The Art & Science of the Sentence
A fun piece posted today on ALDaily about diagramming sentences, which the author describes accurately as "a bit like art, a bit like mathematics" and a lot of fun. Learning to diagram sentences is one of the few things I recall clearly about 8th grade English, and I recall my excitement to discover that statements could be depicted with such readily appreciable structure. I also remember a particularly heated debate that broke out between myself, the teacher and several other students over a particular sentence diagram.
I'm agnostic on the question of whether sentence diagramming is a better way to teach grammar than alternatives, although I think some form of graphical representation should be introduced to students. Mainly, I'm not sure that diagramming sentences is really as good a tool to teach grammar as it is a way to use grammar. There are other ways to graphically represent language that are more informative or that make it easier to retrieve the meaning of a statement, but to me the sentence diagram succeeds in transforming language into an object. A sentence diagram retains the pace of the statement in a way that other tree-like structures do not. Also, sentence diagrams can be genuinely pleasing to the eye, as examples from The Gettysburg Address and Paradise Lost demonstrate.
I disagree with Ms. Florey on what she perceives as a problem with diagramming, that "the sentences that can be popped into a diagram aren't always sentences anyone wants to write." Of course, "popping" a sentence into a diagram may demand uncomplicated, orthodox applications of grammar, but the challenging sentences are the ones that go beyond that. I also doubt that diagramming sentences helps anyone think more logically, although it may induce people to write more logically by drawing attention to the way dependent phrases and clauses relate to the terms they modify. I used to especially enjoy the way diagramming sentences drew out missing words and other information necessary to making sense of the statement, but unstated in the spoken sentence. I am also sure that diagramming sentences can make someone a better writer, speaking as someone who reads a lot of the writing of college undergrads. Writers of fiction, so cultishly devoted to the mystification of their craft and seemingly fixated on the beauty of "sentences" nowadays, naturally shrink from the notion that something so systematic could possibly contribute to their gift.
But what do I know? I spent this morning reading several articles heavy with formal theory.