Michael Erard | Essays

Word Made Flesh

Diagram of quote attributed to Groucho Marx, "Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana," from Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey, illustrated by Joel Holland, designed by David Konopka, 2006

I spent years learning to diagram sentences from Catholic nuns, a biographical fact I share with Kitty Burns Florey, who explains the history of sentence diagramming as well as its appeal in her new book, Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, just published by the upstarts at Melville House.

For Florey, diagramming was an experience with grammar that spoke to her nascent copyeditor. I liked diagramming sentences for a distinctly different reason: it's kind of kinky.

Raised by a strange breed of faithful Catholics, I was often taught various methods of mortification, of the flesh and of the mind, at school and at home, and in religious education classes. You fast; you kneel; you suffer the pangs of lust. For Lent, you give up candy or you wear hair shirts. If I was ill, my father would come to my bedside and remind me quietly that when you're sick you're closer to God, so I should spend my time in bed reflecting and praying. Complaints, inconveniences, or affliction were to be "offered up to God" — that is, made into your own mini Calvary. In fifth grade I caught a case of piousness so severe I thought child sainthood was a plausible career choice.

Like the flesh, language was unruly. It wriggled. Even the order of well-formed sentences seemed impishly temporary, as if the words would fall out of line as soon as you turned your back. Language was the vehicle of sin: the snake seduced Eve; Judas betrayed Jesus. I cussed, then spent the day licking the pasty bits of Irish Spring from my molars, if my mother had happened to hear. The language of Jesus was powerful, too: it cast out demons, raised men from the dead, chastised moneylenders. But ordinary language had to be subdued. So diagramming a sentence was one way of mortifying language, torturing it as only Catholics could do. To diagram, you pinned the parts of a sentence to a geometry of lines, some flat, some slanting, others stepped. You tied language, symbolically and literally, to a cross.

Diagramming evolved from its first iteration in 1860 by S.W. Clark as a clump of balloons, one per word, into a more linear architecture by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in 1877, then in 1950 took its modern form. Florey doesn't explain how diagramming came to be linked with Catholic schools. I have my ideas, though.

I don't claim that the nuns in my classrooms found theological or sexual significance in diagramming, but it was fun to torture language on Reed-Kellogg's rack. Diagramming may not have made me a better writer; I'm not sure the visual mode aids the construction of mental representations. As Florey describes, diagramming is useless. Numerous studies have shown that training in sentence diagramming has little to no effect on students' performance on grammar usage tests or writing evaluations. And it's not an accurate portrait of how the parts of sentences relate to each other, either. (Linguists' tree diagrams are far more elegant.)

But diagramming is kinky because it forces the structure of language to wear the clothes of images. A sentence diagram is less a map than a portrait, and in this vaudeville language is painted, corsetted and trussed.

Michael Erard has written in The New York Times, Wired, Slate, and The New Republic about language at the intersection of technology, policy, law and science. He has an MA in linguistics and a PhD in English from the University of Texas. His book about verbal blundering, titled Um..., will be published by Pantheon later this year.

Posted in: Media, Technology

Comments [16]

I'm an old alter boy. Ala: Tom Waits.

joe moran

You might enjoy a twisty diagramming animation set to Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues by Jean Servaas. Follow this URL to Bob Dylan. http://www.jeanservaas.com/motion.html

It was 6th grade, and I always found diagramming sentences fulfilling. If I remember right, there was a sense of rhythm in the process. Once I got started on an excercise, the choices came easier. It was a language game, a race with myself of sorts, in which I'd beat my classmates everytime.

Come to think of it, maybe I just liked being the best at something then. Can't be cool? Diagram sentences best.

I can't remember of lick of it now.
Randy J. Hunt

Good read!

Thanks for all the allusions and intertwining of references. Don't forget that language is the vehicle of redemption, as the Word became Flesh....
Kyle Talbott

Oh thank you. We did sentance diagraming in public schools. It was 7th grade. 1987. In suburban Chicago. We were a very orderly town, that was over 50% catholic -- so perhaps there was connection there.

