American Grammar: Diagraming Sentences in the 19th Century

“Once you really know how to diagram a sentence really know it, you know practically all you have to know about English grammar”, Gertrude Stein once claimed. “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. . . . I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.” While one student’s lexical excitement is surely another’s slow death by gerund, Stein cuts to the heart of the grammatical pull. Is grammar prescriptive and conventional, something one learns to impose on language through trial and error? Or do sentences, in a sense, diagram themselves, revealing an innate logic and latent structure in language and the mind? More than a century before Noam Chomsky popularized the idea of a universal grammar, linguists in the United States began diagramming sentences in an attempt to visualize the complex structure — of seemingly divine origins — at their mother tongue’s core.

James Brown, The American Grammar (Philadelphia, PA: Clark and Raser, 1831).

The history of diagramming sentences in the United States begins with James Brown’s American Grammar (1831). “Language is an emanation from God”, he writes. “As a gift, it claims our servitude; as a science, it demands our highest attention.” Accordingly, the student of grammar can lift himself up (educationally, devotionally) by knuckling down. “The mind becomes a passenger; the body his chariot; ideas his baggage; the earth his inn; hope his food; and another world his destination.” It was in American Grammar that Brown debuted construing as a method for parsing sentences using a system of square and round brackets to isolate major and minor sections. Major sections are “mechanically independent”; minor sections are “mechanically dependent”. Brown called this form of analysis close reading, but construing was only one half of the system. “As construing is a critical examination of the constructive relation between the sections of a sentence, so scanning is a critical investigation of the constructive relation between the words of a section.” Scanning involves ranking minor sections in ascending numerical order based on their relational distance from the major section. Playing a kind of grammarian god, Brown uses John 1 to demonstrate how his system can cleave sentential flesh. (In the beginning)2 [was the word]1 (and the word was)3 (with God)4 (and the word was God)5.

Frederick A. P. Barnard, Analytic Grammar; with Symbolic Illustration (New York: E. French, 1836.

Whereas Brown sought to reform an educational system plagued by “simplifiers”, “plagiarists”, and “new modellers”, Frederick A. P. Barnard’s Analytic Grammar; with Symbolic Illustration (1836) reported from the classroom on syntactic techniques “advantageously used in the instruction of the deaf and dumb”. His system for diagramming sentences is mildly pictographic, based off of six principal symbols for marking substantive, attributive, assertional, influential, connective, and temporal words and phrases. Each symbol, in turn, can accommodate a host of diacritical marks to further specify its function. In the sentence “A man goes into a house”, for example, “man” is marked with a vertical line, signifying the noun’s substantive property. Two feet are added to the line since “man” is the subject of this sentence, “the supporter of what follows”. Because the word is in the nominative case, it also receives a diagonal, accent aigu–like appendage, pointing the action forward. “Goes into” necessitates a confluence of connected marks that resemble the Eye of Horus. First, we start with a horizontal line, the attributive verb. Since it contains an intransitive assertion, it receives a v-shaped hat, whose right arm curls in on itself, signifying “the attribute exists merely in the agent himself, without regard to any outward object”. Interlocked to this arm is a spiral-like symbol that accounts for the preposition “into”, “a connecting link”. “House”, in turn, looks a lot like “man” — built on a substantive vertical line — but with a grave accent instead of acute, symbolizing the objective case: receiving the action thrown forward by the nominative subject. Curiously, whereas Brown turns toward scripture for his corpus, Barnard’s examples frequently express physical violence or categorical division, mirroring the two-fold sense of “articulation” that his system embodies: both a means of expression and a form of dissection at the joints. “The victor exceedingly rejoices in his conquest”; “He is about to tear a book”; “Negroes are habitant in Africa”.

Oliver B. Peirce, The Grammar of the English Language (New York: Robinson and Franklin, 1839).

