The Lost Art

The Lost Art July 12, 2012

There are some arts that have been lost, none more than diagramming sentences. Some have already clicked to another blog, others have said “You idiot, diagramming isn’t an art, it’s mind-numbing nonsense!” I beg to differ, but I get to my differ from a different angle.

I, too, hated diagramming sentence in junior and senior high. The sticks and rules just bored me into mental stupors.

But then I had Dr John Wilson who, instead of diagramming with sticks and lines, taught us what he called “sentence stacking,” which was the Efficient Person’s Art of Diagramming Sentences. We did Romans, from 1:1 through most of Romans 8, in a college class. There were about 25 of us; if I recall this right, there were about two of us who loved it, another five or so who enjoyed it, and the rest who must have been there to get credit. (Having taught college… I’ll not go there right now.)

What is your experience with diagramming sentences?

Then I learned Greek and I combined diagramming with Greek and came up with a system of constructing the base sentence with all modifications under the appropriate words … and I have become one who loves to “diagram” Greek sentences.

My rule: If you can diagram it, you don’t need to; if you can’t, you need to.

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  • phil_style

    ” diagramming sentences”? … this is the first I have ever heard of such a phenomena.
    Off to Google I go.

  • Douglas S. Huffman

    I just finished editing the page proofs for The Handy Guide to New Testament Greek (Kregel), which reviews Greek grammar and syntax and then includes step-by-step instructions (and examples) for phrase diagramming a passage in Greek (and a matching English diagram). It is my belief that phrase diagramming provides the means to get a good sermon outline from the Greek text faster than you can from the English text.

  • Kyle J

    I think I was among the last group of students in the world to learn how to do this. I had an old-school English teacher in middle school who taught it to us. (This would have been roughly 1988.) Really forces you to think about gramattical structure and has, I think, made me a better writer.

  • Robin

    Graduated highschool in 1997. Never learned to diagram a sentence until I took Greek in seminary. They simply do not teach this stuff in Kentucky anymore. Grammar has been replaced with creative writing. I got a 31 on the ACT, but I couldn’t have told you what a direct object, subject, or gerund was. Taking Greek has done more for my understanding of English grammar than my 22 years of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education combined.

  • phil_style


    I’m from high school class ’97 also. We [in New Zealand] had almost no grammatical lessons in English. I also did not learn Gamma until I learned my second language (German).

  • Ed Gentry

    I’ll still diagram in Greek and find it very helpful. Sometimes I’ll do a diagram on the left side and discourse analysis on the right.

  • John W Frye

    What’s fun is to diagram Paul’s massive Greek sentence in Ephesians 1. I learned diagramming in junior and senior high and enjoyed it.

  • Bob

    hate. Hate. H-a-t-e. H-A-T-E. H!A!T!E!!!!!

  • I was an English major in college and had to diagram massive portions of the New Testament. I am pretty sure I was the only person who greeted those assignments with great joy and revelry. Good times…

  • Richard

    I had an old school English teacher in college that taught us how to diagram. Sadly, I abandoned it when I moved on. Now I wish I’d mastered it. I also wish I had learned it for my Greek studies as well. It is a lost art that needs to be recovered, in my opinion.

  • I was an English major in college as well, though we only had one class that focused on diagramming. Part of the final for that class was diagramming a sentence of 102 words from Thomas Jefferson’s second inaugural address.

    Today I teach ESL for adults, and I find that the aspects of grammar that are the most difficult for native English speakers come quite naturally to those who were educated in other countries, where grammar and diagramming are still standard. Many Americans trying to learn a foreign language, including Biblical Greek or Hebrew, have to learn English grammar right along with the new language.

  • Wyatt

    Diagramming. You must be kidding. It’s great for language study but for getting a good sermon…skip it. Very few people will care or be impressed by your ability to diagram or for that matter your command of Greek.

    Now if you are well acquainted with Jesus, that makes for a good sermon. May be you can diagram your relationship with Him.

  • Jeff Martin

    I like your rule at the end there. It is good for those who struggle with the English language. But for those who do know it just translate the paragraph from Greek or Hebrew using legitimate word studies and realizing that prepositions and coordinators have multiple meanings which in a class will lead to multiple different looking diagrammed sentences.

    I find it better just to read the whole book in context, the intro part and the end part especially to get the gist of why the letter or other genre was being written in the first place

    Sentence diagramming is not as helpful as identifying each “thought unit”. Simply, the grammatical structure may not always correspond to the “meaning” structure

  • For what it’s worth, I never learned to diagram sentences. (I’m leaving out my graduation date!) I learned English grammar when I learned other languages. But my sons, in both middle school and high school are diagramming sentences- in English class.

  • I haven’t been a preacher for over a decade, but still love to diagram. It just opens up the text for me.

  • Jon G

    Me thinks Scot ought to shoot a short (say half-hour) video in which he introduces all of us Jesus Creeders how to do this. Let’s not just get together to discuss hot topics…let’s turn this blog into a classroom!


