepening grasp of all there is. Leonard Susskin says those who ignore the possibility that we’re part of a multiverse are merely averting their eyes from a vision they find overwhelming. And these are just a few examples. There are many others on both sides, vehement naysayers and enthustiastic devotees, and they don’t always express their opinion in terms so lofty.

    In the quarter century I’ve been working on string theory, I’ve never seen passions run quite so high, or language turn quite so sharp, as in discussions of string theory’s landscape and the multiverse to which it may give rise. And it’s clear why. Many see these developments as a battleground for the very soul of science.

    My background in algebraic topology helps me follow the decidedly non-trivial, mathematical parts of Greene’s presentation, and what it all adds up to sounds reasonable if strange. My background in computer science helps me follow the mathematical parts of some discussions in computational linguistics, but what it all adds up to is mathematically humdrum and, independently of the math, confusedly dogmatic.

  17. Stu,
    I meant: computational linguistics seems to consist of humdrum math and conceptual gristle. The math is a smokescreen for sectarian squabbling over dogmatic obscurities.
    I am not expert, but this don’t sound right, especially when applied to those subfields of computational linguistics I am somewhat familiar with (corpus linguistics and statistical MT). In fact, you could very well say they are the product of rejection of Chomsky’s dogmatism. Can you be a little more specific?

  18. OK, I must admit, even to myself, that I am making a case only with respect to transformational grammar, and the stupid Chomskian ruckus over Everett. As I was writing my last comment, statistical work popped into my mind as something I should exclude from my blanket complaint.
    Statistical presentations are themselves far too often a smokescreen for unexamined premises, but that applies to all kinds of fields, not just linguistics. As to statistical MT, I haven’t noticed any improvement in Google Translate – I check from time to time.
    I wonder whether statistical MT and maybe even transformational grammar might be helpful in areas other than the ones they were originally hyped for, on the analogy of astronaut foil. For instance, could they be used to find patterns in the sounds Alzheimer sufferers make, and so aid in communication with them ?
    Such attempts, especially if they failed, would at least be evidence that there is more involved in communication than grammatical structure and word probabilities. What a surprise that would be !

  19. Grumbly:
    Here’s Chomsky’s response (he’s made it several times in different forms and forums) to people who ask if his linguistics and his politics are intertwingled:
    “There is a kind of a loose, abstract connection in the background. But if you look for practical connections, they’re non-existent. I’d do the same political things if I was an algebraic topologist and somebody could have the same linguistic views as I do and be a fascist or a Stalinist. There’d be no contradiction.”

  20. That seems an odd thing to do: to ask someone whether his views on linguistics and politics share common features or principles. Chomsky’s answer doesn’t surprise me, since I would expect it to be the answer almost anyone would give. Is there something special about Chomsky, his linguistics or his politics to motivate the question ?

  21. Yes, I know what’s special: I’m sure a lot of people who agree with his political arguments assume he must be right about linguistics (not so much vice versa, I’d guess). I know I did, though I subsequently decided he’s too annoying to enthuse about politically – so negative, such a whiner.

  22. A new political book by him appeared recently on the English paperback table in the train station bookstore Ludwig. The title is How The World Works. I mean, like, give us a break, Chomps !

  23. That’s right. Cheer up, Chompsky! Look on the bright side for once. It must be hell being married to him.

  24. Not so much vice versa. But much more importantly, people who believe his politics are wrong, wrong, wrong often also believe that his linguistics is sheer charlatanry, and that he don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Whatever disagreements (most of) our community has with Chomsky’s positions, there is no question of his being a linguistic ignoramus.

  25. I haven’t heard anyone say he’s ignorant, just that he’s wrong, and he gets frightfully cross if anyone says so. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

  26. Julia, Grumbly:
    Chomsky’s political grimness is a consequence of his geekiness plus his civic nationalism. As Senator Carl Schurz told us back in 1872: “The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” Schurz was a German refugee, one of the men of ’48, and indeed the first German American in the Senate.
    Chomsky believes that part of his job as a citizen is to do what he can to set it right (and I entirely agree with him, as should be obvious by now). Naturally he passes over in silence most of the points in which it already is right, which causes some to view him as a gloomster and others (those like the other Senator, either Timothy O. Howe or Matthew H. Carpenter) to vilify him as a traitor.
    As for How the World Works, the title is ironic: it means “the world works the way the U.S. wants it to work”. It’s also decently readable, being a set of interviews with Chomsky, and therefore simple and clear, rather than being written in his invariably impenetrable prose, professional or political.

