Sentence Diagramming: No App

“There should be an app for this.” And there should be.

There are stranger problems than trying to diagram sentences from Gertrude Stein. Perhaps reading Gertrude Stein or understanding Gertrude Stein.  Here’s an example:

Gertrude Stein on “loving repeating”

As I was saying loving repeating being is in a way earthly being. In some it is repeating that gives to them always a solid feeling of being. In some children there is more feeling and in repeating eating and playing, in some in story-telling and their feeling. More and more in living as growing young men and women and grown men and women and men and women in their middle living, more and more there comes to be in them differences in loving repeating in different kinds of men and women, there comes to be in some more and in some less loving repeating. Loving repeating in some is a going on always in them of earthly being, in some it is the way to completed understanding. Loving repeating then in some is their natural way of complete being. This is now some description of one.

(from The Making of Americans)

I reread the passage above multiple times, but still got lost in the nuances of the phrase “loving repeating.” One thing to know when deciphering Stein is she experimented with how individual words created tension within the poem. Stein says in “A Transatlantic Interview,” “in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole.” Her prose-poetry is lFike Monet’s Water Lilies in that every repeated word or phrase is an experiment. How does the word work if it is next to this word? What color are the lilies at 5 a.m.? What about 5 p.m.? Each new attempt plays with how a subject’s environment or surroundings affect how the viewer or reader perceives it. “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Or as the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry explains, “Just as someone in love says over and again the beloved’s name until the name itself becomes the object of attention and….This act of impassioned naming attempts to get beyond conventional meaning.”

So, I knew Stein was doing something with the way the word “repeating” took on different meanings in the sentence and functioned as different parts of speech. But, I am no Stein authority or scholar. I know just enough to be dangerous and just enough to know when to ask for help. There are too many ways to parse “loving repeating.”

“loving repeating” You love what? Oh, the act of repeating.

“loving repeating” What kind of loving? Oh, the repeating kind.

“loving repeating” What kind of repeating? Oh, the kind you love.

“loving repeating being” What kind of state of being? Oh, the kind that loves repeating.

And so on. And so I thought of math word problems from high school.

NICHOLAS KNIGHT What You See (Stella), 2002 ink and collage on paper 8.5 x 7.5 inches

What You See (Stella), 2002
ink and collage on paper
8.5 x 7.5 inches

Teachers coach students to sketch graphs and draw pictures when faced with difficult word problems because seeing the situation illustrated often leads to better comprehension and accurate equations. Although Stein’s words presented a different type of word problem, I wanted a graph or picture to see how this might be visually represented. The English equivalent of graphing equations is sentence diagramming.

As an aside, I only learned later that Gertrude Stein herself enjoyed diagramming sentences: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.”

Now, sentence diagramming is falling out of favor (perhaps since the 60s and 70s), and people continue debates over its merit, but I briefly learned it in 7th grade and briefly taught it to my 8th grade and 6th grade students. I’m of the mind that there is merit in visually representing a sentence, but more on that later. My problem was logistical, not theoretical: a sentence diagram would be a step to understanding Stein. I needed a tool to do this, and these days, when I need something to do something for me, I consult the Internet.

“There must be an app for this.”

A screen shot from Desmos' graphing calculator.

A screen shot from Desmos’ graphing calculator.

Diagramming a sentence is analogous to graphing an equation, and graphing calculator apps are a dime a dozen. I highly recommend experimenting with Desmos. Not only can the user plug in an equation and have a graph, but Desmos also allows the user to tinker with the equation and see the results. There must be an English equivalent.

But there wasn’t. Google, Apple, Android: all left me disappointed. The closest apps I found comprise the following round-up:


sengram app_screenshot

Screen shot from SenGram. Notice the sentence at the top, the diagram below, word definition, show answer option, button for the next puzzle, and the utter lack of any “game” characteristics, like a score board or badges.

For 3.99 you can purchase SenGram for the iPhone and iPad. Soferio, the developer, labels the app an “English grammar game” where the user solves puzzles by diagramming preprogramed sentences. There is a range of sentence complexity: from 20 sentences with only subjects and verbs to 60 new sentences with verbals in the 3.01 version, which was available February 2014. The app seems like a viable option for teaching diagraming, and the developer’s website claims that their “companion ‘teacher edition’ software (for the Macintosh computer only) is called ‘SenGram Maker’ and it is currently in review by Apple.” However, the app does not complete the more complicated task of diagramming a sentence for you, nor does it have many game-like characteristics. Users neither earn points nor compete with other players. In essence, the app is a digital diagramming book.


For Windows users, University of Central Florida developed SenDraw and offers a free downloadable version from their website. Much like SenGram, this program gives users sentences to diagram, but as its website makes clear, “SenDraw will not automatically analyze and diagram sentences for you. Even seemingly simple English sentences require smart humans to analyze them; consider, for example, the differences between ‘Time flies like an arrow’ and ‘Fruit flies like a banana.’” The program was a graduate student project, and there should be a second version in the making. The target audience here seems to be teachers and students.

Sentence Diagraming

The latest version Diagramming Sentences was developed Professor Dalglish, from the City University of New York, and it is another example of a program designed for instruction. A variety of preprogramed sentences are organized into four levels of complexity: simple sentences, compound/complex sentences, infinitival/that-clauses, and miscellaneous. The interface brings the user back to the early 2000s before apps, but it color-codes sentence parts, and it allows students to drag and drop words into a blank diagram. It also seems more versatile than both SenGram and SenDraw. Users can create their own sentences by drawing them and organize them into files, and teachers can correct and edit student sentences.

sentence diagramming program

Two screen shots from Sentence Diagramming. The top image shows a student completing one of the exercises. The bottom image shows a teacher creating an exercise.


If I wanted to visually see these sentences working, to see scaffolds of phrases that supported the subject | verb foundation and slides of adjectives or the rabbit holes of prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses, I would have to do it myself. Which meant I would have to decide for myself whether “loving,” “repeating,” and “being” were acting as nouns, adjectives, or participles.


As you can see, my own attempts make a sloppy diagram. Plus, I--always the good student--want to know if I got it right.

As you can see, my own attempts make a sloppy diagram. Plus, I–always the good student–want to know if I got it right.


“Gertrude Stein Assemblage”

Florey, Kitty Burns. Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007. Print.

Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: V. I. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. Print.

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