Thursday, October 14, 2004

Diagramming sentences

Yesterday I visited Dr. Wyre, the dermatologist at our HMO, He’s always fun, even when he inflicts sharp (but brief) pain as he did yesterday in removing an extraneous bit of my epidermus. He works extremely fast, talks fast too, and asks questions not just about the state of your health, but about your life, kids, the domestic scene. Sometimes he gives a mini-disquisition on a topic that interests him; I mean maybe 90 seconds worth. Yesterday, he brought up diagramming sentences. He likes diagramming, is proud to have learned it, feels it’s a valuable skill, and regrets that kids today - in his view - have a shakey grasp of grammar. I generally agree, though my kids both know grammar.

So today, in honor of Dr. Wyre, I present an essay on diagramming sentences. It’s a full-fledged co-incidence that she mentions Ralph Waldo Emerson in the introductory paragraph and Gertrude Stein mid-way through.

by Kitty Burns Florey


Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss. Invented, or at least codified, in an 1877 text called Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, it swept through American public schools like a measles germ, embraced by teachers as the way to reform students who were engaged in (to take Henry Higgins slightly out of context) “the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.” By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like “it’s me” and “I ain’t got none,” until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper.

Even in my own youth, many years after 1877, diagramming was serious business. I learned it in the sixth grade from Sister Bernadette. I can still see her: a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the blackboard, flourishing her chalk in the air at the end of it, her veil flipping out behind her as she turned back to the class. We begin, she said, with a straight line. And then, in her firm and saintly script, she put words on the line, a noun and a verb – probably something like dog barked. Between the words she drew a short vertical slash, bisecting the line. Then she made a road that forked off at an angle – a short country lane under the word dog – and on it she wrote The

I was hooked. So, it seems, were many of my contemporaries. Among the myths that have attached themselves to memories of being educated in the Fifties is the notion that activities like diagramming sentences (along with memorizing poems and adding long columns of figures without a calculator) were draggy and monotonous. I thought diagramming was fun, and most of my friends who were subjected to it look back with varying degrees of delight.

Gertrude Stein, of all people, claimed to be a fan of diagramming. “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,” she wrote in the early 1930s. “I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.”

Mostly we diagrammed sentences out of a grammar book, but sometimes we were assigned the task of making up our own, taking pleasure in coming up with wild Proustian wanderings that – kicking and screaming – had to be corralled, harnessed, and made to trot in neat rows into the barn

Sometimes, on a slow subway or a boring car trip, I mentally diagram a sentence, just as I occasionally try to remember the declension of hic, haec, hoc or the words to the second verse of The Star-Spangled Banner. I have no illusions about what diagramming sentences in my youth did for me in any practical way. But, in an occasional fit of nostalgia and creeping curmudgeonhood, I like bringing back those golden afternoons when

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