The Art of Sentence Diagramming

Usually, in higher grammar, people make pictorial representations of sentences, called sentence diagrams. This is a pedagogical device for students to understand the structure of a sentence. It is interesting and intellectually fulfilling to learn the structure of sentences by taking them down word by word with a diagram.

The first of the sentence diagrams dates back to Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg. They published the idea of diagramming sentences through their book, Higher Lessons in English in 1877. Later, this system, known as Reed-Kellogg system went almost out of use, a lost art.

The Procedure

A sentence, as you know, requires a subject and a predicate. All the remaining words are there mainly to modify these main parts. In a diagram, we separate each of these words and express their relationship with each other.

A main horizontal line, with vertical lines separating words and slanting lines below it, constitutes a sentence diagram. There can be separate horizontal lines for specific words as well. The words are written on these lines depending on their relationship with each other. The main words of the sentence are written on horizontal lines and the subsidiary words (modifiers, articles, adjectives, etc.,) are written on slanting lines.

In order to piece a sentence apart, you first need the subject and the verb apart. First, find out the verb, asking the question “What happened in the sentence?” It is the single most important part of the sentence. Example:

Joe kicked the ball high.

The action done is ‘kicked’. Place the verb in the diagram on the main horizontal line, with a crossing vertical line on the left.

Next step is finding out the subject of the sentence. For this, ask “who or what did it?” And the answer is ‘Joe’. Place this word on the left of this crossing vertical line. Look at the picture. The crossing vertical line is drawn separating only the subject and the verb; other vertical lines don’t cross the horizontal.

Sentence diagram

The third step is finding the direct object. This is the main object (sentences can have subsidiary objects). The question to ask is ‘whom?’ The answer is written after another vertical line after the verb. This vertical line, as you will notice, doesn’t cross the horizontal.
Sentence diagram

Modifiers of the sentence, such as the adjectives, adverbs, articles, etc., are all placed below the words they modify on slanting lines.
Sentence diagramming

The prepositional modifiers, which have more than one word, but function quite like a modifier is built beneath the word that it modifies. Here, the building is similar to a normal word, with main words on horizontal lines and modifiers in slanting lines.

For instance:

Joe kicked the ball high in the air. The diagram for this would be:
Sentence Diagramming

For more pictures on sentence diagrams, please visit:

Here is a video explaining this art:

Books on Sentence Diagramming

Here are a few books on higher grammar that you will find interesting. It includes sentence diagramming tips.

Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed, Brainerd Kellogg
Graded Lessons in English Alonzo Reed, Brainerd Kellogg
Grammar by Diagram by Cindy L Vitto
Sentence Diagramming: A Step-by-Step Approach to Learning Grammar Through Diagramming by Marye Hefty

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

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