Sentence Diagramming: No Unanimity among Users

By Hoffman, Melvin J. | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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Sentence Diagramming: No Unanimity among Users

Hoffman, Melvin J., Academic Exchange Quarterly


A minority of educators question well-publicized research purporting that classroom grammar teaching is futile, time wasting harmful etc. Generally, such educators agree in rejecting a return to traditional grammar teaching. However, disagreements exist regarding what grammar to teach and how, in what sequence and at what ages. This article addresses just one area of disagreement: sentence diagramming among those finding it useful in any way. The major source is the Assembly for the Teaching of English (ATEG) listserve archive.

Nobody Diagrams Anymore, or Do They?

Diagramming didn't die in the seventies or eighties. Devotees diminished but did not disappear. Websearch keywords, sentence diagramming, returned 20,699 entries. The first few entry pages nearly all dealt with sentence diagramming. Entries included textbooks, workbooks, online resources, and specialized pages serving college writing or language courses.

Diagramming books in print include (Davenport 2004; DeVincent 1995; "Diagramming ..." 2004; Florey, 2006; Lobeck 2000; and Vitto 2003). Information available on DeVincent and Vitto do not specify a grade level. Davenport's book is used in grades 7 through 12; Lobeck's book is college level. Though due in 2006, Florey's book has not yet been published at this writing.

This sample of diagramming websites is representative and of general interest: (Broughton 2003; Macintosh 2006; MacNamara 2004; Moutoux 2005; Orozco 1995; and Rogers 2000). The Broughton and Moutoux sites have some commercial purpose, but the others share material originally designed for specific populations. The Broughton, Orozco, MacNamara and Rogers works are college level. The Moutoux work serves middle and high school. The Orozco material is designed for elementary use.

Personal View

The following combines my views expressed in (Hoffman 2003:202 and 2006: 224). Time expended, and limited success I have in, teaching diagramming outweighs the returns. I teach a course, teaching language, to elementary and secondary education students. A third of any class benefits; another third is confused, intimidated, resentful, learning nothing; and the remainder just gets by. Consequently, I no longer teach students to diagram, nor suggest that they teach it. I ask them to learn to read diagrams, using a map-reading analogy: map readers do not need to be cartographers.

I use Reed-Kellog (traditional) diagrams with minor modifications. These have less apparatus than Aspects-model tree diagrams in rhetorics using transformational grammar. Modern theorists no longer use Aspects-model diagrams. However, more modern counter-intuitive diagrams called X-bar trees or alternatively, brackets within brackets, would just glaze my students' eyes over.

I use diagramming to compare and contrast structures, and to represent ambiguity. Although Reed-Kellog diagrams were not originally intended to distinguish underlying from surface structures, bracketing missing/deleted elements enables displaying such distinctions. Even students with limited grammar facility understand sentences sharing surface but not underlying structures.

ATEG Postings

The formerly independent Association for became the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. People post to its listserve who use or consider grammar use in the classroom. In the late 1990's, the listserve had clusters of postings concerning diagramming. These postings, archived online, provide informed opinion on sentence diagramming with the added advantage of participants responding to one another's views.

Affiliations of Selected Educators Posting

Larry Beason is Associate Professor and Composition Director of the English Department at the University of South Alabama in Mobil. He is co-author of two works with Mark Lester. They are The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage (2005) and A Commonsense Guide to Grammar and Usage (2006.

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Sentence Diagramming: No Unanimity among Users


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