2 Oct 2007

What's wrong with this diagram?

Submitted by Karl Hagen
I just finished reading Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey, a book that purports to tell the history of sentence diagramming. It's not as bad as I had imagined it would be. I had braced myself for an old-fashioned paean to the virtues of diagramming, but in fact Florey is honest about the limitations of diagrams and skeptical about claims that diagramming helps improve one's writing.

That said, there are irritating errors in the book.

First, Florey gets the details wrong about the early history of sentence diagramming. She claims that Reed and Kellogg introduced their system first in 1877, in a book called Higher Lessons in English. This book was actually the second one that they published. They used the same system in an earlier book, Graded Lessons in English, which was first published in 1875. She also states that Clark's A Practical Grammar, the most influential sentence diagrammer before Reed and Kellog, was published in 1860. The first edition was actually in 1847.

And then there are mistakes in her diagrams. Consider this one, which I have redrawn. It's a diagram of a sentence of Joyce Carol Oats: "We learned to 'diagram' sentences with the solemn precision of scientists articulating chemical equations." (Florey 2006, p. 97).

Diagram from Florey

By my count, there are two separate mistakes here, or perhaps one mistake and one highly unlikely interpretation of constituency. Can you spot them? I'll post my answers later.


Apart from the horrid layout of the diagram making it an absolute pain to understand - in fact I had to rely on my background knowledge of word order rules and constituency in English even parse it - it seems that the notation of articulating implies that it functions as an adjective, modifying chemical equations rather than as a non-finite verb predicated of scientists. As for the other error, the one to do with constituency, I'd guess it has something to do with the hierarchy of nodes between the sub-verb phrase "diagram" sentences and its complement (in my terminology) with the solemn... That is, it was not the learning that was done with solemn precision, as this diagram suggests, but the diagramming of sentences. Am I close?

If you're not familiar with Reed-Kellogg diagrams, they are inscrutable. They are, or were, very much an American thing, most popular in schoolrooms of the first half of the 20th century. All modifiers go on slanted lines, without any real distinction being made for lexical categories. The way "articulating" is drawn is meant to imply that it is both a modifier of "scientists" and a verbal (to use the traditional terminology) with its own direct object ("chemical equations"). By the traditional rules, that part is correctly done. The attachment of the PP "with..." was precisely the constituency problem I had in mind. The natural reading is that it modifies "diagram." As for the second problem, you'll only be able to spot it if you understand how R-K diagrams are supposed to work. The thing I have in mind is, if you follow the analysis of Huddleston and Pullum, not really even an error, but it runs counter to the traditional analysis and is inconsistent with the diagrams elsewhere in the book.

I think the infinitive "to diagram" should be the direct object of "learned." It should be diagrammed on a pedestal (with the prepositional phrase and the rest of the sentence modifying "diagram".)

If this infinitive were adverbial (E.g. "The teacher had us draw diagrams to fill class time."), this method would be accurate. But as you say, "to diagram" would be traditionally understood as a direct object.