Sentence Diagramming: The Arguments and the History

There are many things about which people have strong opinions (Taylor Swift, Napoleon Dynamite, kimchi). In the world of grammar, it’s diagramming sentences. And I’m not the first to claim this:

“There are two kinds of people in this world — the ones who loved diagramming, and the ones who hated it,” Burns Florey says.

From “A Picture of Language: The Fading Art of Diagramming Sentences”

The question “To diagram, or not diagram?” can turn many curriculum meetings into battlefields, and often teachers form two camps. One camp sees the merits of the method’s explicit, direct instruction of grammar, while the other sees only the separation it creates between grammar and writing. The later believes students need grammar instruction incorporated into reading and writing lessons as they work on their own compositions. Yet, diagramming remains.

diagram mess up 2

Stop diagramming?

The practice of diagramming sentences seems to be passed along an ugly pineapple lamp heirloom: no one really wants it, but no one knows exactly what to do it or what could replace it. Plus, it’s important to keep cry its supporters. Stereotypically, older teachers hold on to this older method of teaching grammar, and because many adults experienced sentence diagramming the era before school computers, from teachers who were older still, the method represents all that is antiquated about direct grammar instruction. However, this perception that diagramming is outdated, which follows the youngest cohort of teachers and professional development instructors in any decade, has been around for much longer than you may think!

The earliest criticisms argue that direct grammar instruction of any kind does not produce better writers. Since sentence diagramming was the prevailing method for teaching grammar, critics who argued against grammar were protesting against diagramming. In 1903—more than one hundred years ago, if you can believe it—J. M. Rice, founder of the Society of Educational Research, discovered no correlation between good grammar comprehension and writing quality, and published his results in “English: The Need for a Basis” in Forum. Three years later, Franklin Hoyt shared similar findings in “The Place of Grammar in the Elementary School Curriculum” in Teachers College Record. Then thirty years later, the Curriculum Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English recommended teachers stop teaching “grammar separate from the manipulation of sentences.” In 1950, The Encyclopedia of Educational Research echoed the NCTE’s conclusions.

Actually—and a bit ironically, since you’d assume teachers, of all people, would learn—researchers and writers have been saying the same thing for the last fifty years:

  • “Most teachers, if they had given it consideration, surely would have come to realize by the time they finished college that there was little if any positive relationship between their knowledge of the parts of speech and their skill in composition” (Groff, 1961)
  • “Even so, we can say that the section that received no specific instruction on mechanics, or on anything else, for that matter, but spent full time in writing themes, scored at least as well as the section that received specific work on mechanical matters,” (Culbert, 1965)
  • “It is widely active in the minds of classrooms of teachers who believe—however sincerely—that by teaching grammar, they are teaching writing” (McBride, 1979)


The fact that these studies show diagramming sentences does not improve students’ writing may have discouraged its supporters, but they were able to rally around its other benefits. “Grammar was claimed to have a far-reaching educational influence through its alleged ability to improve punctuation skills, mental discipline, interpretation of literature, achievement in foreign languages, reading skills, general language behavior and, of course, written composition through sentence diagramming” (McBride). Critics shot down all of these benefits, too.

Finally, the only remaining argument in favor of sentence diagramming was that some students will become teachers, and those teachers will need that knowledge to answer students’ questions. In “Grammar: The Stagnant Standard,” McBride writes, “Stephen Judy has suggested that grammar instruction be taught as a high school elective since its knowledge does provide terms for talking about language.” Even contemporary curriculum designers concede that teachers need to know grammar to help students learn:

Clearly, teachers need to know grammar and know about grammar because they are responsible for helping students learn how to communicate using both social and academic language. Educators who work with English learners, in particular, find that their knowledge of grammar is tested daily—every time students ask for an explanation of a grammatical concept or unfamiliar term, teachers must provide a coherent and comprehensible explanation. (Stathis and Gotsch, 4)

Yet even these arguments don’t fully support direct grammar instruction. McBride cites another’s claim without making his own, and even then does so in the passive voice. He wraps up by saying grammar instruction is useful for teachers and students who become teachers, but it shouldn’t be necessary for all students. We see this opinion lurking behind product research and development published by educational technology companies, too. For example, the above quotation comes from Grammar Guide, a web-based grammar program, and what it means to say is, “Since students will ask the teacher questions about grammar that teachers won’t know the answers to, teachers need Grammar Guide to give them the answers.” In sum, although teachers should know grammar, and some students may even enjoy learning about language, not all students will become teachers, nor will all students find diagramming interesting or useful; therefore, teachers should not continue to teach it.

With all of this in mind, is it any surprise that I cannot find an app to diagram sentences? Shouldn’t it be even more surprising that the Amazon ranking of Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog (paperback ed.) is #69,290 in Books while Common Core: Grammar Usage ranks #113,908? To give you a better scope of the rankings: the paperback version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ranks #513, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ranks #71,089, and Key Containing Diagrams of the Sentences Given for Analysis: In Reed and Kellogg’s Graded Lessons in English and Higher Lessons in English #3,893,383 in Books. Or that the NPR story, “A Picture of Language: The Fading Art of Diagramming Sentences” produced in August 2014, revisits Florey’s article by the same title, and both continue to be tweeted:

The fact that Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog hasn’t become a dead dog suggests there is some merit in diagramming regardless of contemporary arguments about composition. To rediscover what makes it so useful and creates such a sizable cadre of devoted enthusiasts, we must go back to the source. Sentence diagramming as we know it began with Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg’s Higher Lessons in English (revised edition), which was first published in 1896. So, what was their reason for diagramming a sentence?

To study thought through its outward form, the sentence, and to discover the fitness of the different parts of the expression to the parts of the thought, is to learn to think. It has been noticed that pupils thoroughly trained in the analysis and construction of sentences come to their studies with a decided advantage in mental power.

