October 11, 2004

Diagramming Sentences

Kitty Burns Florey has a nostalgic essay on diagramming sentences, an activity now very rare in American schools. The essay is illustrated with numerous diagrams. Florey points out that, like her, Gertrude Stein enjoyed diagramming sentences. She quotes Stein as writing:

I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.

Surprised though I was at Florey's and Stein's enjoyment of diagramming, I was even more struck by the analysis implicit in Florey's diagrams, which is that of a form of transformational grammar. Wh-questions, for example, are analyzed as having the wh-word in situ. The sentence What is the dog doing? is diagrammed as The dog is doing what?. Ditransitives are analyzed as containing a phonetically null preposition. The dog gave us his paw. is analyzed as containing a prepositional phrase to us in which the preposition to is phonetically null. It is hard to imagine that transformational grammar as developed by Chomsky can have had any influence on Catholic school education in the 1950s, so assuming that Florey's diagrams reflect what she learned in the sixth grade from Sister Bernadette and not more recent influence from linguistics, this must reflect a variety of traditional or folk grammar.

Posted by Bill Poser at October 11, 2004 11:30 PM