  27. I don’t know why you say “Naturally”. If his job is to set things right, he’s in the wrong job. He does very little to get a consensus, he just behaves like an amateur – quite a luxury, if his judgements are correct.

  28. I wonder whether statistical MT and maybe even transformational grammar might be helpful in areas other than the ones they were originally hyped for
    It’s comments like these that make it very hard for me not to question the firmness of your grasp on the subject at hand. To see the two compared, especially when referring to hype, is baffling. But let it be so, I am aware of your low opinion of MT, baseless though it may be. Yet to actually suggest what you suggested… Ah, nevermind.

  29. Mr. Cowan,
    a masterful summary of tha subject, thank you. Needless to say, I find myself – once again – in complete agreement with you.

  30. bulbul: It’s comments like these that make it very hard for me not to question the firmness of your grasp on the subject at hand
    Feel free to take it as self-evident ! But remember that when you pass a joke on, you need to include the punch line. The sentence of mine that disturbs you does not end with “might be helpful in areas other than the ones they were originally hyped for”, but continues with the words “, on the analogy of astronaut foil”.

  31. According to the article, Carl Schurz was born in Liblar (part of Erftstadt), about 15 minutes distance from me by local train. I’ll be travelling through Erftstadt later today. Rightly or wrongly, it is country and not city.

  32. AJP: Job was ill-chosen; I should have said duty. He is certainly not a professional at politics, but we all have to engage in politics according to our notions (even if by disengaging from it), so he does the best he can. He is like Kant: brilliant, but saying he has no gift for exposition is a gross understatement, and he has never found a Fichte.
    I see that I forgot to work in the part about his geekiness. Many geeks believe there is a special crown for people who are as terse and to-the-point as possible, who never allow themselves to veer (or be shoved) off-topic, who never compromise the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth a single inch. I think Chomsky is one of those, and that’s why he never says anything that isn’t an attempt to convince the reader of his message. No rhetorical sweeteners allowed: even if they don’t actually cause cancer in lab rats, they waste time and effort. (In person he is the kindest of souls, as I have testified before.)
    This rhetorical strategy is hopelessly naive, of course, not to mention counterproductive, but then defending Chomsky’s rhetorical strategies would be the act of a desperado — see the Chomskybot, linked above.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    In person he is the kindest of souls
    That is not quite what I hear through the linguists’ grapevine. If you are a student at MIT you’d better agree with Chomsky, or else!

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    Schurz may have been the first German-born Senator, but not the first German-American Senator, given that one of the Pennsylvania Muhlenbergs (born on this side of the water but partly educated in Germany) was in the U.S. Senate by 1801; that’s Peter, whose brother Frederick was the first Speaker of the House.
    As to the ignorant-v-wrong issue, it is surely one of the standard critiques of Chomskyanism that it overgeneralizes from data from English (and perhaps a few other languages) and has developed theoretical justifications for why lack of acquaintance with a broader range of languages is (conveniently enough) neither necessary nor useful to doing the work they do. Now, perhaps that’s a strawman/caricature, but one certainly hears it a lot.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    JWB, you are right. It is no coincidence that the UG model corresponds so closely with English. A few years ago I had to teach a class in French syntax, using the Chomskyan model. This model is OK for the basics of English or most “Standard Average European” languages, but beyond that there are lots of features of French for which the model is very awkward. Of course it is even worse for many “exotic” languages, for which the model needs to go through strange convolutions in order to accommodate the data.
    The worst thing is when Chomskyan-trained linguists will insist with native speakers of other languages that since a certain sentence type occurs in English, it ought to occur in language X as well, and some speakers, eager to oblige the linguist, will tell them what they want to hear, even it they are creating nonsense. (It is true that one can usually express a given meaning in different languages, but that does not mean that different languages will use the same syntactic structure). The bogus sentences then make their way into articles and grammars which supposedly reflect features of the language in question (this is perhaps one reason why Piraha data collected by Chomskyan disciples might show the desired features, while those collected by Everett and a previous missionary might not)(note that I say “perhaps” and “might”, as I have no competence whatsoever about Piraha and have not read the technical articles).

