I sometimes talk with people who assume that I must yearn for the good old days when students learned how to take sentences apart.
They’re partially right. Many of my college students had never spent any time thinking about how language works and how sentences are put together. Teaching them to slow down and notice language was both a challenge and a pleasure.
But sentence diagramming is not the answer. And – truth to tell – it’s a skill I never acquired.
Below is a sentence diagram I found online. Let’s take a close look to see if it would help students sharpen their writing skills:
The very young elementary school children were misbehaving during the annual Chistmas performance in the school’s auditorium.
Suppose you dictated this sentence to – say – a class of eighth graders. What mistakes would they be likely to make – and would sentence diagramming help them do better?
Based on 40 years as an English instructor, I can tell you that these students would probably:
- misspell “elementary,” “annual,” “performance,” or “auditorium” (and perhaps other words)
- forget to capitalize “Christmas” (and perhaps mistakenly capitalize “school”)
- omit the apostrophe in “school’s”
- insert an unwanted comma somewhere for the dubious reason that this is a long sentence, so surely it needs a comma
Would a background in sentence diagramming help those students avoid any of those mistakes? No.
More important, though – would any of those students know that this is a static sentence that should be rewritten? No again.
The sentence is perfectly grammatical, but it’s weak. The words “were misbehaving” don’t help us see and hear the chaos in that auditorium. We need to substitute details like these:
- flipped the auditorium seats up and down
- climbed over the seats
- shouted to their friends
- ran up and down the aisles
- threw spitballs at their classmates
I would encourage students to write at least two sentences about the misbehavior so that they can include several examples without making the sentence uncomfortably long.
Basic English usage isn’t hard to master. There are four pronoun rules, five subject-agreement rules, three comma rules, and two ways to use an apostrophe. A semicolon is like a period. There are a few rules for capital letters…and not much more. Even advanced usage doesn’t have a burdensome amount of content.
Does sentence diagramming instill any of those skills?
The answer, sadly, is…no.
Students need English teachers who can efficiently teach the usage skills needed for effective writing. More important, students need to learn how to use language to communicate ideas and experiences – express themselves vividly and powerfully – and showcase what they know.