I loved it though. And was quite good at it. And those wonderful posters that adorned the classroom walls of the sentance diagrammed preamble to the Constitution or the first paragraph/sentance of the Declaration of Independence may well have sparked my first interest in information design.

Order out of chaos.

I have been envious of Catholics all my life, for that twisted, kinky upbringing and those early religious scars which seem to make them so much more interesting than me. And now, I am doubly envious.
marian bantjes

I had to go through this in a couple of Maryland grade schools, but having also attended schools in Argentina, I can report that in the Spanish-speaking world they go about this in a less graphically twisted way: they simply underline the different parts of the sentence with different colors, and label each part underneath. Of course, this didn't make the task of dissecting a sentence any easier!
Ricardo Cordoba

Oh Dear. This does bring back unhappy memories. Since my days in catholic school I have had a mental block about sentence diagrams. As punishment for not understanding how sentence structures worked, I spent many an hour in shame in front of a blackboard with unfinished diagrams. It just occurred to me that today one of my favorite things is the design of charts, tables and diagrams. Go figure. But as you can tell from my oafish writing technique, grammar, and punctuation still pose problems for me.
Mark Kaufman

I learned how to diagram sentences in a small school in about 1962 or so. I enjoyed it and believe it actually helped me understand the structure of written English. I wish they still taught it to schoolkids. In fact, I wish they still taught a lot of those basics that were drilled into us then. Great post.
John Hotchkiss

Good article, Mr. Erard -- but unlike Mr. Hotchkiss and DC1974, I have nothing but bad memories of sentence diagrams. I was terrible at these damn things.

I remember it pretty vividly from grade school (i.e., about two decades back). All the other kids would be quietly diagramming away, and I'd be in total disarray, silently panicking, like: "Wait... wait... where does the 'and' go?!"

I never quite got it... and, evidently, never quite got over it either.

Since then, having not really come across a sentence diagram until viewing the one here, my reaction upon seeing it on this site was instant and visceral, the visual-linguistic equivalent of biting tin foil: yaaaagh.

Regardless, I totally dig the fact you find them so kinky. One man's punishment is another's reward, as they say.

Plus it's always great to see anyone reveling in something as nerdy as this.
Jon Resh

I used to love sentence diagramming in Russian with my tutor, mostly because it was easier than anything else in that devil language. I didn't know English had a diagramming system, but I can say for certain the Russian version is better. We've got dotted and wavy lines and arrows and things -- makes for a more interesting sentence portrait!

I'm shocked—and thrilled—to see so many people with something to say about sentence diagrams. I have been using the form in my artwork for a few years now and have come to learn that people either adore sentence diagrams or despise them. I think the many posts make that quite clear. Needless to say I loved them! Now I especially like using the diagram form to reiterate or, better yet, subvert the meaning of the sentence being diagrammed. If you're interested: www.kellysherman.net/sentencediagrams

Thanks Glen for posting the Jean Servaas animation. I loved it!
Kelly Sherman

What a wonderful re-discovery. I remember them from childhood in my French-Canadian alternative school years (probably the most un-catholic schools of Quebec back then). I forgot them completely but now I feel compelled. You write of it very beautifully. And the jump to Kelly's art (see previous comment) amplified it all.


An interesting design project , beside kelly's, might be taking paragraphs of essays, making these diagrams, flipping some in mirror image, and finally turning things 90 degrees counter clock wise.

I suppose people would have diagram signatures of the way they write, which might be portrayed as seeing the forest in all those branches. Some of us might just be in a jungle.
nancy Krabbenhoeft

What a wonderful re-discovery. I remember them from childhood in my French-Canadian alternative school years (probably the most un-catholic schools of Quebec back then). I forgot them completely but now I feel compelled. You write of it very beautifully. And the jump to Kelly's art (see previous comment) amplified it all.


I loved diagramming sentences as a kid. I still think it helped. I was a fanatic for it. I would come up with ridiculous sentences on my own just so I could diagram them. It felt like they had revealed some kind of inner source code in language to me, like viewing a web page in HTML coding rather than "normal" view.


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