Syntactic analysis and folding fitted sheets

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Today's Frazz:

Update — It should be clear that this blog doesn't endorse (the implications of) the analogy.

Some previous LLOG coverage:

"The plastic fetters of grammar", 10/21/2003
"Personal and intellectual history of sentence diagrams", 10/12/2004
"Reintroducing diagramming", 11/7/2004
"A grammar book in grammar school?", 12/18/2009
"Diagrammatic excitement", 3/27/2012
"Diagramming sentences", 4/13/2013
"Putting grammar back in grammar schools: A modest proposal", 12/25/2013
"School grammar, round two", 12/30/2013
"Sentence diagramming", 1/1/2014
"Three cheers for Michael Gove", 1/28/2014
"Gorsuch vs. prepositional phrases", 2/1/2017


  1. Thaomas said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 3:29 pm

    But unlike folding a fitted sheet, diagramming sentences was fun. :)

  2. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 6:57 pm

    The analogy fails because diagramming sentences is an immensely useful practice for understanding the structure of the language.

    I didn't encounter the diagramming of sentences until I took university linguistics classes. Because no one had ever presented English to me in this way, all of my systematic understanding of the functioning of English grammar came from my studies of Italian. For instance, it was only when I began studying Italian that I fully grasped the difference between a linking verb and an action verb, and that I attained an understanding of direct objects and indirect objects.

    I became very angry when I realised that we could have been diagramming English sentences all throughout high school. If my teachers had not elected to ignore this essential teaching tool, so many things would have made much more sense.

    I still resent the absence from the high school curriculum of this teaching method that so effectively clarifies and demystifies.

  3. Eric Wolf said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

    I let my college English 111 students diagram sentences as an extra credit assignment if they want to and if they aren't falling behind in required work. Some of them find it helpful; some of them give up. Even though I myself found it helpful when I was in 7th and 8th grade, it has so fallen out of favor that I feel I risk criticism if I require it.

  4. M.N. said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

    After studying syntax, I've come to think that diagramming sentences in the traditional way (that I learned to do in elementary/middle school) is pretty anti-scientific. Once you get past the very simplest examples, the reason for diagramming anything a certain way is basically "because I (or whoever invented the system) said so." Also, it's used to prop up prescriptivist claims about grammar, like how "it's her" is supposedly ungrammatical. In my opinion, I'd have been much better served by learning about, say, constituency.

    Also, I was taught sentence diagramming in middle school by at least one teacher who literally didn't know the difference between relative clauses and indirect statements, so the idea that sentence-diagramming knowledge entails actual English grammar knowledge is somewhat doubtful.

  5. David Morris said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 9:50 pm

    What kind of sentence diagramming is Mallett envisaging here? Do teachers in the USA still use Reed-Kellogg or a variety thereof, which I have never used and don't fully understand what I've read (some of the placements seem arbitrary). I first encountered sentence diagrams as part of my masters study, which used a light version of X-bar phrase structure trees, which makes far more sense to me.

  6. Stephen said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

    Hey, I enjoyed diagramming sentences back in ninth grade when they made us do it for a spell. And I was very good at it too.

    But the comic character is exactly right. It had no pedagogical value and so it didn’t teach me a blessed thing. A major waste of time.

  7. maidhc said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 11:55 pm

    The reason children used to be taught sentence diagramming was that it was believed it would make them better writers. However in the 1960s people set out to measure this effect and discovered that there is little to no evidence supporting the theory. Thus most schools have given up on it. It would be helpful if students go on to study compilers though.

    As for folding fitted sheets, it's easy. My mother taught it to me when I was 12.

  8. Rubrick said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 3:15 am

    I too count myself among those for whom junior-high sentence diagramming brought both pleasure and insight (the latter often from realizing its ambiguities and shortcomings myself). It's a pity that it wasn't more informed by actual linguistics, but it was still (for me) far better than nothing. (I could say the same for much of Schoolhouse Rock; a noun certainly isn't a person, place or thing, but that was still enough to nudge me in the vaguely right direction.)

    On the other hand, I totally suck at folding fitted sheets.

  9. Bloix said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 7:26 am

    Like Ferdinand Cesarano, i never had any instruction in English grammar, and what systematic understanding I have (which is not much) stems from my study of a foreign language (in my case, French). I find that the little grammar I know is very helpful in composition, and even in logic, and I wish I knew more. I'n not knowledgeable enough to know whether diagramming is a good way to teach grammar, but there ought to be some way to teach it.

  10. Theophylact said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 9:16 am

    Folding fitted sheets is easy, if they're not elasticized. If they are, it's pure hell.

