Writing Wednesday: Learn the Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences

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We’ve discussed the importance of planning ahead and plot outlining here on the Endpaper Blog, but never before have we taken a look at diagramming individual sentences!

The art of sentence diagramming was created in 1847 by Chicago schoolmaster S.W. Clark. In his view, English grammar could be simplified (imagine that!) by mapping out words or phrases visually. By encircling these individual parts of language, Clark showed that depending on how you connected the “balloons,” different meanings would take shape.

From “A Practical Grammar”: A generic template for Clark's students, with numbers assigned to different elements in the sentence.

From “A Practical Grammar”: A generic template for Clark’s students, with numbers assigned to different elements in the sentence.

The numbers in the above template correspond to different types of words:

  1. Subject (noun)
  2. Predicate (verb)
  3. Object

Of course, most sentences are more complex than that, and this is where the additional bubbles come in – they represent adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, etc. But above all else are the subject, action and object: the foundations of every sentence. Below you can see how Clark suggested this be applied:

From “A Practical Grammar”: Meaning “Our national resources are developed by an earnest culture of the arts of peace.”

From “A Practical Grammar”: Meaning “Our national resources are developed by an earnest culture of the arts of peace.”

And this idea wasn’t just a quirk of one teacher in Illinois! His idea actually caught on and was developed by other educators and linguists like Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, who adapted the idea and turned Clark’s balloons into a “parse tree” sentence structure. Though the rules of sentence diagramming have evolved since Reed and Kellogg published their book, Higher Lessons in English, in 1877 to keep up with the ever-changing English language, today’s diagrams look much like theirs did – like a simple road map with detours.

Sentence diagramming is no longer actively taught to students and is rather an exercise for those who specialise in pedagogy and theoretical syntax. Not exactly your everyday pursuits. But as with all things classically analog, this method is due for a comeback and still practiced in “linguistic hipster” circles. There is even a WikiHow guide to sentence diagramming! So why not try it out for yourself – you may be surprised by how looking at sentence construction in a new way helps with your own writing skills.

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