What Is Sentence Diagramming?
When someone diagrams a sentence, he or she places words onto a diagram in a set pattern in order to understand the sentence and the words within the sentence better. Diagramming sentences not only helps the writer of the sentence form the words in the absolute best order possible, improving overall sentence structure, but it also helps the reader of the sentence understand exactly how it should be read. To diagram a sentence is to dissect the way the words are strung together to create this beautiful thing we call communication.
I diagrammed my first sentence in eighth grade and fell in love with the visual representation of words that helped me improve my understanding of sentence dynamics. Now, ten years later, I have my MBA in English because of this amazing understanding I was given through diagramming sentences.
It's not as difficult as you might think! By reading this article, you can discover exactly how a sentence should be properly diagrammed.
Step 1: Identify Parts of Speech
The first step to diagramming sentences is to identify all the parts of speech in your sentence. Start with a simple sentence, such as a sentence with only one verb:
In order, the present parts of speech are:
Noun (subject), verb (present tense, intransitive).
You may not know the fancy jargon associated with grammar, but you do need to understand the breakdown of the sentence before you can plug the words into the diagram.
Step 2: A Basic Diagram
The backbone of every sentence diagram will consist of this horizontal "baseline" with a vertical dividing line that runs through the middle, like a wide, stretched out cross shape.
If you are learning to diagram, draw this on the top right corner of your paper. You'll have plenty of room if you start here, since sentence diagramming tends to flow downward and to the left.
The first word that you enter will always be the verb because it is the backbone of the sentence. Stick with this as a rule of thumb when diagramming. The verb is always placed in the top right box of the diagram, as shown below.
The second part of speech placed in the diagram is always the subject, which is always placed in the top left corner of the diagram, like this:
Step 3: Add-ons
So far so good, right? This is where it gets fun. You will be so proud of yourself when you can independently diagram complicated sentences quickly!
We will now go over some parts of speech that are very common, but tend to make a sentence more complicated when diagramming.
Once identified, a predicate adjective is very simple to diagram. On the main line after the verb, draw a vertical backslash ending at the base line. See the photo to the right.
Adjectives/ Adverbs/ Articles
These words are modifers. When diagramming, you must know what each word modifies. For example, in the sentence "She is pretty," it is clear that the adjective here is modifying she subject of the sentence, "she." But there are plenty of more complicated examples, such as:
Her very good friend is courteous.
The parts of speech in order are:
Pronoun (acting as an adjective modifying subject friend), adverb (modifying the adjective good), adjective (modifying subject friend), verb (instransitive), adjective (modifying predicate verb).
As long as you know which modifier describes which word, you will be able to diagram these effectively, because they always belong beneath the word they describe on a diagonal line attached to the base line, like a tail. Articles are diagrammed the same way.
After identifying a preposition, you will also notice a prepositional phrase following it. The way you diagram a prepositional phrase is to create the same type of diagonal tail type line you used for the adjective and write the preposition on that line. Then, extend a horizontal line from the end of the diagonal tail line, and on that line belongs the object of the prepositional phrase. Fill in the rest of the prepositional phrase like you would diagram any other adjectives, adverbs, and articles. A picture of the structure lies above. See the example below:
She was traveling with some girls in her class.
The prepositions in this sentence are: "with" and "in", leading to the prepositional phrases: with some girls and in her class.
The first prepositional phrase modifies who she was traveling with, and then second prep phrase modifies the previous prep phrase. You would diagram it as follows:
A direct object is a noun in the sentence that the verb objectifies. If you can ask yourself "what" the verb does, then it is the direct object. A common transitive verb is "give" because it is used like this:
I would like to give you this present.
Ask yourself, "Give what?" Your answer is "present," and therefore it is a direct object. Other good examples include some action verbs, like "hit," "throw" or "like."
It is diagrammed by drawing a short vertical line that meets, but does not intersect with the base line. The following sentence, summarizing a scene from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, would be diagrammed like this:
Huck overheard a conversation between two men.
There can only be an indirect object when there is a direct object. I will use a previous example:
I would like to give you this present.
We have already established that "present" is the direct object because it is what is being given, but "you" is the indirect object because it is who the object is being given to.
It is diagrammed by inserting a diagonal vertical line after the direct object.
The baby kicked me the ball.
Step 4: More Complex Sentences
We have already reviewed prepositional phrases, articles and objects, but what do you do when your sentence becomes more complex?
A conjunction connects two ideas, phrases, or complete sentences, which makes its diagram easy to remember: the two ideas are connected by a dotted line to illustrate their correlation.
A subordinating conjunction always connects the verbs between two complete sentences. A coordinating conjunction connects the subjects, as shown in to the right.
Simply write the conjunction along the dotted line.
The English language, in its infinite complicity, has hundreds of different ways to structure, order, alter, organize, and edit sentences, so it would take so long to delve into how to diagram every sentence type. I am sure that I have not even encountered them all! To see more tips and more detailed instructions on diagramming sentences, visit the link to the right. Thanks for reading and happy diagramming!
Diagramming Sentences: Useful or Not?
Need More Examples?
- Diagramming Sentences
This website contains several examples of a variety of different sentence types to diagram, along with the answers. Test your understanding!
- English Grammar Revolution: Grammar Made Easy
The author of this website advertises "Grammar the Easy Way." A great resource for anyone looking to brush up on skills, look deeper into diagramming, or students seeking homework help. This chick knows her stuff!
Jason Burnett on January 12, 2020:
Thank you for this excellent intro to sentence diagramming.
S Maree on July 23, 2017:
I have a BA in English and am ashamed how little I remember of parsing. Does one still use this term? I learned how to do it by circling and turning words vertically, etc. It was my least favorite part of the degree and I never diagrammed a sentence in over 35 years.
Yet! We do need structure and models! English will never be "perfect" (apologies to the learned Dr. J. Swift), and thus little things will irk the perfectionists in search of anodyne. But a good skeleton of form helps make English the most elastic and conformable language for world use. With English's willingness to adopt and adapt words, phrases, idioms and context, it is doing all for what Esperanto was designed!
This is perhaps the main reason many English speakers see no reason to study another language. Sad! Nearly half the world's languages (maybe more!) share many root forms! The words "father" and "mother" share roots from India to the Hebrides!
Discover them, and learning languages can become a personal quest for one's past!
Please keep this up! I have put this article in my file. I've strayed from grammar too long. Much polishing needed! Many thanks!
Mary Wickison from Brazil on April 09, 2013:
I had never heard of this before. I am still not sure, I completely understand it. I will bookmark and read it again.
I live in Brazil and have been helping a Brazilian lady with her English and she has been helping me learn Portuguese. I never realized how confusing the English language could be until I tried to explain it.
I knew what she was saying was incorrect, but to explain why it should be expressed one way and not another was difficult. I told her, I would check on the internet and tell her the following week. It was a learning experience for me as well. It has also made me realize, just how lazy many of us are with our writing and speaking.
Kiera G from Australia on November 02, 2012:
I've never seen a sentence represented in such a way. It's an interesting way to view the different components of a language