Did you ever diagram sentences in school? I did, but that must have been in around 1975. It doesn’t seem that widely used now and it’s hard to explain why. It must have fallen out of fashion or was replaced by a more powerful academic agenda. Basically, sentence diagramming makes it visually easy to understand where the subject and predicate are and how everything else is related. The subject and predicate make up the horizontal line while trees and roots extend the sentence above and below.
One reason that it may not be popular is because it is old. Not any older than grammar itself, but old enough to lose pedagogical appeal. The method is traced back to Alonzo Reed and Brainerd (what a name!) Kellogg in their book “Higher Lessons in English” (What a title) published in 1877. Apparently, at that time it was a tremendous hit and sold lots of copies. Diagramming stayed in the schools for around 100 years. The history of its rise and fall is narrated in a book by Kitty Burns Florey, “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: “The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.”
She attributes the fall out of favor in the 60s due to a strong trend away from anything that appeared rote or mechanical. Self-expression held precedence over accuracy as the tweed and topknots of grammarians weren’t cool at that time. In the ivory towers high enough above the beat of the times, purists left the organic branching for parse trees, which they may have found to be more satisfyingly less visual. If there is ever a full circle, sentence diagramming will come back into popularity since digital media has freed our brains from linear constraints.
Diagramming sentences can be fun in the way Sudoku or crossword puzzles are fun. The challenge is to understand how the constituent parts are actually related to each other. Opponents will say diagramming is more of a diversion than an instructional tool since you’d have to know grammar before figuring out the pattern. The simple alternative is to use the diagrams already completed. Just because the component parts are already put together doesn’t mean the observer can’t figure out how it works. A diagramed sentence is an engine running.
I’ve observed how learners can explore sentence structures by tracing their fingers over the lines. First, they complain that the order is jumbled, but quickly see it as a puzzle to be solved. They’ll move through the sentence like a maze and as they say the sentence out loud, often recognize if they’ve taken a wrong turn. Diagramming also shows that there may be more than one way to say the same thing while the meaning is locked into the inherent structure.
It works in any language and might be best to start with Lao though simply by repetitive tracing, it’s possible to absorb the sense of a structure. By practicing with many examples, grammatical patterns will start to emerge as if set into the grooves of the brain. Practicing in this way can stimulate visual, auditory and kinesthetic functions and best of all, can be fun.
In our search for better methods, there may be a treasure trove of wheels that have already been invented. The most important point is to discard our assumptions that what we’re using now is always the best. Old shoes usually fit the best, but we can dare to kick them off, dig our bare feet into the sand and feel our way around again for something new to try.