Fun with diagramming

Erin O’Connor links to a paean to the joy of diagramming sentences by novelist Kitty Burns Florey. Florey learned to diagram from her sixth grade teacher, Sister Bernadette. She and her friends thought diagramming was fun.

You took a sentence, threw it against the wall, picked up the pieces, and put them together again, slotting each word into its pigeonhole. When you got it right, you made order and sense out of what we used all the time and took for granted: sentences.

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.”

. . . I remember loving the look of the sentences, short or long, once they were tidied into diagrams – the curious geometric shapes they made, their maplike tentacles, the way the words settled primly along their horizontals like houses on a road, the way some roads were culs de sac and some were long meandering interstates with many exit ramps and scenic lookouts. And the perfection of it all, the ease with which – once they were laid open, all their secrets exposed – those sentences could be comprehended.

I can’t say I was a big fan of diagramming, but my sister is into it.

Florey links to a great palindrome site.

About Joanne


  1. Florey’s essay is fun, a trip down memory lane for those of us who learned diagramming from a determined nun.

    Fortunately, she also notes the limitations of the technique. She’d have a lot of trouble diagramming this sentence from her essay:

    “That was it: subject, predicate, and the little modifying article that civilized the sentence – all of it made into a picture that was every bit as clear and informative as an actual portrait of a beagle in mid-woof.”

    In general, kids who were good at diagramming were the ones already good at language. The kids who had trouble reading sentences in meaning units (e.g. George W. Bush was one of those kids) were not helped by diagramming–it simply introduced a metalanguage that shed no light on the language they already had trouble parsing.

    Diagramming sentences is a relic best left for moments of nostalgia.

  2. I was good at diagramming sentences in junior high!


  1. O'DonnellWeb says:

    An Ode to diagramming sentences

    Author Kitty Burns Florey writes an ode to the joy of diagramming sentences. There was nothing I hated more in…