Critical thinking. By diagramming sentences, students practice analysis.

higher lessonsSentence diagramming was not designed to teach the parts of speech. Rather, the diagrams help take a student’s knowledge of grammar to the next level. In fact, students shouldn’t even learn the parts of speech divorced from the text or how they operate within a sentence or paragraph: “Unless the pupil has been systematically trained to discover the functions and relations of words as elements of an organic whole, his knowledge of the parts of speech is of little value.” To learn nouns, verbs, and adjectives without analyzing how they come together to give language life would be to learn the functions of the heart, lungs, and brain without ever studying how they work to make the body breathe.

The authors did not believe in drilling diagrams: “When pupils are familiar with the definitions, let the form of analysis be varied….Here and elsewhere avoid mechanical repetition.”

Thus, teachers who drill diagrams miss the point. The last section of Higher Lessons abruptly stops diagramming exercises, and the authors address the teacher directly: “The pupil has now reached a point where he can afford to drop the diagram—its mission for him is fulfilled. For him to continue…is needless; he will merely be repeating that with which he is already familiar.”

Diagramming is a means to an end, since it only helps students understand how the parts relate to the whole:

All good writing consists of good sentences properly joined. Since the sentence is the foundation or unit of discourse, it is all-important that the pupil should know the sentence….He should know the sentence as the skillful engineer knows his engine…

And yet, critics claim this is not a good enough reason. That students are not interested in diagramming sentences, so teachers should not even introduce them to it. But yet do we not suggest all students learn computer programming and basic coding because they may need it in the future? Here is the Hour of Code: Where is my Hour of Diagramming?

Furthermore, Common Core supporters should reconsider diagramming as a method and Higher Lessons as a resource. The diagram is a visual tool appealing to visual and logical learners:

In written analysis, the simple map, or diagram, found in the following lessons, will enable the pupil to present directly and vividly to the eye the exact function of every clause in the sentence, of every phrase in the clause, and of every word in the phrase—to picture the complete analysis of the sentence….It is only by the aid of such a map, or picture, that the pupil can, at a single view, see the sentence as an organic whole made up of many parts performing various functions and standing in various relations. Without such map he must labor under the disadvantage of seeing all these things by piecemeal or in succession.

Students must learn visual literacy, and diagramming could facilitate that. Also, ELL students would benefit from the picture as well. Non-verbal representation is a best teaching practiced recognized by many schools, districts, and experts.

But diagramming is just the start. Kellogg and Reed coach students through many of the same exercises used by today’s top literary and comprehension experts.  They suggest that students approach composition in much the same way as Jeff Anderson, Jim Burke, and Kelly Gallagher assert. When given an example text, students should analyze it by looking at the structure its sentences, and they should “try to see which structure is the more natural, and which is the more forcible, and why; and what style gains by a judicious blending of the two.” After this, students should summarize the article: “This will reveal to him the differences between his work and the original; and bring into relief the peculiarity of each author’s style.” Those of you familiar with Anderson’s Mentor Sentences and Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week will swear that Higher Lessons managed to plagiarize them 100 years earlier. Indeed, the below quotation sounds like it came from Anderson’s own description of students “noticing” when analyzing a mentor sentence:

The pupil may see how ellipses and transpositions and imagery abound in poetry, and how, in the use of these particulars, poets differ from each other. He may note that poems are not pitched in the same key—that the extracts from Wordsworth and Goldsmith and Cowper, for example, deal with common facts and how in a homely way, that the one from Lowell is in a higher key, while that from Shelley is all imagination, and is crowded with audacious imagery…

Compare their words to Anderson’s from Mechanically Inclined:

A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to ‘show don’t tell.’ I let Gary Paulsen show my students about active verbs and short sentences. I let Patricia MacLachan show my students how to make phrases tumble off the ends of their sentences.

Both emphasize the need for students to look critically at examples and to learn grammar, punctuation, and style. Both invite conversation between the teacher and the students. Both provide students opportunities to compare authors and styles and to learn how authors create style with words, phrases, clauses, and sentences.

It all comes back to the whole-part relationship between words, sentences, and paragraphs, and the writer’s ability to visualize and understand how words function in context. It all comes back to the very things diagramming does best.

So why not diagram? We need an app to help resurrect this seemingly obsolete method of understanding language. In Sentence Diagramming part 3, I’ll discuss how and why we should bring sentence diagramming back to students and classrooms.


Culbert, Taylor. “Teaching Grammar and Mechanics in Freshman Composition.” The Journal of Educational Research 58.7 (1965): 291-92. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>.

Florey, Kitty Burns. “A Picture of Language.Opinionator: A Picture of Language Comments. New York Times, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 03 Jan. 2015. <;.

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

Groff, Patrick J. “Is Knowledge of Parts of Speech Necessary?” The English Journal 50.6 (1961): 413-15. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <>.

Kellogg, Brainerd, and Alonzo Reed. Higher Lessons in English: A Work on English Grammar and Composition. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Project Gutenberg. 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 3 Jan. 2015. <;

Krasny, Michael. “Kitty Burns Florey on English Grammar.” Audio blog post. Forum: With Michael Krasny. KQED Radio, 20 Nov. 2006. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.

McBride, William. “It Bears Repeating: Grammar: The Stagnant Standard.” The High School Journal 63.2 (1979): 85-88. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <;.

Stathis, R., and Gotsch, P. (2013). Grammar gallery: The research basis. Ruidoso, NM: The Teacher Writing Center.

Summers, Juana. “A Picture Of Language: The Fading Art Of Diagramming Sentences.” NPR. NPR, 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 03 Jan. 2015.

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