  11. BillR said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 10:10 am

    I enjoyed diagramming when I encountered it in 7th or 8th grade, for the simple puzzlesolving-ness of the process. It was my first exposure to the idea of grammar as a system. I think I learned more about actual functioning grammar when I took Latin in 9th grade.

  12. BillR said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 10:11 am

    Folding fitted sheets is easy if you let go of the notion that they have to be flat when you’re done.

  13. David L said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 10:29 am

    Never learned diagramming. Don't have any desire to. Still know how to write. Real good, I might add.

  14. Chris said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 11:04 am

    When I was in high school, we had several English teachers with different sections of the same class. Only one actually taught grammar. He was a math/English double-major in university and also taught Shakespeare and Logic electives in my high school. I was put into a different section of his English class, but I took his Logic class as a senior in high school. That class probably did more to influence my writing than anything else I experienced in school.

    Having never done sentence diagramming and gotten only a smattering of grammar, I don't know how much formal logic, grammar, and diagramming are or are not related. However, if they are, I whole-heartedly endorse diagramming.

  15. phspaelti said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 11:46 am

    @BillR: Folding fitted sheets is easy if you let go of the notion that they have to be flat when you’re done.

    So the analogy to diagramming sentences is spot on!

  16. David Marjanović said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 2:19 pm

    Diagramming happens to work in English because English word order is so strict and straightforward. In German the results would often be unreadable. I was never taught it in any language; grammar was taught by different means.

  17. DWalker07 said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

    I did learn some things from diagramming sentences in middle school.

    On the other hand, nowadays I just roll my elasticized fitted sheets and stuff them in the linen closet. It works fine.

  18. John Roth said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 7:20 pm

    As far as I can tell, the objective is to learn to parse sentences, and then use that information to study how the pieces interact. A visual representation of the parse can be helpful to some people, and it can also be used to communicate the parse to other people, such as teachers.

    Other than that, learning to "diagram sentences" seems to be focusing on the wrong educational objective.

  19. Christopher Henrich said,

    March 26, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

    I enjoyed the Reed-Kellogg system when I was in eighth grade, but this is probably because I am a sucker for unfamiliar notations. Now I think parse trees are better. Reed-Kellogg seems ad-hoc to me now; it tries to have a different graphical form for every kind of phrase structure, and I think it only goes so far.
    Parse trees are great at showing how "ice cream cone" is differently structured from "orange traffic cone." Behold:
    ((ice cream) cone)
    (orange (traffic cone))
    I don't think you can express this distinction in the Reed-Kellogg system.

  20. Joshua K. said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 12:37 am

    When I was in elementary school, we did learn Reed-Kellogg sentence diagramming, although we didn't use the Reed-Kellogg name. Fortunately, I guess, we didn't get too heavily into diagramming. For example, I don't think we got into conjunctions at all. I could have diagrammed "Jane walked to the store," but not "Jane and Bob walked to the store."

  21. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    I was never taught to diagram sentences (and I don't know if there's a system for diagramming Swedish – syntax-wise it's more like English in some respects and more like German in others), but we were taught some formal grammar in middle school. When pupils wondered what it was good for – after all, we could already speak and write the language without knowing it – we were told it would be useful for learning other languages. In my case, at least, that turned out to be true; but IIUC most Americans never do learn any foreign language. How do American teachers justify teaching formal grammar?

  22. Ellen Kozisek said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 9:15 am

    Most American DO study a foreign language in high school, I think, but most of those don't ever learn it well enough to really become a speaker of it. So, depends what you mean by "learn a foreign language".

    For me, I think the grammar I was taught while learning Spanish was more helpful than whatever I learned before taking it.

  23. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 9:41 am

    @Ellen Kozisek:

    For the purposes of my question, taking classes but failing to learn the language would be enough. I mean, we wouldn't be very sympathetic to a pupil who, upon being told that knowing a bit of grammar will be useful in Spanish class, objected that they didn't plan on learning anything useful in Spanish class.

    When I learnt English and German, a bit of grammatical background was presupposed. I learnt this the hard way, having missed some relevant tuition due to illness.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 9:41 am

    We represented the parts of a sentence (subject, verb strangely called "predicate", accusative object, dative object, genitive object…) as colored boxes that could be rearranged within the one-dimensional sequence.

  25. Ellen Kozisek said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 10:59 am

    Learning a language isn't a black and white do or don't thing.

  26. Frank Southworth said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 12:28 pm

    A dear fried of my wife's and mine, recently deceased, used to accompany us to Turkish restaurants (selected by herself). She had lived for some years in Ankara and knew Turkish well. She never tired of correcting our mispronunciations of Turkish menu items-"Not tamAra, tamarA; not dŐner, dőnEr;" etc. From these experiences the following couplet eventually emerged:
    Though there are exceptions, in Turkish the rule
    Is to put the acCENT on the last syllaBULE.
    (Teachers of Turkish may take note.)

