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Could You Diagram That?

The other day while reading an essay by Mark Twain, I was reminded of something from my neolithic (or was it paleolithic?) ages in Mrs. Gladys Rogers's seventh-grade English class: the diagramming of sentences.

I never learned the whole reasoning behind the exercise of diagramming. I never used the practice in later life, in neither my job as an editor nor in my own writing. Fortunately, none of the curricula I used when I taught English called for it either.

But Mrs. Rogers made it her mission in life to teach us naive seventh graders diagramming--or kill us trying. So, obedient student that I was, I dutifully got out my ruler and drew long-straight, horizontal lines bisected by shorter vertical lines and the frequent diagonal lines and wrote words along them. I didn't now what they all meant, but I thought it was neat to draw like that.

Diagramming allegedly helps a student or writer visualize how the various parts of a sentence fit together. The subject is written on one line, the verb on another, and various modifiers, prepositions, and objects of prepositions on other lines. It's supposed to help one write and speak. I've seen no evidence of its having helped me in either.

Instead, I learned to use the language properly by reading a lot of good writing. That gave me a good "ear" for distinguishing between proper and improper uses of grammar. My learning of grammar was similar to the method whereby Treasury agents distinguish between legitimate and counterfeit currency: they study genuine bills so closely that a counterfeit bill stands out like a sore thumb. I read a lot of well-written books until I could detect wrong usage.

When I entered college, I, like all other in-coming freshmen, had to take numerous placement tests to determine into which classes I would be allowed based on my proficiency--or lack thereof. One of those tests was in English, and I did so well that I was allowed to skip the first semester of freshman English, which focused on grammar, and go directly into the second semester which focused on writing.

I loved it! I wasn't burdened with all the rules and restrictions and was able to do what I enjoyed most--writing.

But later, in my junior or senior year, I think, I had to take a class titled Advanced Composition and Rhetoric. It was a more intense focus on all that had been covered in first-semester freshman English that I had missed! Rules, diagramming--everything but writing. I barely managed to squeak by, again thanks to my "ear" for distinguishing between good and bad usage.

The next time I encountered diagramming was during my years as a technical editor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. One of my supervisors confided to me her "secret" whenever she ran across a particularly convoluted sentence construction in a technical scientific report. She stopped editing and began diagramming. That seemed to untie the knots for her. Diagramming would have only tied me in knots! I preferred the "ear" method, and it seemed to work just fine.

I suppose there are benefits to diagramming, but I haven't discovered them yet. I did, however, enjoy drawing those lines! It made me a neater underliner when I'm reading and researching.

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