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.