Sentence Diagramming: Huston For The Defense

Yesterday, a reader named Vicki posted the following comment under an old post of mine called, “On The Joy Of Sentence Diagramming:”

“I’m still not convinced that sentence diagramming is profitable. If the goal it communication, why does the student have to know that what he is saying is a noun or verb, etc… If a student can properly write a sentence, why does he have to know all of the parts of that sentence?? I just don’t get it. I think Grammar is old school, and is taught because it always has been taught. We need to think outside the box, and open our mind to teaching important things in schools, not just busy work. He says it makes him a better reader and writer? How?? How can knowing sentence structure in that depth do that? I am an engineer and a teacher. I just have never understood it all.”

My reply ran to several paragraphs, so I’m giving it its own space here.  I had more fun writing this than anything in quite a while, and I truly hope Vicki finds it to be useful:

Vicki, thank you so much for the honest, important questions; you bring up four thoughtful and valuable, but very different, issues here, so I’ll try to touch just briefly on each of them.

“why does the student have to know that what he is saying is a noun or verb, etc… If a student can properly write a sentence, why does he have to know all of the parts of that sentence??”   The best answer here has to do with learning things in depth, not just to the shallow “good enough” level that we can get away with it. The drastic simplification of all communication over the last century, even formal writing, should concern us. If we don’t even have the capacity to comprehend the deeper nuts and bolts of language, we’ll be short-changing our children and ourselves by a deprivation of the true power and beauty of one of humanity’s most fundamental and crucial skills. By your logic above, a grunt or belch is good enough if it gets a point across. This complaint is slightly related to the frequent question English teachers get about excessive “detail” in literature, which I recently discussed here.

“I think Grammar is old school, and is taught because it always has been taught.”  Why would you assume that? And why would that be a bad thing? Isn’t transmitting tradition a legitimate function of education? Hasn’t our heritage been good to us? Might it be a mistake to just chuck out anything that we no longer find easy to enjoy?

“We need to think outside the box, and open our mind to teaching important things in schools, not just busy work.” Aren’t these just clichés? One of the benefits of sentence diagramming–and other deep, rigorous, literal analytical skills like it, in multiple disciplines–is that it forces you to scrutinize things for order and evidence, and thus eschew lazy pop culture tropes like “outside the box” and “open our mind,” which really mean nothing more than “I want you to change your thinking to be more like mine because I like the way I think.” Change for its own sake is never an automatic positive, and is often counterproductive. (One might claim that much of recent American history demonstrates this.)

“I just don’t get it….He says it makes him a better reader and writer? How?? How can knowing sentence structure in that depth do that?….I just have never understood it all.”  This is one of the most common and least sensible arguments we tend to make. How can any individual’s lack of understanding be used as evidence against something? Is my ignorance of the mechanics of photosynthesis somehow a point in favor of some anti-photosynthesis movement? Is it, perhaps, the height of our egalitarian gall that we uncritically assume that our feelings, assumptions, snap judgments, and biases are somehow inherently and magically endowed with an irrefutable value that simply must command the respect of others? Such is the thinking of small children, which, alas, in too many ways our culture actively discourages us from growing out of.  Listen for this trope in conversations tomorrow; it gets used far too frequently.

My favorite illustration of this principle is the 1984 movie, The Karate Kid. In it, a boy named Daniel gets a reluctant old man named Mr. Miyagi to agree to teach him karate. Miyagi insists on one condition, though: complete obedience. No questions. Daniel assents, but is mortified the next day when his “training” starts with Miyagi telling Daniel to wash and wax all of his cars–a very large collection (this is the source of the old “wax on, wax off” meme). The next day has Daniel painting a house all day. He’s getting irritated and confused by now, but continues. The third day finds him being told to sand several hundred square feet of a wooden deck. After all of this, which Daniel clearly sees as senseless torture, he confronts his teacher and tells him off, angry at not being trained and having his time wasted as a slave. Miyagi faces Daniel and tells him to “wax on.” Miyagi launches a punch at the kid, who effortlessly blocks it…using the arm swing he rotely memorized after a thousand repetitions waxing the cars. Similar blocks are demonstrated by the painting and sanding motions. The scene ends with Miyagi telling Daniel to return tomorrow, to continue the training. The boy leaves, humbled and educated.

