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? Continue reading

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On the Joy of Sentence Diagramming

diagram

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)

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