Until I watched "Weird Al" Yankovic's Word Crimes, I hadn't encountered a sentence diagram. (I was born and raised in Australia)

Are they only used in teaching English in the United States, or in other countries as well?

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    They were formerly used in teaching English in the United States (when "Weird Al" and I were in grade school); I don't believe they are anymore. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '14 at 12:54
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    Sporadically only in the United States, wherever a particular teacher has learned enough about it to use it in class. Also wherever they haven't, but use it anyway. – John Lawler Jul 24 '14 at 14:08
  • I was in a college grammar class just 5 years ago and we still used sentence diagrams. So maybe they're not as dead as you think! – AmanteDelDio Jul 24 '14 at 16:07
  • I graduated from an American public high school in 2003 (no college), and I'd never seen one of those sentence diagrams prior to 'Word Crimes'. I think it has probably become rare for anything below college level English courses. – Liesmith Jul 24 '14 at 20:15
  • I was exposed to sentence diagrams in elementary school and later in the 1980s in Germany. – Hans Adler Jul 26 '14 at 19:29

Sentence Diagramming in the United States

In the U.S. educational system, sentence diagramming was a common technique for explaining the structure of sentences for more than a century. In a Google Books search, one of the earliest instances of sentence diagramming occurs in Stephen W. Clark, A Practical Grammar: In which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices, and Their Relation to Each Other (1847). Clark’s system used a series of lozenge-like balloons to accommodate the various pieces of the diagrammed sentence.

Alonzo Reed & Brainard Kellogg, Higher Lessons in English (1878/1885), followed by Jonathan Rigdon, Analysis of the Sentence With Diagrams (1887), adopted a somewhat simpler line-based presentation of the diagramming; and Henry C. Edgar, Sentence Analysis by Diagram (1915) made the presentation cleaner still. Edgar’s format is essentially the one elementary-school teachers were using in Texas (and much of the rest of the United States) during the 1960s when I was a student.

Sentence diagramming continues to be promoted as a useful pedagogical technique in recent books such as Cindy L. Votto, Grammar by Diagram, Second Edition (2003). This particular book is from a Canadian publisher, but I don’t know whether it sells to a Canadian audience.

Sentence Diagramming Outside the United States

In “Sentence diagramming,” a January 1, 2014 blog post on Language Log, Dick Hudson writes:

For a long time 'sentence diagramming' flourished throughout the American school system, and although it was strongly condemned as a useless waste of time in the 1970s, it still persists in many schools. Not only that, but it spread well beyond the USA, so a very similar system is still taught in many European countries (though not, alas, in the UK); for example, schools in the Czech Republic teach sentence diagramming so successfully that researchers are investigating the possibility of including school children's analyses in a working tree-bank of analysed sentences.

One language teacher responding to the post describes using sentence diagramming in Canada and Japan:

I learned Max Morenberg style sentence diagramming during my undergrad (1996), and it has been invaluable to my career as a successful language teacher (Latin, French, English and Japanese) in Canada and Japan, at level ranging from primary to university.

On the other hand, commenters from South Africa and the UK noted that they had never seen tree-style diagramming used in sentence analysis.

A commenter named Nava in a 2008 Straight Dope thread on “Diagramming sentences” reports:

The way we diagram sentences in Spain is completely different from the way it's done in the US, as I learned in a previous thread which my search-fu can't find. Our way [a tree structure] doesn't deconstruct the sentence completely, like yours does. When we diagram a sonnet it stays a sonnet.

According to Mike Guest of Miyazaki University, in “10 Dumb Things That English Teachers in Japan Do” (February 18, 2012), one dumb thing is to “use unproductive teaching methods”:

You know what I mean. The old adage that high school teachers have to teach grammar explicitly by having students diagram and memorize sentence patterns at the expense of dealing with content and meaning-- the result being that students have only receptive, analytical skills and can't use English productively and meaningfully.

So, apparently, at least some university-level teachers are using sentence diagramming in Japan, and others are disapproving of the practice.

Though sentence diagramming appears to refer to more than one thing, it seems to have originated in the United States. Some people do teach it (or a related form of parsing) in other countries, but Australia is certainly not the only English-language country where it is not widely used.

  • Pace Sister Bernadette and pity Nicholas Knight. I didn't see much point in diagramming English sentences, but seeing a single sentence from the De Amicitia scrawled across the entire chalkboard was more than satisfying. – choster Jul 30 '14 at 0:48

Well, I've been applying Sentence Diagramming (renamed as "Sendi" ) in Thailand, setting it up as a curriculum being taught in an international school for almost 5 years and currently running my own tutor school mainly emphasizing only instructing Sendi to students to attack ERROR questions. To master sendi skills needs the chemistry of observing, collecting, analyzing and hypothesizing---The four essential elementary of being Sherlock Holmes.

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    That's very interesting - welcome to the site. What does your 'Sendi' system tell you about the word "elementary" in your last sentence? I'm afraid this answer isn't a good advert for your services. – JHCL Nov 26 '15 at 7:16

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