  • Andie Piehl

    I LOVE diagramming sentences – they are like puzzles, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ll read something and want to diagram it to see if it will help make sense of it. I have never thought to try to diagram a Bible verse or chapter, but I imagine that is enlightening

  • Robin

    ON the subject of other hard things that schools are no longer teaching…my nephew will be a freshman in high school this year and can not do his multiplication tables. They never had him learn them. Since either 3rd or 5th grade he has had access to a calculator at all times in his math classes. It is shocking to me that someone can make it to high school without knowing 9×9=81.

  • For those who are interested, BibleWorks software has a Diagramming module that makes diagramming sentences a bit easier — with a bevy of drag-n-drop text and symbols that quickly can link up to create a diagram. If you need help, we also have the entire NT already diagrammed — just right click on any NT verse and you can open the diagram of that text instantly. I don’t want to come across as a sales pitch (OK, I do want to just a bit) but here is a 2-minute video explaining how it works.

  • Agreed with Douglas S. Huffman #2 above. I’ve gotten some of my best sermon outlines from diagramming sentences… if not the way this article mentions, then doing the sentence flow method Gordon Fee recommends in his NT Exegesis.

    To Wyatt #12: Agreed, that people in the pews may not care if we can diagram a sentence… certainly pastors shouldn’t say, “As I was diagramming this…” I also think that Greek preparation should go into the sermon, but that Greek need not come out of the mouth of the preacher. It can stay behind the scenes, but really does enrich the preaching process. (I.e., I try never to say, “Now in the Greek, the word such-and-such…”

    Being “well acquainted with Jesus” is of course (most) essential for good preaching. But I don’t see how diagramming sentences and studying the Greek in preparation is mutually exclusive with that. Why not all of the above?

  • P.

    Not learning grammar or multiplication tables? If I had a child, they’d darn well know grammar and their tables even if I had to teach them myself. As for diagramming though, my third-grade self thought it was a bunch of nonsense, but I took to grammer easily. Overall, diagramming is second in ickiness only to distance = rate x time problems (if a train is going east at 30 miles an hour and another is going west at 40 miles… who cares as long as they’re not on the same track!)

  • DRT

    As a 1980 HS grad I never learned it. In grade school they assumed I would learn it in HS, and in HS I was in advanced classes so it was all literature. That’s why I to stink making English to now.

  • Dan Smith

    My initial exposure to diagraming was in Lamar, Colorado, in the 6th grade. I immediately fell in love with the visualization of the diagram and how it brought a text to life. My only language is English (Texan, actually). I still, mentally diagram certain sentences to get a better understanding. Too bad my children and grandchildren have missed this.

  • Dana Ames

    I had it only a little in HS – as others have said, learned it better when I began to study a foreign language (Phil Style, both Scot and I have our BAs in German). I can also attest that it has made me a better writer.

    Loved it. I also love music theory. For me, knowing how to talk about and describe the constituent parts serves the way I think, which is big-picture and more global.


  • I like Jon G’s comment. As I read the initial post I was hoping for the (more) so I could see an example. Sadly enough, I quickly forgot sentence diagramming about as fast as I – uhm – learned it.

  • MikeK

    Thanks for posting on this one. I’ve lost my skills on diagramming, but would affirm the observations of so many others:

    The level of learning deepens in a remarkable way through the effort.

    It is a technical effort, and, in strong agreement with Abram K-J (20.): it is a faithful way to collaborate with the Lord Jesus, with whom being “well acquainted” makes the deeper learning more about relational intimacy for mission with Christ than about mere intellectual fruits.

  • I learned to diagram sentences in junior high English, around 1990. I LOVED it! I thought it was such a great way to visually understand how our language worked. It’s basically an old-school graphic organizer.

  • Jeff Martin

    To Jim Barr’s comment: If it is already diagrammed on Bibleworks why the need for the tool to diagram?

    It goes back to what I said before. Just translate the sentence using a good grammar and lexicon and by reading the context carefully. People make it too difficult or superficially easy.

  • MatthewS

    I did it a little in high school but not much. I am another one who learned more about English when taking Greek in seminary. We did more phrasing than diagramming, I think something similar to what Mounce does in his graded reader for Greek ( go to page xii or page xv). Phrasing seems like a good compromise – you have to ask the questions about how the clauses and phrases relate to each other without getting bogged down in technical details.

    I tend to be slow at diagramming – I wish there were an online tool that would give practice by making a game of it where you could take a couple minutes to diagram a sentence or two and compare your result to theirs.

    I like the aphorism, “If you can diagram it, you don’t need to; if you can’t, you need to.” All languages have some things in common and diagramming (or phrasing) helps get at the underlying structure of the communication.

  • Jerry

    Learned it in school and it was a must for bil Vermillion’s Greek class. Still do it for in depth study.

