Monday, December 06, 2021

Wasted Time

I remember there was a year or two that I liked diagramming sentences at least a bit.  There id a puzzle-solving aspect to it, and it appealed to my sense of putting things in order.  I had one junior high English teacher who was particularly fond of the practice. Like penmanship, not talking in line, and coloring Argentina in neatly, we were not told exactly why this thing was important. It was just known to be very important, part of your becoming an adult. I am not sure most of the teachers could have articulated the reason behind these lessons beyond the standard cliches, as that sort of thinking was not their strong suit. But if pressed, I think educators would say that it helped teach parts of speech - itself an overrated bit of knowledge - and gave some understanding of the underlying structure of sentences, which would be important for...for writing better sentences. I doubt it worked that way.  The children good at diagramming were usually also good at writing sentences anyway, so measuring the advantage would be difficult.

It is an excellent example of how educators used to think, and I believe still do. They can't measure the value of it and certainly aren't going to try, but they just know it's good for you. It's part of the knowledge that is handed down over years because this is a profession, and everyone here just knows it. We all feel that about the jobs we do until someone comes in and objectively demonstrates we are wrong and have to change our ways. They resist objective measurement.

I suppose it is possible to diagram any sentence if you lick the tip of your pencil and buckle down and keep working at it like a puzzle.  But consider the sentence "What the hell is that even about?" What are you going to do with hell in that sentence?  What are you going to do with even? One tries to remake the sentence in terms of the core pieces and the modifier and you get That is (even) about what (the hell)? No, it won't do.  There is nothing in the exercise that is going to teach you to write a better sentence or appreciate the structure of English, unless you are going on to the level of studying linguistics and observing language change. If diagramming and parts of speech is the best way to teach that, it can be safely learned then. 

Just one more reminder that the good old days of education weren't. (Diagram that. You have to put in implied words, even though the sentence is understandable without them.)


james said...

Old story, I guess. During carol singing yesterday I was reminded of the damage done by insisting that latin should be the model, and we should be able to sling words into whatever position the meter urges.
I remember how hard it was to try to make sense of some of the songs when I was little.

Not quite in this league, but...

I blame these people

Uncle Bill said...

Another idea along these lines is that studying Latin will help you with English. I took two years of Latin in High School, and it was a complete waste of time. I didn't need to learn that "agricola" meant farmer in Latin, to know the meaning of agriculture. I would have been much better off taking two years of English comp, or even just studying vocabulary somehow.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You have both touched on one of my favorite topics. Latin and Greek were dead languages, frozen in time, so that there were things that were "correct" while everything else was wrong. As people studied more deeply they would allow differences in medieval Latin, or Greek of different eras, but that idea of "best" vs provincial/vernacular/icky never quite goes away. But real languages aren't like that. We adopted the idea of a correct unchanging standard - the French also do this - and applied it to English, which is just one more way for those in the capital to enforce their will on the others.

Sam L. said...

We're AMERICANS!!! We make it up as we go. (Sticking tongue out) THPTPTTPTPTPPTPTPT!!

Yes, I do SILLY.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I hope you outlive me Sam, because you really are irreplaceable

HMS Defiant said...

one nice thing about being an Army brat. We moved, a lot. I always seemed to leave the year before I was do for English Punishment or got to the new school a year after the kids had been subjected to the Punishment of sentence diagramming. I couldn't begin to do it today, never did it before and will go to my grave profoundly ignorant of the predicate, whatever that is.

Tom Bridgeland said...

I am 60, went to a nice mid-western public school. We never diagrammed sentences.
We did however do phonetics, which I enjoyed, and 'new' math. How I hated new math.

james said...

We moved a lot too, and there was quite a bit of turnover in teachers at the school I spent most of my time at. One semester we started diagramming, spent about a week, and never returned to it again. I'm guessing (hoping) the teacher figured that the basic notion was all we needed and chucked the rest.

I never did get the hang of what the parts of speech were supposed to be about until I started studying a different language.

I don't know about others, but I figure I learned everything about English grammar I needed to from listening and reading a lot.

Although--just think what Shakespeare could have done if he had learned sentence diagramming!
He'd have chucked it all and become a glover.