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Modifying the subject

The New York Times - November 7, 2004

AMONG certain generations, terms like ''predicate nominative'' and ''subjective complement'' are like nails on a blackboard, recalling school days spent drawing ruler-straight lines between parts of speech in sentence diagrams.

Children schooled in the last 25 years were generally spared all that. Educational research argued that students would be more inspired to write if they didn't have to worry about obscure grammatical conventions. But there was a price: all those misplaced modifiers made book reports and research papers harder to understand.

Now with employers, teachers and national studies criticizing students' ability to write clearly, grammar instruction is back. When Virginia revised its state standards, it even included diagramming as an essential skill. ''There's a real hunger for grammar out there among people who care about writing,'' says Arthur VanderVeen, a senior director at the College Board, owner of the SAT. This March, the entrance exam will include grammar for the first time, in two multiple-choice sections in which students correct or improve the construction of sentences and paragraphs. Researchers behind the exam won't go so far as to endorse diagramming outright — ''I'm not going to touch that,'' Mr. VanderVeen says — but they do allow that it can be a good way to see best how to structure sentences.

A symbol of everything old and stodgy, sentence diagramming is attributed to an 1877 book by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, two professors at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute who believed that grammar instruction had become too far removed from the practice of writing, and that students would better understand how to structure sentences if they could see them drawn, almost like architectural plans (a primer).

By the 1960's, a new round of researchers argued that grammar instruction had become too far removed from the practice of writing. Diagramming sentences, proclaimed The Encyclopedia of Educational Research, ''teaches nothing beyond the ability to diagram.'' In 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English tried to put a damper on schools that were still using grammar exercises like diagramming, calling the drills ''a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing.'' The trend was toward whole language, in which students learn to read by immersing themselves in texts rather than sounding out words. The council argued that students learn grammar best in the context of reading and writing.

Diagramming found a modern-day champion in Martha Kolln, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. She included it in her 1982 textbook, ''Understanding English Grammar,'' and in the early 1990's helped found the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar within the teachers' council. She had been teaching future English teachers who insisted they didn't have to learn grammar because they wouldn't have to teach it. Having read their writing, she begged to differ. ''My purpose was not to teach diagramming; it was to help students understand sentences,'' says Ms. Kolln, who once diagramed Shelley's ''Ode to the West Wind'' on rolls of wallpaper as a Christmas present for her officemate. ''A lot of students are visual learners. It's a good teaching tool for them.'' New state standards, she says, as well as the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, have brought back the basics. Her book is now in its sixth printing. Even the council now admits that diagramming can be useful.

At the School of the Woods in Houston, students diagram two sentences a day, starting in the earliest grades. Diagramming helps them see different ways to make their points. ''If a student doesn't know what a subject is, how can I say you don't always have to start with a subject, you can start with an adverbial phrase?'' says Betsy Coe, a teacher there.

Diagramming can also help students decipher the meaning of complicated passages. David Mulroy, the author of the 2003 book ''The War Against Grammar'' and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, began to see its value after he asked his students to analyze the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, without telling them what they were reading. One mistakenly interpreted it as, ''When dealing with events in life, one should drop preconceived knowings and assume that everything that happens, happens for a reason, and basically life goes on.''

''Often, the confusion is grammatical,'' he says. ''To understand the meaning, you need to understand the structure.''

Ms. Kolln, however, cautions that, as with many things in education, the pendulum can swing too far. ''If you teach diagramming for the sake of diagramming, that's the wrong way,'' she says. ''You teach it for the purpose of having students understand sentences. My own children were graded on how straight their lines were. That should be art class, not language class.''

Kate Zernike is a national reporter for The Times.