Do you see the point? We may not be able to know the long-term value of an exercise in the moment we’re told to practice it. In fact, more often than not, life won’t give clear answers up front. The best understandings are always wrestled out by experience.

A more intellectually honest approach than merely stating ignorance might be to say, “I do not yet understand the value of sentence diagramming [or what have you]. However, many talented, profound, and serious people have historically found great profit from it. Could you please explain the case for it, and I’ll evaluate that case to see if I should now revise my grammar-agnostic status?” To which I would be inclined to answer that diagramming is an activity that guides readers to understand, remember, use, and apply grammar, like a word problem in math. So the real question here is, why is grammar so important? To this I would make an analogy, not to math this time, but to music (which, after all, is the sound of math). One might sight-read or play with no knowledge of notes at all, but to be a musician with the most developed range of options, skills, appreciation, and creativity, one simply must learn to read music, to be fluently conversant in the nuances of notation.

So also with anything worth doing at all–it’s worth doing with style, depth, and in a way that maximizes our general potential for getting the most out of it, using it as well as possible, and adding to it for the future. Even written and spoken communication. And that means grammar. And that means sentence diagramming.

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9 comments on “Sentence Diagramming: Huston For The Defense

  1. Ooooooh, this is one of my favorite soapboxes: you know what really chafes me about sentence diagramming?

    It’s when people deride sentence diagramming and grammatical analysis skills as old fashioned and then turn around and tell me about “great new trends in education” like graphic organizers.

    What is a sentence diagram but a graphic organizer?

    Great post, Jamie.

    Brook Brayman
    Coronado HS

  2. What a great response! I too am all for sentence diagramming. It was one of the things that really helped me to grasp the English language. Furthermore, it facilitated my learning of a 2nd and 3rd language. In my opinion, some of the problems experienced in education today stem from the fact that some of the fundamentals are no longer taught. I am not a fan of “busy work” either, but I disagree that diagramming sentences can be described as such.

    My daughter actually requested that I teach her how to diagram sentences over the summer, as it has not been taught in any of her classes at school as of yet. She’s a sophomore in high school, so I would have expected something by now. Overall, she is fortunate to be getting the best education that she can in Las Vegas. Part of that is due to an excellent school (ATECH) and teachers, and part of it is due to her eagerness to learn. However, I have to say that I am disappointed that sentence diagramming has not been part of the curriculum at school. Although your students may not think so right now, they are lucky to be gaining this skill in your class.

  3. Completing my college degree after a 37 year interruption called life, I am also learning Greek. I am living proof, sorrowfully, of one who tried to think out of the box, seeking the lowest level of thought while in school. I am now, with joy, learning english grammar and sentence diagramming. Hebrew will follow Greek, what fun. Learn now, while you can.

  4. Wow, Ed, thanks for that amazing story. Have fun with Greek and Hebrew…I’m still trying to figure out English!

  5. Unfortunately, it’s difficult (or impossible) to quantify the benefits of diagramming, as I think the greatest benefit is a more developed “sense” of words and syntax. And we all know that anything unquantifiable is taboo in schools right now.
    My students don’t even see the increased awareness in themselves, until I remind them of where they were when we started. We couldn’t discuss tense, because they couldn’t find the verb. We couldn’t discuss commas, because they couldn’t recognize a phrase or clause, because they couldn’t find the subject and verb at the center of the sentence.
    They could find the poetry in Milton and Shakespeare, but couldn’t follow the story, because they couldn’t locate the subject and verb amongst everything else.
    I, myself, often find it hard to quantify the benefits, but I can see them, and I can feel the difference when we discuss reading and writing, because we’re all starting on the same page.

  6. I know I am late to this discussion but here I go anyway.

    Diagramming sentences is very akin to a flow chart – which, as an engineer, perhaps the original poster can see the merit of. I am not trying to be sarcastic but I am married to an engineer, have raised two very different engineers (one is electrical, the other software/aeronautical) and am homeschooling my 10 year old. I have often had to argue the merits of grammar and now diagramming. (Let’s not discuss spelling!) My software engineer son will grudgingly agree to SOME merit in diagramming – especially after I pointed out that grammatical errors are simply syntax errors.

    As Huston said, understanding the underlying foundation of any language inherently builds the skills to express oneself in that language (did she say that? Maybe that’s just what I brought away from her response). A skill needed by every human on this planet.

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