No, Virginia, Diagramming Will Not Improve Students’ Writing

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The recently revised Standards of Learning of the Commonwealth of Virginia consider sentence diagramming an “essential skill” and mandate that it be taught in grades 6-8. Frankly, if English teachers can create widespread enthusiasm and whole-class success with diagrams, more power to them.

There are certainly worse ways of spending class time—spelling bees, for example, in which every kid in the class but one flunks in a very public way. But anyone who believes that future graduates of Virginia schools will be better writers than students from other states needs to look at history. And I include Diane Ravitch and Linda Chavez, both of whom have testified that diagramming made them better writers.

When diagramming is talked of in the press or in pre-graduate-school classrooms, it nearly always refers to the system established by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in 1877, the so-called R&K diagrams. As Kitty Burns Florey says in her charming reminiscence of diagramming (“Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog”), that system “swept through American public schools like the measles.” (It swept through America’s Roman Catholic schools like the bubonic plague.)

Anyone who believes diagramming sentences will make students better writers needs to look at history.

Presumably, then, the privileged children who attended Harvard College in the 1880s and 1890s were well acquainted with diagramming from their elementary or secondary schools. But if that familiarity did anything for their writing, the gain was not apparent to the Overseers of Harvard College’s Standing Committee on Composition. These gentlemen consistently found the writing of the students who took the required English A composition course to be dreadful. The freshmen were perceived to be in need of remediation, their writing often described as “illiterate.” And that’s Harvard.

Reed and Kellogg’s diagrams were also popular in the 1940s. In fact, they were used in two textbooks first published in that decade, both of which became instant successes and dominated their respective markets for almost the remainder of the century: Harbrace College Handbook by John C. Hodges and Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition by John E. Warriner.

It is curious that both these authors are quite temperate in their comments on diagramming. In his original (1941) edition, Hodges writes: “Diagrams are used here and there throughout the handbook to supplement the explanations. These diagrams are made as simple as possible to prevent the student from becoming more interested in complicated lines than in grammatical relationships.” In his first edition (1948), Warriner comments: “The diagrams, however, are an accessory and not an integral part of the teaching method. They may be ignored if the teacher desires.”

But back to the issue at hand: Did students in the 1950s write better than their counterparts from earlier decades? Here is the opinion of a college teacher, writing in The American Scholar in 1952:

“Generally speaking, the writing of literate Americans is pretty bad. It is muddy, backward, convoluted, and self-strangled. Almost any college professor will agree that his students’ writing stinks to high heaven. It is a rare student who can write what he has to write with simplicity, lucidity, and euphony. Far more graduating seniors are candidates for a remedial clinic than can pass a writing test with honors.”

My teaching colleagues in the same decade would have cried, “Amen.”

I myself learned how to diagram in the 1940s, taught by sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I loved it, and my skill helped me earn two silver medals in 7th grade. Yet when I began writing seriously in high school, I rarely received a grade higher than C on the “mechanics” part of my compositions. The main reason, I was told, was that I lacked “sentence sense.” If diagramming does not promote that, what does it do?

What it does mainly is nicely illustrated by the diagram of the opening of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that was used as the lead for an article, “Modifying the Subject,” in the Education Life section of The New York Times. When I first saw the diagram, I wasn’t sure what it represented. The first thing that grabs one’s attention is the horizontal line:


The bones are there, but the flesh is absent. The rhetorical flourish with which Lincoln began is left to dangle beneath brought, as are the critical words forth and upon this continent.

The desecration of the final clause of the address would be even more extreme. Its horizontal line would be this:


Clearly, R&K diagrams emphasize the subject-predicate relation, and as these diagrams illustrate, that may be the least important part of a sentence. Writing is much more about focus, fit, and flow than about subjects and predicates.

Question: Apart from the fact that they could write lengthy, coherent, graceful English sentences, what did Thomas Jefferson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain have in common? None of them studied sentence diagramming.

Vol. 24, Issue 29, Page 34

Published in Print: March 30, 2005, as No, Virginia, Diagramming Will Not Improve Students’ Writing
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