Diagramming Fun

Did you ever have to diagram in gradeschool? Remember how that worked? Here’s an example:

They mixed the dough quickly, put it into the oven, and waited.

source: http://www.nambuch.or.kr/eng/diagrams/basicdiagrams26-30.htm#Sentence29

It’s intended to help the mind better grasp parts of speech and how they relate to each other in a sentence. I don’t think it really helps much, though. It seems more like demented grammarians forcing their “fun” on innocent children.

Here’s a quote from Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” According to her biography on Wikipedia, she was a “conservative fascist.” Makes sense. Still, some people really do like diagramming, taking on such challenges as the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

The point is this: the Chinese diagram sentences too! Perhaps it is a universal trend uniting the world’s grammarians. Here’s an example of Chinese diagramming (three different phrases):

Although these are only phrases, the same principles apply to entire sentences. It’s a less visually transparent system, based on hierarchical phrase categorization. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to diagram sentences using this method (called 层次分析法) on my big test next Friday. Fortunately I find it pretty easy.

P.S. I think The bottom Chinese diagram has a mistake in it. I don’t think the bottom two divisions should include ��.

P.P.S. I think maybe this is my most boring post EVAR! What do you think?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. We use just such a diagramming method to test the understanding of Classical
    Chinese at my university. It seems to me that for Classical, because the parts
    of speech are not as clearly marked off as in Mandarin, parsing does have its
    advantages, but lexical study is at least as important.

  2. This method seems to work fine for modern Mandarin. Granted, we haven’t gotten into any really complex structures, but any method gets difficult at that point.

  3. Anonymous Says: May 26, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    If you want to turn off readers, then keep up this kind of posting. Maybe you should get away from the books for a while – or better yet, resist posting blogs while you’re studying.

  4. That system is incredibly hard to read – for longer sentences, I’d imagine it would be nearly impossible to determing which words a particular Æ«Õý label applies to, with a gap of 10 lines in between. I’m more used to something like this, where smaller constituents build up into something larger.

    In fact, I’d say even the bracket-subscript system is more readable.

    btw: The Internets confirm your error suspicion in the form of PPT class notes!

  5. I wonder how you’d diagram this Gertrude Stein quote:

    “The minute you or anybody else knows what you are you are not it, you are what you or anybody else knows you are and as everything in living is made up of finding out what you are it is extraordinarily difficult really not to know what you are and yet to be that thing.”


  6. Dear Commenter #3,

    If you want to turn off this blogger, then keep up this kind of comment. Maybe you should get away from this blog for a while – or better yet, resist reading this blog while I’m studying.

  7. If I recall correctly, Winston Churchill gave considerable credit for his ability as a wordsmith to the fact that he failed his form (which form I forget); and as a consequence was unable to move into the foreign languages as his classmates, but instead was required to remain in the old form for another two years where sentence diagramming was drummed into his memory banks.

    I do not believe it is the complexity of the sentences that make diagramming difficult for long complex sentences, but rather the awkwardness of having to work with so much data. As with electrical or instrumentation loop drawings, I usually identify the source (the topic) and then go to the end and phrase by phrase diagram the sentence and relate the phrases diagrammatically.

    An entertaining writer is only one element to whether a subject is boring or not, how interested one is in the subject matter far outweighs anything else. I find this interesting and not boring at all (but then, I may be the epitomy of boredom). For some reason, last month I was wondering how Chinese diagrammed their sentences (I did not know till now). So, John, you have given me an answer to my idle thoughts.

  8. I do a kind of mental diagramming when translating wordier sentences, that would best be visualized as dividing a sentence using nested parantheses with arrows running along the top of the words connecting phrases or linking modifiers with modifieds, and dotted lines separating self contained non-run-on sentences that can be broken off and translated into one English sentence. I’m not sure that doing the actual diagramming on paper would help me much though.

  9. Also as the author’s roomate I am exempting myself from the ‘not your soapbox’ and ‘no trolling’ rules 🙂 You will know when I think of something to bitch about…Hehe

  10. Definitely one of your NERDIEST posts.

  11. Ordinarily this post would be pretty nerdy, but the tenuous link you draw between conservative facism and sentence diagramming is what makes this post sinosplice worthy 😉 Keep it up man, some of us are actually interested in this stuff… Case in point, Here’s diagramming taken to its extreme:

  12. Looks somewhat like the Transformational Grammar diagramming method.

    Isaac Azimov is a good example of a person who can write in an intersting manner about almost anything — even things that some would consider boring (unless they read about it written up by IA).

    I disagree w/ Grace; there have been nerdier ones.

  13. Luo Dawei Says: May 27, 2005 at 2:11 am

    John, given that you are jumping headfirst into linguists masters program, and doing it in Chinese no less, we shall give this post a pass. The most impressive part is that you quote Gertrude Stein. Allow me to shamelessly rip off Ms. Stein: of this post, “There’s no ‘there’, there”.

    Seriously though, I don’t recall doing sentence diagramming in public school or Chinese sentence diagramming when studing Mandaring in Uni. I can see the usefullness applied to classical Chinese however. (One semester, forgot almost everyting.)

  14. ccccccccoooooooooooooollllllllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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