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January 22, 2003

Visible grammar
Posted by Teresa at 11:10 AM *

Claire Eddy alarmed me a few days back by telling me about a website that diagrams sentences. “They can’t possibly!” I said. “The best AIs we have couldn’t handle that, and Fowler Himself says you can’t diagram the English subjunctive.”

Things cleared up when I looked at the site. They have samples of diagrammed sentences, and they’ll diagram a sentence if you send it to them, but they haven’t tried to make it an automated process. That’s feasible. I can live with it.

While I’m no great fan of diagramming sentences, I have to admit it’s as good a site as you could put together, given the subject. For one thing, they quote from Dave Barry’s “Ask Mr. Language Person”:

Q. Please explain how to diagram a sentence.

A. First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the “predicate,” which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: “LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger,” the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.

And, in a virtuoso display of sentence-diagramming macho, they diagram The Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution.
Comments on Visible grammar:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2003, 03:18 PM:


I vaguely remember diagramming sentences in Jr. High English classes.

Is this skill still taught in schools?

#2 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2003, 05:27 PM:

I don't know if it's still taught in schools, but I think it should be. I spent a good long time in the 8th grade diagramming sentences, and I learned a lot from it about how language works. It was also helpful when I started learning foreign languages.


#3 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2003, 07:13 PM:

It was always the damn adjutants that got me. I could never remember whether the catastrophe comes before or after the S.

#4 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2003, 10:58 PM:

It makes it a lot easier learning Russian, where they stick the "what type of a word is this within the context of the sentence" at the end of every word.

David -- I believe the "S" comes after catastrophe, making it plural. Unless you're talking about stepping in something that the dog's owner didn't clean up. ; )

#5 ::: Pfish ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 02:51 AM:

Hrm. I last remember diagramming a sentence in ninth grade. years ago. (Almost eleven.) That's still enough time for a whole crop of kindergarteners to reach college without ever having had to diagram a sentence. I think I went through about twenty mechanical pencils in ninth grade and contracted carpal tunnel, so I can see why they'd discourage it.

#6 ::: anna ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 09:56 AM:

Well, I was born in 1980, and I have two younger sisters (1982 and 1986). None of us ever learned how to diagram a sentence in public grammar school, junior high, or high school; between us, we've done K-5 in the New Hampshire public school system, and K-12 in NY. I've always subscribed to the "if it sounds right" rule, my middle sister taught herself using old schoolbooks, and my baby sister has ignored grammar as much as possible. I, in fact, did not know formally anything about the different parts of sentences or anything else of that ilk, until I took German in college -- my Catholic grammar school educated professor and my Catholic grammar school educated classmate (yes, there was only two of us in the class) were so appalled that entire classes were spent teaching me about the different parts of English sentences so that I would be able to understand German grammar. Sadly enough, all I remember now is how to find the subject and object, but I haven't felt any sort of compulsion to revisit any grammatical rules or procedures because I just don't have a day-to-day need for them. (Does anyone except possibly a copyeditor and a Catholic grammar school teacher -- if even that?)

#7 ::: Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 10:23 AM:

I liked diagramming sentences. It taught me that "one of those who" is followed by a plural verb, which puts me ahead of many people.

#8 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 11:15 AM:

I *vaguely* remember diagramming sentences in school , making diagrammes that looked a fair bit like the ones on that page. That would have been grade 2 or 3. Then I just learned a lot of rules in high-school -- no diagrammes. I learned a totally different way of diagramming them in university Latin class (it involved lots of brackets, parentheses, and underlining). Then when I studied linguistics I learned a whole 'nother system of sentence trees. I like that one best.

I've found having *some* way of mapping a sentence to be invaluable not only in translating Cicero but also in untangling the really complicated prose that some of my writers have produced.

The Dave Barry quote, and the Gertrude Stein one, incidentally, seem to appear in *every* discussion of sentence diagrammes -- they were the header quotes in my introductory linguistics textbook.

#9 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 01:48 PM:

I didn't learn to diagram sentences till college — Syntax I and transformational grammar. The diagrams are a bit different, though.

#10 ::: wink ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 02:00 PM:

Diagramming sentences has been invaluable. I picked it up on my own sometime in college bacuse I'd never been taught it earlier. It just helps language to make sense, especially when you are learning a new one.

Any AI that could diagram sentences would certainly pass the Turing Test.

#11 ::: mechaieh ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 07:05 PM:

There were instructions on how to diagram sentences in my 9th grade English workbook (1983). The class never got to it, but I was sufficiently bored and sufficiently intrigued to work my way through them, in part because it was featured as part of Laura Ingalls' teacher certification test at the end of *Little Town on the Prairie.* (Yeah, children's lit has a lot to answer for - *Little Women* would be why I felt compelled to cook a blancmange, oh, fifteen years later.)

#12 ::: Eileen Lufkin ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2003, 08:05 PM:

Nate Bucklin wrote a song "Let's All Diagram Sentences" about a late night conversion at a Mnstf meeting long ago. Pamela was one of the people there. The verse I think I remember goes:
There's an E and then a equals sign and then an MC squared,
I though I had a grunch once, but the eggplant over there,
I saw a man astride a pony with a roman nose,
A rose a rose is just a rose, my kingdom for a rose.

#13 ::: Kate Yule ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 12:51 AM:

Ooh, ooh, that diagram of "We the People" --


This can be blamed in part on one Mrs. Judith Harvey, late of Spitler School, Baldwin-Whitehall School District, Pittsburgh, Penna. (6th grade). I think of her frequently, and with gratitude.

