Interview with Lucy Ferriss

Elizabeth O'Brien

Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar. 

Interview with Lucy Ferriss

This college professor teaches a course on sentence diagramming.

Lucy Ferriss is a writer and professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

She holds a Ph.D. from Tufts University and has published several novels and won numerous literary awards.

In her course, Constructing Thought: A Short, Fun Course in Sentence Diagramming, she uses sentence diagramming to teach students grammar and sentence structure.

They diagram quotations from the Bible, Jane Austen, contemporary media, and more. Her students come to view diagramming as a fun and useful tool for improving their writing.

1. How did you learn to diagram sentences?

My seventh-grade teacher, Beatrice Striker, insisted that we learn diagramming; I was a member of the “diagramming club,” in which we found our own challenging sentences and diagrammed them.

2. Diagramming has some stigma associated with it. Did you receive any negative feedback when people learned that you would be teaching a whole course on sentence diagramming?

People spoke about that stigma, but no one really seemed to feel it. That is, 9 out of 10 adults who’d learned the art when they were young remembered loving it; those who hadn’t still thought it was valuable; and younger people felt they’d been cheated out of something. The main reaction was “Whatever happened to that?” “Who killed it?”

3. How have your students responded to your curriculum?

They’ve found it more fun than they expected, and also much harder than they expected. Some report spending twice as much time on this class than on other classes. On the other hand, one frat member reported that he and his frat buddies had started playing a new drinking game, in which they had to diagram whatever a person said or else take a shot. I’ve decided to consider this a positive response.

4. Why did you decide to teach a class focused on diagramming?

Two students came up to me after a class in the contemporary short story, in which I’d mentioned that if they could only diagram the first sentence of a story (I’ve forgotten which one), they would see how the syntax really packed a punch. These students asked if I would teach a class in diagramming. I told them to recruit 3 more students, and I’d do it. The first time I offered the course, 44 signed up.

5. In your course, you diagram rock lyrics, Shakespeare, Biblical quotations, and quotations from popular culture. Did you find any major differences in sentence structure through these historical periods? (For instance, were there more gerunds in current quotes than earlier quotes?)

Earlier quotes certainly use more inverted syntax and more noun clauses as subjects. Contemporary material, especially poems and lyrics, tend to elide phrases.

6. Did you or your students have a favorite sentence or two that you enjoyed diagramming?

My students diagrammed Eminem, Allen Ginsberg, Shel Silverstein, Bob Dylan, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and juicy quotes from “Legally Blonde.” Two of my favorites are from Jane Austen and the Bible:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride & Prejudice)

“Lord, now lettest thou they servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:29)

7. In your course description, you say that the class is for, "language fanatics." Did most of your students already know how to diagram sentences when they came to your class?

A handful had studied diagramming in Catholic middle school and remembered a bit of it, but mostly they were ignorant of both diagramming and grammar.

8. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think is important or worth talking about?

One of the purposes of the class is to move beyond diagramming to syntax and its importance in good writing. To that end, once they’ve learned the skill, students take sentences of their own—from academic papers or other essays—that they or the teacher has found to be awkward. They diagnose the problem by attempting to diagram the sentence, and then find a way to restructure the sentence by analyzing the problems in the diagram.

If diagramming bears no relation to good writing or better comprehension of writing, it is no more than a parlor game. The problem with old-fashioned diagramming instruction, I suspect, is that teachers focused on students’ understanding the tool, not on understanding the uses to which it could be put.

9. Random Question: Where is your favorite place to write?

Looking out my window, or any window, at trees or mountains or water.

Elizabeth O'Brien from Grammar Revolution

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Elizabeth O'Brien

Elizabeth O'Brien is the creator of Grammar Revolution.

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