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.