  27. Will Thomas said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

    We diagrammed sentences in grammar school. I didn't even understand direct objects until I took Latin in high school.

  28. David Morris said,

    March 27, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

    @Will: I didn't learn about subjects and objects until I took Latin at *university*!

  29. dainichi said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 2:01 am

    In Denmark, we analyzed sentences by putting small crosses under subjects, circles under (conjugated) verbs, triangles under objects and squiggly lines under prepositional phrases. The immediate goal was to learn where to put the commas, since the correct way to use commas at the time required commas around all clauses. I don't remember exactly, but I believe we started in 4th grade or so.

    This way of teaching grammar had its shortcomings, but I don't know how one would teach German (which started in 7th grade) without at least some kind of understanding of formal grammar.

  30. philip said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 3:52 am


    Would ice-cream cone (with the hyphen) not do the same job for you?

  31. Frank Southworth said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 9:14 am

    I think I was probably the only kid in my 8th-grade class who enjoyed analyzing sentences, and actually learned something from it.

  32. Terry Hunt said,

    March 28, 2018 @ 7:38 pm

    In my half-dozen or so British Infant and Primary schools (my dad being in the Army, we moved frequently) and my one (boarding) Secondary school, in the 1960's and 1970's, I never encountered even the concept of sentence diagramming, of whose existence I eventually learned only from passing mentions in US-written fiction. My peers and I seemed to grasp English grammar adequately well from purely spoken and textual (but not graphical) instructions – supplemented somewhat by parallel teaching of French and Latin, admittedly.

  33. Monte Davis said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 8:38 am

    @Neal Goldfarb: 15 years ago I briefly taught English lit/composition to HS juniors and seniors at a N. Philadelphia public school. There were many relatively recent immigrants in an unusual mix — as many Russians and other ex-USSR + Haitians + East/South Asians as African-Americans, more than Latino/a. Their attitudes toward standard English ranged from "I want that NOW to fit in and succeed" to "Fck that tightass stuff."

    After the first month, on impulse I brought in video of "My Fair Lady" and showed initially just the first part — Henry Higgins' adoption/abduction of Cockney Liza and his bet that he could teach her to pass as a Lady. For most students the first hurdle was to grasp that yes, "English English" has many accents (and dictions, registers, etc) rather than being a single bloc of Oxbridge-twit-snob gentility. Once past that, I said to them: "OK, you have a lot of different feelings about the value and usefulness of sounding like a US native speaker. This is a 90-year-old satiric fable from far away — for me too — but see if any of it feels familiar." Then we watched the rest of the story.

    From then on, the students were *amazingly* good close readers of both the comedy itself and Shaw's insights about speech and social class. We spent most of three weeks on it instead of the few days I'd planned (and half a dozen went on to read 'Pygmalion' on their own). I remember especially the discussion of the Ascot race scene, when fashion-perfect and accent-perfect Liza gets excited near the finish and shouts at her horse "Move yer bloomin' arse!" With barely a prompt from me they discriminated the various ways that was "incorrect," and were eloquent about which mattered to them and why. Bottom line: they covered about as much ground re correctness and context, peevery and perversion as this worthy commentariat. Best teaching experience ever for me. I take credit only for making one good connection; the rest was theirs and Shaw's.

  34. Kaleberg said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

    If you've ever had to store a bunch of fitted sheets, you'll know why it is useful to know how to fold them. Unfolded, it is impossible to just take one of them out of storage. Folded, it is easy.

    Diagramming sentences is incredibly useful. It's really easy to write gibberish, even if you are a native speaker. If you've done a bit of diagramming, you'll develop skills that let you avoid gibberish and produce coherent statements.

    On the other hand, it doesn't make sense asking an English teacher how to fold sheets. You don't ask them to fix your car.

  35. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 2, 2018 @ 1:58 am

    Despite having set to learn 7 languages in my life and having a good half-a-dozen books on language and linguistics on the shelf (which, in my time, I'd read), I'd never come across the expression "diagramming sentences" before seeing this thread. I guess it's what in the UK we called sentence parsing. Hopefully including parts of speech, main, subordinate, relative clauses etc.

    As many point out above, it's not just about the purposes of education being served. When as an adult you've got a language to learn, knowing the terminology helps a lot. When I was set to learn Latin, the whole of the first term was taken up with grammar – English grammar – without a word of Latin.

    It's argued sometimes that this terminology doesn't fit well with non-IE languages, but surely it provides a basis for comparison?

    And it helps figure Chomsky & Co.'s recursion if you understand the concept of subordinate clauses.

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