Tuesday, 12 June 2012 06:00

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 1

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'Don't let good grammar spoil good writing'. This was the headline of a piece by Philip Yaffe, posted at -- http://www.contentwriter.in/articles/writing/grammar-writing.htm

I agree with Yaffe on good writing.Bad writing, however, is never spoiled by the application of good grammar. Nor is mediocre writing. My business is helping you to write better, and that almost always involves applying grammatical structure, if not grammatical rules.

When you write to inform or persuade, you must understand grammar as structure. That's why I teach sentence diagramming. It's the best way to learn grammar -- and the best way to analyse sentences when editing.

I devote over half of my book, Write Like You Mean Business, to explaining grammar through sentence diagrams. I devote much of the remainder to sentence diagrams that illustrate structural problems and how to solve them.

Write the way people read

Sentence diagrams reflect how our minds process written language. The key elements of a sentence are arranged along the top of the diagram, on what I call the story line. The modifiers hang below the story line.

All modifiers are diagrammed the same way, whether they are adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, participles, articles, possessives or infinitives. So identifying these parts of speech is not as important as understanding how they are used. Diagrams let you see the sentence more or less as your reader's mind sees it. The focus is on structure rather than labels and rules.

If you weren't taught the parts of speech in school, don't worry; you'll pick it up. Instead of what they're calledconcentrate on what they do in the sentence and where they are in the diagram.

One last thing: You should actually draw these diagrams. Part of what makes diagramming such a powerful tool for learning grammar is that it engages both sides of your brain. Add the physical act of drawing, and you enlist muscle memory as well. Seriously, draw them by hand. You can rotate the paper to write on the slanted lines when the time comes.

Our sample sentence appeared in the annual report of one of Australia's biggest banks. This is about as close to the essence of business writing as you can get:

Key drivers of the Group’s earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking. 

The Story Line

Draw a horizontal line at the top of your paper. Draw a short vertical line through it to separate it into two parts. The left-hand part is the subject. The subject drives the action of the verb -- or is driven by it. The part on the right is the predicate. The predicate contains the verb and its associated words.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

Next, identify the individual subject, in this case 'drivers'. I highlight subjects in blue. Write it on the story line on the left of the dividing line. This sentence has a single subject, but many will have two or more. You'll see how to diagram these later.

Now identify the verb, 'were'. I highlight verbs in red. Write it on the story line to the right of the divider. This sentence has a one-word verb, but that won't always be the case.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.


The predicate can also include a predicate noun or pronoun which refers back to the subject. These are usually words that mean the same thing as the subject word. They are placed after the verb, separated by a backslash to point back toward the subject. Identify the predicate noun in our sample sentence, 'leadership'. I highlight these in a generic colour, purple.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

This story line is finished. A diagrammed story line should always be a grammatically-complete sentence, also known as an independent clause. The story line is the backbone of the sentence. Everything else is just additional detail.

When you read a story line out loud, it may sound clumsy, but it should contain the essence of the story the whole sentence is meant to convey. If it doesn't, that's another reason to learn diagramming. A diagram shows you where a sentence needs editing.

In this case the statement, drivers were leadership is grammatically incorrect. The subject and verb are plural, but there's only one predicate noun, and it's singular. We'll come back to that after we've diagrammed all the modifiers.

The two broad types of modifier are adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives modify (describe or give additional information about) nouns and pronouns. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

Identify the words describing story-line nouns in our sample sentence -- 'Key' and 'continued'. I highlight modifiers in orange. Write these on slanted lines below the words they modify.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

Grammar geeks note that 'continued' is the past participle of the verb to continue, used as an adjective. This illustrates the great power of diagramming. Because the diagram for all modifiers is the same, it focuses your mind on where the words fit into the architecture of the sentence, rather than on arcane labels like adjective or past participle.

Call them A and B if you like, or marmot and vole; I don't care. But know where they go in the diagram, and you'll know what they do in the sentence.

Prepositional phrases are also used as modifiers. Prepositions are words that describe relationships in space and time. A preposition usually has an object, to which it refers. The prepositional phrase includes the preposition, its object and any modifiers.

In the sample sentence I've highlighted prepositions in purple, their objects in green, and modifiers in orange. Write the prepositions on slanted lines to indicate that they and their phrases are acting as modifiers. Write the object of the preposition on a horizontal line, separated from the preposition by a short vertical line.

Modifiers are diagrammed below the objects just as you diagrammed the modifiers of the story-line words. Here's the diagram:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking 

combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

Two things are worth your attention: First, see how modifiers of modifiers are diagrammed with a little 'hook' or 'elbow'. Second, see how the two objects of a prepositional phrase are stacked one on top of the other, with their joining word (conjunction) on a dotted line between. This is how all compound elements are diagrammed.

Finally, for my fellow grammar geeks -- note that the article 'the', which modifies Group's is diagrammed as if it were an adverb. That's the power of diagramming. The student can SEE that the possessive noun functions as an adjective, therefore its article must function as an adverb.

I make no apology for repeating this; it's important: For working writers -- and most especially for working editors -- grammar is structure. That's why I teach it through diagrams, and that's why I believe they're the best way to learn it. Diagrams shift the emphasis from terminology and rules to pictures and structures.

Anyway, this diagram makes it clear that something is amiss with our sample sentence. The plural subject and plural verb lead us to expect a plural or compound predicate nouns, but there's only a singular, single one.

However, the diagram also shows us where the other one is hidden. The word is 'growth', and it is buried way below the story line because it is the object of the preposition 'with'. Worse, the entire prepositional phrase merely functions as an adverb modifying 'combined'.

This is what I mean when I say that editing is usually much more profound that just reducing the word count. The writer probably used 'combined with' instead of 'and' because he or she believed two words totalling three syllables were more appropriate for the annual report of a major bank than one word of one syllable.

Sadly this attempt at dignity failed on structural grounds. Correct it by deleting 'combined with' and inserting 'and'. Here's the diagram of the edited sentence:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking and strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

Now you can see what a huge difference this little edit makes to the structure of the sentence. It now reads as I believe the writer intended. There were two drivers of the bank's earnings:

1. Leadership in the business sector

2. Growth in the consumer sector

Transforming 'growth' from a prepositional object into a predicate noun makes all the difference, because it elevates the word up to the story line.

I harp on story lines because they are where your reader's mind looks first for clues about the meaning of your sentence. The more of the story you can get up on that line -- and the clearer you can be about it -- the easier you make it for your reader to understand what you've written.

This diagram indicates the need for one more bit of editing. That's to delete the prepositional phrase 'in deposits and mortgages'. It's an unnecessary detail in this context, and cutting it out makes the structure perfectly parallel, like this:

modifier              predicate noun      preposition           modifier              object                 

continued                leadership                  in                   Business               Banking    

strong                      growth                     in                   Personal               Banking

The final edit looks like this when diagrammed:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking and strong growth in Personal Banking.


The parallel structure shows clearly in the symmetry of the diagrams for the two predicate nouns and their modifiers.

This method of diagramming sentences was published by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in 1877. I learned it at school in the 1950s. It is virtually unknown outside of the USA, and rare these days even in the USA. The best diagramming site on the web is produced and maintained by Capital Community College of Hartford, Connecticut. Here's the URL:


I teach simplified diagrams for verbal phrases (participial, gerund and infinitive) -- so you should probably wait until you've gone through my tutorials before moving on to the CCC site. My method is designed specifically for working writers, rather than specialist grammar or linguistics students.








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John Hancock

John Hancock, author