Formulas vs. Diagramming
Perhaps one of the most common questions I have been asked over the last few years is why the books don’t include diagramming. I surmise that many of us can remember going through the diagramming exercises in our own grammar books, and many of the more traditional texts available today still use diagramming as part of their exercise material.
Familiarity is not a bad thing, but it is not good enough to maintain a practice just because that’s the way we’ve always done it. It reminds me of the person who is a democrat or republican because his father was and his grandfather was and so on. Fine, but tradition is not justification to continue a practice if a better way emerges.
When asked what diagramming is supposed to achieve, the answer generally given is that it would give a visible representation of the structure of the sentence being diagrammed. True in a way, but who has ever looked at a written sentence and visualized it in its diagrammed form? In fact, who creates sentences from a diagram? I would venture to say that very few people do either of the above.
Diagramming is a model or structure imposed on the sentence, an artificial methodology with a bunch of rules regarding perpendicular lines, slanted lines, dotted lines, lines above and below lines, and so forth. It is extra material to learn and master so that a person can theoretically then learn or at least see the grammatical structure of a sentence. I submit that there is a better way: formulas.
The formulas also are contrived in that they are representational of the structure of the sentence. Their function is to allow the student, or anyone who understands them for that matter, to see a visual representation of the grammatical structure of a given sentence. They have the same avowed purpose as diagramming if you will.
Formulas are linear by design. They mimic the syntax of the sentence in a more precise manner since everything reads left to right. There are no lines above or below the base line; everything flows just as the sentence does.
Formulas employ rational symbols with a mnemonic relationship to the structure they are standing for: Pp = prepositional phrase, A = adjective, S = subject, and so forth. There is no need to learn the difference between a perpendicular line rising from the base line and a line slanting left or right. The letters in the formulas actually aid the student in remembering what they stand for.
A certain fluidity exists in the formulas. As the student becomes more familiar with the parts of speech, single word symbols may be dropped in favor of symbols that stand for phrases or clusters of words. In this manner, the student begins to see the sentence in blocks of words rather than in single words. This helps the student understand the various parts of a sentence and the manner in which they relate to one another.
Words are the building blocks of sentences just as letters and sounds are building blocks of words. As students become more competent, they say whole words instead of sounding out each word a sound at a time. So it is with sentences; people actually speak in phrases and clusters rather than words. Thus, seeing how these larger pieces fit together helps the students with punctuation, syntax, and phraseology of their own sentences.
Finally, the formulas allow an easy way to test the student’s knowledge of the various structures. It is one thing to go into someone else’s sentence and pick out parts of a sentence. It is something else entirely to create a sentence according to a given formula. If the student can make up a sentence according to the formula, it is good evidence that the student understands the structure. In fact, creating the sentences according to the formulas is where the learning is really applied in Jensen’s Grammar. Those formulas at the bottom of the exercise pages are the heart of the books. That is where the student really puts his or her knowledge to work.
From the above I hope you can see the rationale for using formulas instead of diagramming. Personally, I enjoyed doing the diagrams when I was a child, but formulas are more effective at teaching, and they provide the same basic goal, visualization of the grammatical structure of a sentence. Both are analytical in nature, but formulas offer greater flexibility as teaching tool.
March 3, 2014 / Frode / 0