Your Second Grade Teacher Was Right

Think back to second grade, when you were first learning the basics of sentence structure. Your teacher probably began by illustrating the main parts of a sentence: subject, verb, and sometime even an object. There are of course more parts, but you were only just beginning to grasp the concept of a complete sentence. Adding more onto that would only serve to confuse. Simplification was, and still is, the key to understanding complex concepts. One method of simplifying sentences that you probably learned, but discarded along with your cursive penmanship, is the sentence diagram.

Those of you who even briefly recall diagramming probably picture archaic forty-five degree angle lines jutting down from two connected plus signs (one missing its bottom), covered in words. But, it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Everything beyond the two words on either side of the giant plus sign serves as either a modifier or an object in the sentence. The goal of this exercise, which I have often done with my tutees, is not to completely diagram a sentence, but to find a sentence’s main subject, verb, and object. Too often in the writing center I will read through a beautiful sentence, laden with ideas, only to discover it wasn’t even a sentence in the first place. It was that sin of all sins: a sentence fragment. Most of the time this is an easy enough fix. I will ask the student what they were trying to convey through their sentence and they will be able to find the omitted word or phrase. However, there have been a few times when that is not the case. That is when I have used this exercise.

I begin by showing the student a short, simple sentence. Examples include: “The dog ate a treat.” or “He drank the potion.” I will then diagram one of these sentences for the student (only s/v/o that is, not the rest of the sentence’s information). Then, I will have them diagram one to check for comprehension. If they get the concept right away, I will move directly on to their sentence. (If not, I will continue providing examples, increasing the complexity slowly, until they grasp the concept.) The first step to diagramming their sentence, I tell them, is finding the main subject, verb, and, in the majority of cases, the object of their sentence. Sometimes two or more sets of s/v/o exist in the student’s sentence. I will have them pick through the sentence set by set. If it is the case that the student is missing one of the parts, one of two outcomes will occur. In the first outcome, the student realizes that they are missing part of their sentence and will catch it themselves. We can then move on to adding in the omitted information to their sentence. In the second outcome, the student either does not find all of the parts or mislabels one part as another. In this case, I will use leading questions to help the student identify their mistake. Once this is fixed, we can create a new and improved sentence. For those of you who want to play along at home try to find and diagram the subjects and verbs in the following sentences. Some of them have more than one subject/verb phrase to diagram.

“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”

“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

“We should speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

Once you’ve diagrammed these sentences provided by the Bard himself, you should be able to get through anything the world throws at you. (The ability to dodge actual thrown objects is not guaranteed by this blog.) So, as you have probably guessed by now, I’m quite a fan of diagramming and believe it to still be quite relevant and useful. Anyone who is analytic and breaks things down to learn will find it useful as well. If you desire to know the full rules of diagramming sentences, the website: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/diagrams2/one_pager1.htm has more information. I hope you’ve enjoyed reviving this dead learning method as much I have!

-David

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