  • Anna

    I loved diagramming sentences and I loved geometry. Pretty somehow they are neurologically related. 😉

  • MatthewS

    I wouldn’t doubt it, Anna. Interestingly, computer programming is related to both of those as well. Computer science students of the past have been encouraged to study both their own language and geometry (the proofs in particular).

  • Love Greek but I hated diagramming Greek sentences. Its one of the reasons I went into theology and philosophy instead.

    Of course I’m just joking … but only a little. 🙂

  • I took a couple of linguistics classes in the 80s–one for my English major and one for my French major, and then for my ESL certificate after grad school. Understanding the parts of sentences helps me as I teach freshmen and developmental comp at the college level–but it also helps me understand what the Bible is saying. Every part of speech counts.

  • Ann F-R

    I enjoyed diagramming in English, and it certainly helped me in other languages, including Greek & Hebrew. The diagramming we did in Greek sometimes tended to direct our eyes away from the context, though, and I was grateful to Russ Spittler (standing in for David Scholer at Fuller) for bringing back a more holistic perspective while not discounting the helpfulness of diagramming Greek. My Greek classes at another seminary tended to focus too much on the weeds of the grammar, and the rubric was so tightly regulated that the fullness of the argument for exegeting the text was completely excluded if one stayed w/in the rubric’s box.

    Will you ever share your diagramming techniques, here, Scot? I’ve worked w/ 2 or 3 different techniques, but each seems to miss something…

  • William Varner

    Sentence flow is the way to go. Don’t go backward with a dinosaur.

  • PLStepp

    As I & my students struggled with second-semester Greek last spring, I began diagramming verses on the board. They looked at me like I was a two-headed chicken; they had NEVER diagrammed. As a result, they had horrible problems seeing the subject / predicate / object skeleton.

    Third semester is going to START with some simple diagramming, and feature diagramming throughout.

  • Wyatt


    “Being “well acquainted with Jesus” is of course (most) essential for good preaching. But I don’t see how diagramming sentences and studying the Greek in preparation is mutually exclusive with that. Why not all of the above?”

    Good question and you’re right. I didn’t mean to impy diagramming and Greek study are mutually exclusive. What I was trying to get at without making it a rant there seems to be a lot of attention paid to whether one knows Greek (and apparently or maybe diagramming) to be able to preach better sermons or get a better sense of the text. Why? What for? Knowing these things is not the essence of getting a better sense of the text or being able to preach a better sermon. I have known plenty of people who have picked up a Bible without knowing a stich about diagramming and even less about Greek or Hebrew and had a good sense of the text.

    Diagramming in my opinion is as I have said, good for language study. The knowledege of the Greek is overrated which makes diagramming the Greek only marginally beneficial for the preparer and of even less value for the listener. Very few care.

  • Eileen Hauber

    I home educate my children here in Australia. I never was taught sentence diagramming, but after struggling with my son to understand and comprehend texts, I stumbled upon sentence diagramming online and quickly became convinced it is the magic bullet that will assist my children to improve their comprehension. Now, they and I love diagramming together, and enjoy the challenge and the puzzle of it. We have indeed noticed that the use of the diagramming terminology has helped us interpret many texts.

    For those out there who have children and grand children who are missing out on this (or other) educational gem, don’t let that continue! Spend the time to show them and share your knowledge. Enjoy learning with the children in your life!

  • Hi, Wyatt,

    Thanks for your gracious reply, and I see your point. Better languages skills a better sermon do not make.

    I still think it can’t hurt and can only help to spend as much time in the Biblical text as sentence diagramming affords. But I’ve also heard some powerful sermons where I knew that the preacher didn’t access much Greek or Hebrew in preparation. I do regret the sometimes-expressed sentiment, whether intentional or not, that one *has* to know languages to faithfully preach God’s Word.

    However… it is hard for me to deny that time in the original language sure does help with greater textual insight, which then can be conveyed to the congregation in a way that is hopefully even more incisive into their lives. And the way I see it, even if “very few care,” I think the ultimate responsibility is for the preacher to work out with God how he or she is faithfully attending to the text. For me, that sometimes (though certainly not always) includes sentence diagramming.

    But I’m also not going to say that someone who *doesn’t* do that can’t faithfully preach God’s Word… we are, after all, only his vessels, and it’s *God’s* Word to go forward anyways, not ours. He has a way of making sure that happens when it needs to, even if we’re not on our best “game”!

    Which is awesome, because we are all too prone to get it wrong without the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit, sentence diagram or not.

  • Wyatt


    And thank you for your gracious reply. I think we agree for the most part but we hit some debatable points and there is nothing wrong with that. I like your opening and closing remarks.

    God’s Name be blessed. I won’t use the Hebrew. LOL!

  • Ben Thorp

    Also worth looking at is which has a particular type of diagramming called “arcing” and they have a set of online tutorials and tools for doing it.