October 12, 2004

Personal and intellectual history of sentence diagrams

Like Bill Poser, I recently read Kitty Burns Florey's essay on diagramming sentences, following the link from A.L.D. Unlike Bill, I was taught sentence diagramming in elementary school, so the content of Florey's analyses didn't surprise me.

I'll confess, though, that this approach to grammatical description never made much sense to me, back when I was nine or ten years old. Questions about why the lines should go one way rather than another were treated like questions about why there are three feet in a yard -- that's just how it is, kid, shut up and finish the exercise. At nine, I probably wasn't ready to understand a better answer, but in any case, diagramming sentences wasn't something that I ever did for fun.

When I studied syntax again in college and graduate school, I never really connected what I learned to my elementary-school experience. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I saw those old diagrams as an alternative notation for surface syntactic structure, some sort of informal way to encode lexical dependencies. Linguistics-course syntax was all about "why this and not that", and variant notations for the basic observations were not of much interest. And there was not a great deal of respect for earlier traditions of analysis -- the required "History of Linguistics" course at MIT was familiarly known as "Bad Guys".

In any case, syntax was still not my favorite subject. This time my problem was exactly the opposite of my problem with sentence-analysis in elementary school. In the third grade, everything seemed to be carved in stone, but in college and graduate school, the field was written on water. There was no stable description of the phenomena. The theory kept changing, not only in terms of explanations but in terms of the entities and relations of the basic descriptions. Doing syntactic analysis felt like trying to lay out a garden on an avalance. Exciting, at least at first, but it always seemed like a gamble whether you could get any significant piece of work done before everything changed out from under you.

Anyhow, I never asked myself, before now, just where the techniques of "sentence diagramming" that I was taught in grammar school came from. Who invented them, and when?

As usual, the answer is available on the internet.

There's an extensive practical introduction to "diagramming sentences" on line at Capital Community College in Hartford, Connecticut (about 30 miles west of my elementary school, FWIW). This is part of a larger "Guide to Grammar and Writing", which gives advice on numerous topics at the "Paragraph Level" and the "Essay and Research Paper Level" as well as "Word and Sentence Level".

For a quick explanation of how sentence diagramming works, there's a powerpoint presentation, an html page on Basic Sentence Parts and Patterns, and another one on Sentence Types and Clause Configurations. Here's an index to the whole site.

The "Brief Introduction" explains that

There are other ways to represent graphically the structure of a sentence, but the most popular method is based on schemes developed by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg over a hundred years ago.

Several works by Reed and Kellogg are available as etexts from Project Gutenberg, including Graded Lessons in English and Higher Lessons in English. A sketch of older history can be found here (at "polysyllabic.com"):

The sentence diagrams found in schoolbook grammars today are known as Reed-Kellogg diagrams. This system can be found in Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg. An Elementary English Grammar. (1878), and a simple example is shown to the right. Aparently they had an earlier incarnation, as in the introduction to this work, Reed and Kellogg remark, "We invite attention to our system of Diagrams They have grown out of the suggestions of different teachers in the Polytechnic Institute. They were copyrighted in 1868 by A. Reed and O. H. Hall; the copyright now stands in our own name." (Reed and Kellog, p. 5). I do not, however, have any bibliographical information for this earlier work.

Other systems existed in the 19th century too. These pages attempt to show the various older diagramming schemes. It is a work in progress, and I'm adding to it as time permits.

The earliest system I've seen is by S. W. Clark., A Practical Grammar: in which Words, Phrases, and Sentences are Classified According to their Offices, and their Relation to Each Other. Illustrated by a Complete System of Diagrams. (1847). He has a system of balloons drawn around words.

The polysyllabic.com author has scanned "Clark's entire introductory section on diagrams" and reproduced it on his/her site.

I still don't know the intellectual history of sentence diagramming before Clark, nor its influence on later developments. I suppose that most American linguists educated before 1960 or so must have learned this system, but I don't know whether there are any other connections. But I know where to start, I guess.

[The CCC grammar site is sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation, and was written by Charles Darling, a faculty member at CCC].

[The "Polytechnic" referred to by Brainerd and Kellogg is Brooklyn Polytechnic , whose web page includes a picture of one or the other of this pair, it's not clear which.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 12, 2004 09:59 AM