#14 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 11:09 AM:

I've always been suspicious of diagramming sentences. But it's probably the only way to get the average joe to understand my favorite English sentence: Things that made the obscure obvious by overturning overturned. (S.R. Delany)

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 12:50 PM:

Go ahead and diagram it, Xopher. Without further context, I can't tell where the verb is.

#16 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 01:31 PM:

It breaks down to "Things overturned," doesn't it?

#17 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2003, 03:00 PM:

I'd have written it, "Things that made the obscure obvious by overturning are themselves overturned," but that's just the way I write.

Unless I missed the meaning of the sentence.

I think I'm getting a headache....

#18 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: January 25, 2003, 12:23 AM:

Re the Delany sentence:

"Things overturned" seems to be the main clause and "that made the obscure obvious" is a subordinate clause, modifying "things". This would probably be shown like the "for which it stands" bit in the Pledge diagram, although not having really studied grammar in years, I'd have to puzzle a while over how to show the relationship between "obscure" and "obvious". I think "by overturning" modifies "made", but that's part of the obscurity of the sentence.

You could also make a case that Rachel is right, but to make a diagram of that sense plain you have to infer words. If you use "are themselves", as she does, then "are" is the main verb and the clause "themselves overturned" is the object. Since neither "are" nor "themselves" is in the original sentence, you'd need to mark them off in parentheses.

I would do the diagram but diagramming in ASCII is a pain. I've done it. I've even acquired a bit of a reputation on the Stumpers List for it. But I'd sooner avoid it if I can, and maybe from now on I'll just refer people to the page at Thanks, Teresa (and Claire)!

Yes, I had diagramming, at least three years of it (thank you, Mrs. Tharp, Mrs. Wiley and Mrs. Painter*). And it was helpful when I learned foreign languages (indirect objects, etc.), though diagramming a heavily inflected language might be somewhat different.

But the real value of diagramming is much like that of Venn diagrams -- it helps you sort out the logical relationships of the ideas. I don't think I realized how important this was until we got computer databases at the library. Now I use Venn diagrams, which I also learned in junior high (we had "the New Math"), to explain Boolean searching.

*Sixth, seventh and eighth grade, at Grandview Elementary in Ardara, Pa., and Irwin Jr. High, Irwin, Pa., both in the Norwin School District east of Pittsburgh. (The years would have been 1961-64.) Neither school exists now. Grandview was still standing but boarded up last time I was over that way, and the old junior high building has been demolished. It had originally been built in the 1920s and was seriously outdated, but it was home to a lot of memories, including some good ones.

#19 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2003, 06:01 PM:

Actually, diagramming sentences seems rather akin to pairing the parentheses in a SQL (or mathematical) statement: IF((A=42) THEN (B)) ELSE (IF((A=37) THEN (Q)) ELSE (IF((A=5) THEN (Y)) ELSE (K))).

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2003, 07:21 PM:

That site has taught me one thing, which is that I was taught a degenerate form of sentence diagramming. Most pertinently, we were taught that you simply throw out and ignore all prepositional phrases. This suggested to me that it was an arbitrary system, good for little more than identifying the subject, verb, and object -- and I could already identify those on the fly.

I'm not sure I'd have had much more use for the formal version of it, though. I've never had much trouble sorting out the internal mechanisms of sentences. Learning Venn diagrams was a bit more useful, but it's the same sort of thing: What modifies what, what excludes what, where do they overlap, and how much can it tell you?

#21 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2003, 01:32 PM:

The outermost sentence is "things overturned." I'd break it down into simple(r) sentences as:

Things overturned.
When they did, other things became obvious.
The other things had been obscure.
This change was directly due to the overturning.

So, "Things (that made the obscure [things] [become] obvious (by overturning)) overturned."

I took two or three reads through that, the first time I read it, before I could figure out what it meant (of course, as TNH points out, I had the advantage of context). I was awestruck by the sheer elegance of it, because it's self-referential in a weird way: as comprehension of its meaning slowly dawned, I could feel the very thing it described happening in my brain - as the sentence moved from obscure to obvious, there was a sense of mental objects changing orientation.

BTW, while 'obvious' is an adjective in that sentence, 'obscure' is functionally a noun: 'the obscure' like 'the beautiful', 'the wealthy', or 'the dead'. In English you can just make an adjective into a collective noun by sticking 'the' in front of it...go, English!

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2003, 03:43 PM:

English, the original open-source language.

#23 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2003, 03:57 PM:

Oh, yeah, it's very cool. I've given you my rant about noun modifiers, I'm sure? Nouns that modify other nouns without being either possessives or semantic adjectives? "There's been a malfunction of the Whitehouse press briefing room podium sound equipment," seven nouns in a row, all but the last a modifier?

Translate that into Spanish, and you'll see how this feature helps make English wonderfully compact.

#24 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2003, 10:44 PM:

Damn it, I seem to have lent someone my copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz. There's a great bit in there about the difficulty of learning a language where slave boy means more or less the same thing as boy slave, but house cat means something completely different from cat house.

“White House press briefing room sound equipment” is one of those little clues that tells you that despite its overlay of Norman French, English really is a Germanic language.

#25 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2003, 07:41 AM:

True, but even German throws in an 's' to indicate possessive every once in a while. Not every time, to be sure, but way more than English.

#26 ::: Rachel Heslin ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2003, 01:21 PM:

tangential digression:

I love Dave Barry's take on the American Revolutionary war: British soldiers would march out in the pretty uniforms and spell out words on the battlefield while the Americans hid behind trees and shot at them.

The reason the Brits lost was because they hired Hessian mercenaries, and it took so long to spell out words in German that they were all killed off.

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