  36. marie-lucie: The worst thing is when Chomskyan-trained linguists will insist with native speakers of other languages that since a certain sentence type occurs in English, it ought to occur in language X as well …
    Is that really a typical attitude of Chomskyan-trained linguists ?? The words “dogmatic” and “evidence-rigging” would only begin to describe it.
    The phenomenon of Chomskyan linguistics seems to be more in need of study than the linguistics itself. I suggest a cross-disciplinary team of sociologists and psychologists specialized in sectarianism.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Is that really a typical attitude of Chomskyan-trained linguists ??
    Of course I would not say that of all such linguists, but I think that the Chomskyan attitude to language tends to attract a certain type of mind and reinforces its tendency to dogmatism. But I am not accusing those people of outright dishonesty!
    I am old enough to have started my linguistic studies around the time that Chomskyan syntax was starting to be the dominant paradigm but had not yet completely taken over syntax. It has been commented by others that together with the (mini) revolution and paradigm shift in linguistics (at first in America, soon joined by some European countries), there was a parallel change in the type of student going into linguistics. Before that, linguists in America mostly came from departments of languages or of anthropology. They were people who loved to learn languages and associate with people of different cultures, including of course Native Americans. This means they tended to be outgoing and adaptable. With Chomsky, the new linguists were book-oriented, formalistic people who were glad they did not have to grapple with difficult, exotic languages, let alone travelling to their remote and uncomfortable locations, but stay home alone and find language examples in the resources of their own brains. Linguists whose talents and personalities are of the first type cannot easily survive in an academic environment which suits and fosters people of the second type. Those who are in-between types are at best in an uncomfortable position. And linguistics students, whatever their personal orientation, have to learn large doses of Chomskyan-type syntax, often to the detriment of other aspects of language study.
    All is not lost, though: there have been several counter-proposals over the years (some by former students of Chomsky), although none of them has succeeded in superseding Chomsky. One that seems very promising is called “Construction grammar”, a more comprehensive approach to language analysis which takes into account not just formalism but other aspects such as semantics and pragmatic function.

  38. Bathrobe says:

    A related problem I found in Chomskyan linguists was an obsession with finding the limits of grammaticality, usually by making up more and more marginal examples out of their own heads (introspection, it was called) until they crossed into clearly ungrammatical territory. There is no doubt that this is a useful exercise in figuring out how syntax works, but it often degenerates into a monolingual obsession with the minutiae of their own judgements of what is correct and incorrect, not what is actually used in language. Unfortunately the introspection approach easily leads the introspecter to lose touch with real language. Instead of treating language as a means of human communication, linguistics became content to pore over a well worked patch of (mostly) standard English grammatical forms so as to create increasingly arcane rules and structures.

  39. Bathrobe says:

    In fact, when I think of it, I still bear traces of a Chomskyan background after all these years. The introspection approach is one. Introspection includes the ability to juggle sentences around and look for permutations and variations that will reveal what the relevant rule of syntax is. I’ve noticed that many people from a non-linguistic background are not good at this (they often get it wrong because they haven’t juggled things around sufficiently to find where the problem or regularity lies), but it can be a very useful skill.
    Another is the habit of regarding syntactic structures and rules as an invariable template that lexis can be simply slotted into, without regard to naturalness. Seeing language this way doesn’t always help in developing a natural writing style.

  40. The WiPe article on Chomsky’s colorless green ideas example says:

    This was used then [by Chomsky] as a counter-example to the idea that the human speech engine was based upon statistical models, such as a Markov chain, or simple statistics of words following others.

    So does statistical MT go back to the crossroads where Chomsky headed for the hills ? I don’t know anything about statistical MT except that people working in it try to use measured frequencies of actual word patterns for automatic translation – and perhaps in some cases measure the frequencies themselves. Markov analysis is indispensable, I would think, for models of translation that provide for partial-translation-as-you-go (as opposed to complete-translation-once-the-sentence-is-finished, for which “diagramming” is also available).
    Perhaps statistical MT does not need an assumption that there is a “human speech engine” producing the data whose probabilities are measured – yet it is only a small step to make such an assumption. Statistical MT is compatible with Chomskyan linguistics when it is regarded as an empirical, simplifying technique to skim off surface patterns generated by deep transformations that are too difficult to identify.

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