Sentence Diagramming (No, really…Give it a chance!)

I know, I know…How is sentence diagramming useful in a world where students rely on grammar checkers and write text messages that defy any commonly held standards for English sentence construction? Sentence diagramming seems rather old school and unnecessary, doesn’t it?

Everything Old…

To my way of thinking, however, “everything old is new again” applies in the case of sentence diagramming. We talk frequently about our students being more visual and tactile in their learning than we might have been at their age and attribute their learning styles to their interactions with the Internet and video games. Interestingly, this seemingly old-fashioned activity of sentence diagramming is just the tool to address the needs of these learners. It offers a highly visual way for students to learn how elements of a sentence work together rhetorically, grammatically, and mechanically; and creating a diagram engages students in a hands-on activity.

I learned to diagram sentences in the seventh grade and continue to diagram with the same obsession that other people have for Sodoku puzzles. My students? Not so much. Many of them have not had any training in grammar and mechanics since middle or high school, and sadly many of them view the conventions governing standard English as some big mystery best unraveled by guess work and the “because it looks right/sounds right” method. Sentence diagrams or other strategies that present sentence structure as ordered and systematic are great ways to help students produce grammatically and mechanically sound sentences that also incorporate standard punctuation. Plus, sentence diagramming is just plain fun. Trust me on that one.

Of course there are always grey areas regarding what constitutes “standard” English; and good grammar, mechanics, and punctuation should always support and reflect the rhetorical function of a text rather than adhere strictly to prescriptive standards, but for teaching basic English sentence structure, sentence diagrams have been a valuable tool. My students have had many “a ha” moments once they see sentences as patterns rather than as random groupings of words.


If you want to learn to diagram sentences, teach your students to diagram, or create a few diagrams to use as illustrations during your grammar and mechanics lessons, here are some resources.

Elizabeth O’Brien’s Grammar Revolution: This is my favorite resource. Free downloads, books, RSS feeds, Facebook feeds, Twitter feeds, free newsletter, sentences for diagramming delivered to your inbox…What can I say? This site has it all.

Capital Community College’s Guide to Grammar: CCC provides diagramming instructions and examples of diagrams for common sentence patterns. The PowerPoint on how to diagram is especially helpful.

Literal Minded: This blog post illustrates the differences between the Reed-Kellogg diagram and tree diagram methods for diagramming sentences. I prefer the Reed-Kellogg method. I know linguists prefer tree diagrams for their precision and more nuanced representation of sentence structures, but I’m not a linguist. I just want a visually accessible way for students to look at sentences, and (at least for me) the left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram presents sentence structures more clearly than the top-down reading orientation of the tree diagram.

So there you go…If you’ve used sentence diagrams in your courses, tell us what you do. If not, please give it a try, and tell us about your experience.

On a related note…National Punctuation Day is September 24. It’s not too early to start thinking about your celebration! If you like, share your plans with us.

7 thoughts on “Sentence Diagramming (No, really…Give it a chance!)

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  2. Pingback: Diagramming Interrogatives « Literal-Minded

  3. Oh, Martha! I’m sorry that diagramming didn’t work so well for you. I don’t think I would do anything that caused me so much misery, either. But I agree that for those who need extra help or for those who want to do the work, sentence diagrams are helpful. And yes…Rex Barks is awesome. Have you read Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences? I’ve been meaning to order it but have not gotten around to doing so.


  4. I believe in teaching sentence diagramming, because it shows HOW an English sentence WORKS and that individual words do not always have the same function. I have tried teaching it — last semester in a remedial English class at a community college. I would say it was a failure. 1/3 of my students did the work; 1/3 attempted to pretend they were doing the work; 1/3 felt they should not have to deal with it and refused the rigor involved. Among those who did it, writing abilities improved drastically. I used Grammar by Diagram. I won’t try this again because it made my life very miserable, but if a student needs extra help and is open to it, absolutely. Rex Barks might be the best book of all!


      • I think it was the class as much as anything else. It met at 7 a.m. for three hours twice a week. It was at a community college and that level (the lowest) is the open mouth of the big funnel from which a few emerge with diplomas, so EVERYONE was in that class. If it had been a higher level class, if it had not been at that particular community college, I believe it would have worked. I also think if it had been a full semester long class that met 2 or 3 times a week for a shorter period, it would have been better. Some of my students started to wake up to what they were learning in the last couple of weeks of the 8 week session. I believe in sentence diagramming as a teaching/learning tool, I’ll just be careful where I use it.

        It’s funny because I got the idea at my 40th HS reunion. Some of the people I still know from HS were in the “dumb” classes back then but they can and do write clear, intelligible and elegant sentences. They shouldn’t; they represent the “typical” community college student of today. We were talking about high school (naturally) and one of them said, “I just hated sentence diagramming!” and I thought, “Yeah, but you write well.” A light bulb went on in my mind.

        I want to read Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog and, like you, I keep meaning to order it…


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