I recently finished Tim Russert’s memoir, Big Russ & Me. It was moving and thought provoking, as it involved so many important events of recent history, and vividly captured the mundane but surprisingly fascinating aspects of typical American life in decades not too long gone by, but decidedly alien to today.
One quote that particularly struck me was this:
What I especially disliked was an exercise that still makes me cringe when I think of it: diagramming sentences. “I don’t know why we have to do this,” I used to mutter under my breath. I also complained about it to Sister Lucille, but only in private. “Nobody will ever ask us to diagram a sentence,” I assured her. I had no idea what adult life held in store for me, but I was pretty sure that this particular activity was not included. And yet I have to admit that diagramming sentences made me a better reader, and, I hope, a better writer. (133, emphasis added)
There you have it! Proof from a famous writer that this exercise has value. I hear the same gripes from my own students, who hate it with a passion (you know it’s valuable, because they complain about it most bitterly, like that other great lost art that I expose them to: memorizing poetry). Most teachers have completely given up trying to teach this, as it entails so much grammar, but I make sure they all get at least a little dose of it. Even for those who never catch on, they’re getting exposed to a part of their intellectual heritage, as Russert demonstrates.
Russert even jokes a little later on: “I was flattered that my name had become both a noun and a verb. My only worry was that Sister Lucille might put it all together and ask me to diagram the sentence.” (279)
Which reminds me, inspired by a college professor of mine, I used to tell kids that I’d excuse them from a final exam if they could correctly diagram the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. I stopped after a few years because some kids worked so long on it, but it was so far beyond their ability (in all fairness, it’s beyond mine and about anybody else’s), that it became counterproductive; some involvement with this great tradition just wasn’t worth that much crushing discouragement for the students.
I’d think that diagramming would be more popular. A lot of people complain that, in English classes, there are “no right answers,” which turns off boys from the subject, who might also complain that it’s a girly class, anyway. But that’s where diagramming comes in! It forces us to see language as a predictable system that can be pinned down according to clear rules.
I like to explain to kids that language is perhaps best understood as a machine, with lots of different little parts that work together to make the whole thing move. And a good sentence diagram is just a schematic of the machine’s many interlocking components, an engineering blueprint, if you will. What could be more manly than that?
Besides, aren’t we constantly told that everybody’s a “visual learner” these days, and that they need graphic representations of information to learn? Why aren’t these old fashioned frames being held up as the answer to all our prayers?
Myself, I enjoy a good sentence diagram for all of these reasons, and simply because it appeals to the linguistic puzzler in me; figuring out what goes where is a treat. That’s why I wrote my example diagram at the top of this entry–made with good old Microsoft Paint–about crossword puzzles. Two of my favorite nerdy passions in one!
I made the subjects blue, the verbs red, and their objects green, not out of any grammatical necessity, but only to make it, as my daughter would say, more “prettiful.” You should be able to click on that diagram and enlarge it. Can you read the sentence as it would look in normal prose? Here’s a hint: the first word would be “Appearing,” and the last word would be “extraordinaire.”
Finally, I must thank Dr. Patricia Lamb, formerly of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who taught me the finer points of grammar, especially the joy of diagramming sentences.