Three years later, Oliver B. Peirce’s The Grammar of the English Language (1839) came on the scene with a fervent rhetoric that reads as hyperbolic even among hot-headed grammarians. “On this imperishable foundation — this rock of eternal endurance — I rear my superstructure, the edifice of scientific truth, the temple of Grammatical consistency.” Far less systematic than Barnard, Peirce arranged his sentences with a chain-link structure: assertives and relatives (verbs and prepositions) connect larger subject and object circles whose articles are attached to these nouns like keys on a ring. The visual conceit is apparent and didactic: appendant clauses are literally appended one onto the next; if one link grammatically falters, the whole chain of meaning becomes undone.

Solomon Barrett, The Principles of Grammar (Cambridge, MA: Metcalf and Co., 1857).

Before “syntactic trees” became common parlance for linguists, Solomon Barrett’s Principles of Grammar (1845) used a similar metaphor and added bark. The frontispiece displays Hebrews 1 as an old-growth hardwood: “God” is the trunk, the predicates “who spake” and “hath spoken” form solid boughs, while prepositional phrases are figured as finer twigs, pruned of all foliage. Ranging beyond his peers into Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and German grammar, Barrett’s arboreal figures suit his interest in language’s branching connections, the root-like structures of etymology and inheritance.

Charles Gauss and B. T. Hodge, A Comprehensive English Grammar (Baltimore, MD: Pan Publication Co., 1890)

Charles Gauss and B. T. Hodge’s A Comprehensive English Grammar (1890) would reprise the image in fantastical terms, dissecting entire paragraphs onto botanical crowns. Oddly, these writers also have no use for leaves — it’s always winter in the grammarian’s mind.

Stephen Watkins Clark, A Practical Grammar (New York: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1847).

It is not until Stephen Watkins Clark’s 1847 work, A Practical Grammar, however, that we find a system that strongly resembles sentence diagramming in its modern-day — though quickly fading — guise. Combining the divisional schema of Brown and Barnard with the visual style of Peirce’s scalar links, Clark’s method uses word balloons that resemble, in the words of Kitty Burns Florey, “elaborate systems of propane storage tanks — or possibly invading hordes of Goodyear blimps”. There are twelve general rules and scores of definitions that resemble mathematical proofs. A sentence’s principal elements occupy the highest row. Subject, predicate, object — there is a fixed order of operations. Adjuncts are placed below the words they limit or modify, conjunctions between the terms they join, and pronouns dangle from their antecedents by umbilical cords. Clark’s enduring innovation was attributing properties to “offices” rather than individual words — offices that could be occupied by words, phrases, or even entire sentences. Grammar thus becomes a system of scalable relations rather than a paint-by-numbers tool for classifying parts of speech. “Major grounding ideas still present in modern IC [immediate constituent] analyses and PSG [phrase structure grammar] were already present in Clark’s syntactic conception”, writes Nicolas Mazziotta. Comparing grammar to “the foundation of a building”, Clark gave his students a toolbox for dismantling faulty foundations and properly assembling sentential edifices of their own.

Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, Higher Lessons in English (New York: Clark and Maynard, 1880).

Like the twisted balloon animals that they resemble, Clark’s annotations floated into his contemporaries’ linguistic consciousness. In Higher Lessons in English (1877), Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellog deflated his bubbles into lines but preserved many of their predecessor’s innovations. Returning to Enlightenment preoccupations, Reed and Kellog begin their treatise with a discussion of the natural language that “we never learned from a grammar or a book of any kind”: “the language of cries, laughter, and tones . . . the language of gestures by the hand, and postures by the body”. While this form of human signification is purely innate, they claim, spoken language (or “Word language”) must be governed by a grammatical “science which teaches the forms, uses, and relations of the words of the English language”. Their system and subsequent companion volumes were so popular that, for a time, the pair’s books sold a half-million copies per year. As Richard Hudson notes, the Reed-Kellog system for diagramming sentences is still taught in American schools.

Below you can find a gallery of sentence diagrams gathered from the works discussed above.

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