Friday, January 15, 2016

The joy of diagramming sentences

I myself do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.
Gertrude Stein

Molly and Norman Rockwell
Are students still required to diagram sentences? Probably not, since that skill might be difficult to measure on a state assessment test. In my student days back in the 1950s, however, such exercises were common in classrooms. Diagramming a sentence may help someone understand the various parts of a sentence. What the subject? What's the verb? What's a modifier? Diagrams could help clarify these things, I suppose, if you hadn't learned them already. Still it always seemed like a waste of time to me.

The above Gertrude Stein quotation, which I had come across previously, can be found in American Mirror, the Norman Rockwell biography I am reading. Deborah Solomon mentions it because Rockwell's third wife, a retired teacher named Molly Punderson, also loved diagramming sentences. "Molly believed that the careful dissection of a sentence was a lofty exercise, one that could teach a student the intricacies of not only parts of speech but of thought itself," Solomon writes.

They still teach algebra to students who will never in their lives actually use algebra. The reason is that algebra and other higher math skills supposedly teach one how to think, how to reason and how to solve problems in general, not just math problems. If that is true, then perhaps Molly Punderson was right. Perhaps diagramming difficult sentences, such as the kind Gertrude Stein wrote, could help someone think more clearly and ultimately both speak and write better.

Maybe so, but I was happy when my English teachers finally gave up and moved on to something more interesting and less difficult.

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