Sentence-diagramming systems used in the USA

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  • Sentence diagramming is still popular in some American schools, though the picture is complicated and it seems to be disappearing.
  • Its history has been written by Kitty Burns Florey: 
    Florey, Kitty Burns. 2006. Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. Melville House.
  • I benefitted greatly from Brittain 1973.
    • This is a PhD thesis surveying early diagramming system through the prism of 1970s transformational grammar
    • Brittain, Richard Coulter. 1973. A critical history of systems of sentence diagramming in English. University of Texas at Austin PhD.
    • The grammars listed below are only a few of those discussed by Brittain.
    • Brittain also introduces the nice term diagrammarian.
    • I learned about Brittain’s thesis from Nicolas Mazziotta, who heard about it from Karl Hagen.
  • Most of the grammar books discussed by Brittain are now freely available for download as pdf files on the internet – a wonderful resource!

1831 James Brown

In 1831, James Brown wrote The American Grammar, in which he proposed a method for analysing sentences (though he used the terms ‘construing’ and ‘scanning’, respectively for multi-clause and single-clause sentences) using brackets for construing and numbers for scanning:

  • Construing:
    • Close reading: this identifies the sections of the sentence by replacing each minor section in the major section by a number and writing it on a separate line, e.g. (for: The most powerful motives call on us for those efforts which our common country demands of all her children.)
      • The most powerful motives call 3. 4
      • 3 on us
      • 4 for those efforts 5
      • 5 which our common country demands 6
      • 6 of all her children.  (Brown 1831:26)
    • ‘Scheme’: The brackets [ ] enclose the major section ; the parentheses ( ) the minor — and the commas denote the ellipses in the sections, while the number of words to be supplied to render the section complete, is denoted by the number of commas, the exact words which fill the ellipses, may be found in the preceding exercise which is a key to this.
      • [I must not use another’s book when] (I have one) (of my own.)
      • [They accommodate one another daily.]
      • [Give , ( , James) another apple.]  (Brown 1831:29)
  • Scanning:


1836, Barnard

In 1836, Frederick Barnard, a distinguished and brilliant but deaf polymath, scientist and educator, wrote “Analytic grammar, with symbolic illustrations” for deaf students, with a diagramming system in which each word has a symbol which shows its potential links to other words. For instance (page 28):

By combining these symbols his system distinguished sentence patterns like these (in an exercise on synthesising sentences, page 54):

They also use horizontal braces to show word-groups equivalent to modern ‘phrases’:

  • for some discussion, see Mazziotta, Nicolas, and Sylvain Kahane. 2017. “To What Extent Is Immediate Constituency Analysis Dependency-Based? A Survey of Foundational Texts.” (Depling 2017) Mazziotta and Kahane quote this diagram for The man who is mild in disposition never fails to make very many friends.


1839 Peirce

In 1839, Oliver Peirce wrote The Grammar of the English Language. (New York, NY: Robinson and Franklin.) This doesn’t mention James Brown (though it often criticises Goold Brown – see below) or Barnard, but includes a number of innovations which don’t seem to have had any uptake.
  • Interlinking bubbles round words distinguishing the main content-bearing words from the grammatical linking words, as in this treatment (not called an ‘analysis’) of James lives near the house of Seth in the city of New York on Manhattan Island. Note how the system simply follows the order of words ignoring their dependencies.
  • Numbers used to show basic (non-poetic) word order – not syntactic rank.

1845 Barrett

  • Barrett, Solomon. 1845. The Principles of Grammar: Being  a compendious treatise on the languages, English, Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, and French. Founded on the immutable principle of the relation which one word sustains to another. (Revised edition 1857). Cambridge: Metcalf.
  • One of the interesting things in this book is its use of the ‘tree’ metaphor for sentence structure. Here are two examples:
    • Tree for: God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son
    • Trees for various sentences, starting with The midnight moon smiles serenely.

1847 Clark

In 1847, Stephen Watkins  Clark published a method for diagramming sentences: Clark, Stephen Watkins. 1847. A Practical Grammar: In which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices and Their Various Relations to One Another. Sixth edition 1851. Two excellent reviews of Clark’s work and its significance by Nicolas Mazziotta:

Clark’s diagrams used

  • balloons round words and word-groups,
    • including a larger balloon round a ‘substantive sentence’
  • the vertical dimension for dominance (i.e. government, subordination, dependency)
    • with vertical lines for ‘adjective sentences’ and ‘adverbial sentences’.
  • but the main clause’s verb and its subject are written on the same line (reflecting the traditional equal-ranked subject-predicate analysis).

Here’s an example from Practical Grammar (page 17 of the 1851 sixth edition):

and page 22:


1848 Greene

Samuel Greene’s 1848 grammar (Greene, Samuel Stillman. 1848. Greene’s analysis. A treatise on the structure of the English language; or, The analysis and classification of sentences and their component parts with illustrations and exercises, adapted to the use of schools. Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait, & Co.) is interesting for two reasons:
  • It clearly distinguishes analysis and parsing:
  • It clearly distinguishes single words from the ‘complex elements’ based on them with the addition of dependents (page 69-70):


1877 Reed and Kellogg

In 1877,  Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg published a system using lines instead of balloons, and even more like Billroth’s 1832 system (though this similarity is probably coincidental).

  • This system allows subordinate clauses to be included (taken from a presentation by Nicolas Mazziotta):

  • Reed and Kellogg’s system is still used and taught in at least some American schools, and even has a website for automatic analysis. Go here for a much more detailed and thorough survey of 19th century American diagramming systems, including Reed-Kellogg diagrams.

1890 Gauss and Hodge

This grammar (Gauss, Charles & B.T. Hodge. 1890. A Comprehensive English Grammar for Schools, Colleges, Families and Private Students. Baltimore: Pan Publication.) is distinguished by the prominence it gives to the ‘tree’ metaphor (following Barrett 1845, above, but apparently independently of it). This is the tree (from page 330) for By chance there passed a farmer’s boy, whistling a tune in childish joy, but as an analysis of the sentence’s structure it is, of course, a disaster – much worse than Barrett’s trees.

1929 Sheffield

  • Sheffield , Alfred Dwight. 1929. Command of Sentence-Patterns. An English grammar on new principles. Chicago: Scott, Foresman.
  • The main interest of this grammar is that it anticipates the structuralist analyses introduced by Bloomfield four years later.
    • “Sheffield’s system anticipates structural theory by several years; the fact that linguists seem to have been unaware of his work illustrates how the intellectual isolation of their discipline may have retarded its development.” (Brittain p.216)
  • Here are some examples of his analyses.
    • Like Reed and Kellogg, he combines the traditional subject-predicate relation (between equals) with a dependency analysis, where the subject is the word clouds, not the phrase frightfully black clouds. (cf. Bloomfield’s endocentric phrases)
    • But unlike them, he also recognises another kind of phrase: ‘composite’, as in for a cold or should have been asked, which behave as ‘a single simple sentence-factor’ (page 59). (cf. Bloomfield’s exocentric phrases)


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