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The one thing I never caught in English language studies is diagramming sentences. I understood much more when the focus was on rules of sentence structure instead of a tree that I then needed to identify.

Perhaps it is a demonstration of how we all do not learn in the same way. Or, perhaps I can be convinced that I missed something that could improve my language skills significantly.

Why is sentence diagramming important?

  • Not everybody thinks it is important. I was never taught to do it either. What do you mean by "improve my language skills"? Are you asking if diagramming sentences is a useful exercise for becoming a better speaker or writer? – sumelic Jul 11 '16 at 17:47
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    Text is a linear string of words that to be understood must be parsed into a not-linear form. This form has many characteristics of a graph-theoretic tree. There are various visual representations of this form, so-called sentence diagrams, that help illustrate the relationships among the parts of a sentence. Native speakers, those who learn the language from infancy, never diagram sentences when they learn to speak the language, so the diagrams clearly aren't necessary. – deadrat Jul 11 '16 at 17:57
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    I always thought diagramming was an excellent way to understand sentence structure. – Hot Licks Jul 11 '16 at 18:25
  • I am a native English speaker. American Midwest dialect of English, from the 1970s-1980s. I guess the structure has become so internal, that maybe the diagrams were too boring to be valuable to me. – Sensii Miller Jul 11 '16 at 20:12
  • @SensiiMiller - What happened was computers. Prior to about 1980 it was just as easy to draw a diagram on a blackboard or sheet of paper as it was to type out some other sort of syntactic analysis, so diagramming was used a fair amount (though not by all English teachers). But with the advent of computers diagramming became awkward to do, and the practice fell into disuse. (Actually, the downfall probably started ca 1970, as computer typesetting took over the printing industry, making such graphics relatively more awkward to put into textbooks.) – Hot Licks Jul 12 '16 at 3:20
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Syntactic Analysis

By identifying a sentence’s grammatical constituents and the relationships interconnecting those constituents, a diagram shows how the human mind analyses a sentence’s underlying syntax. It illustrates the grammar that holds the pieces of sentence together.

The particular notation for showing this structure is much less important than the basic act of doing so. Early students usually start by distinctively indicating the sentence subject and the sentence predicate, perhaps with something as easy as a simple underline for the subject and double-underline for predicate. Even with as simple a diagram as this one can now teach students how to exchange one subject or predicate for another, or how to invert the two.

From there you move on to other structures like noun phrases, verb phrases, subordination and coordination, dependent and independent clauses, prepositional phrases, and all the rest of them. Notice that we are not talking about parts of speech here but rather of higher level syntactic units.

This is what matters. What particular graphic representation you choose is much less important. You’re trying to teach the students that syntactic constituents exist, how to recognize them, and what they can do with the them.

Σύνταξις

The English word syntax derives from the Latin syntaxis, a transliteration of the Ancient Greek word σύνταξις, which per Wiktionary is composed of the components syn- meaning “with” and táxis meaning “arrangement”. Syntax is one of the two pillars of grammar (the other being morphology), because it shows how language fits together.

Without arrangement, words alone can only convey extremely simple ideas; there is no language. With arrangement — that is, by taking syntax into account — an infinitely richer set of possibilities exists. And this now is actual language.

Our close cousins the chimpanzees can learn words, but it appears that they cannot learn that fitting them together in a particular way matters. In contrast, dolphins are able to process language at this second, higher level, and therefore can understand the difference between “take the ball to the ring” and “take the ring to the ball”. That’s what happens when you add syntax to words: you get language.

Syntax matters. It’s part of what makes us human. Without syntax, there would be no language as we know it. Teaching how to diagram the underlying syntactic constituents of a sentence brings an understanding of what language actually is.

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