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I read an article last month about the lost art of diagramming sentences, a once-required skill that many American children had to master if they wanted to pass English back in the mid-20th century. Graphing a sentence was a necessary precursor to learning the King's English. Learn how to do it, and a dangling participle would never pass a person's lips.

That's what two Sisters of Notre Dame used to say as they called me up to the blackboard day after day, almost every school day for nearly two years. If you can diagram this simple sentence, if you can diagram this complex sentence, if you can diagram this compound/complex sentence, the sisters told me, speaking proper English will come next.


I was an import from Randolph, driven to St. Mark's Parish School in Dorchester by my parents every morning for all of seventh and eighth grades. They yanked me out of public school and enrolled me in Catholic school after I read them a story I was writing to impress my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. O'Neil.

It was called "Carefree Caress" and it was about a boy who was going to be a priest because he loved God, but he loved his girlfriend, too, so he asked her, before he left for the seminary, to come into the woods with him, declaring, "I'm not a priest yet!"

My parents were horrified. ("What are they teaching you in public school?" they chimed.) Mind you, they paid no attention to the lovely alliteration of "Carefree Caress" or to the very natural flow of "I'm" instead of "I am." In Randolph, alliteration and dialogue were important. Not diagramming.

Sister Ellen St. Dennis seemed determined to rectify this. Every day, she called me up to the blackboard and instructed me to pick up the chalk and write. The truth is I didn't mind. I liked diagramming sentences. I liked categorizing words, segregating prepositional phrases and gerunds and elliptical clauses. I even liked saying these new words out loud, never mind that the whole class had been saying them for years and they were exotic only to me. Unlike algebraic equations, which would baffle me a few years later, diagrammed sentences made sense: subject, predicate, object. I understood.


But it was snake oil. Diagramming sentences was an exercise with no real value, not a means to an end at all, and certainly not a slam-dunk precursor to mastering the King's English.

"It was purely an American phenomenon," Kitty Burns Florey, author of "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences," said in an NPR article last month. "It was invented in Brooklyn, it swept across this country like crazy and became really popular for 50 or 60 years and then began to die away."

Way back in 1960, when I was still wrestling with the compound relative pronoun and its horizontal line, the Encyclopedia of Educational Research announced "Diagramming sentences . . . teaches nothing beyond the ability to diagram."

I think about all those mornings at the chalkboard. I think about all the stops and starts, erasing and filling in and erasing again, adverb or adjective phrase? Nominative or objective? Until finally I could do it. Until finally, I could keep up with all the kids who had been standing at the chalkboard diagramming sentences for years.


"Diagramming sentences teaches nothing beyond the ability to diagram."

Not true. Diagramming sentences leveled the playing field for me. It was something I couldn't do. And then, after a lot of practice and encouragement and one day, even applause from my classmates, I could.

I was different in so many ways. I was a commuter. I didn’t live in the neighborhood. I didn’t go home for lunch. I didn’t hang out with my friends after school or on weekends. I didn’t go to Sunday Mass with everyone else.

So it was a big deal learning to diagram, doing it with and as well as everyone else.

I hadn't thought about diagramming sentences in decades. I hadn't thought about Sister Philip Julie, in eighth grade, taking over where Sister Ellen St. Dennis left off. Not until I read the NPR piece.

And then it all came back.

BeverlyBeckham can be reached at BeverlyBeckham@me.com.