Diagramming: An Aid to Better Understanding the Text

The old addage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true. But what about a picture of words, more or less? Most people think of diagramming sentences as being laborious, unproductive, and not very helpful. But when you apply the above saying it can be viewed in an entirely different light.

A digram is simply a picture of how words are arranged in a sentence. This can be very helpful when studying a passage of Scritpture. But the question of what type of diagram and how much of the passage needs to be diagramed is still an issue. This post hopes to answer these questions to help you.

What type of diagram?

This post will discuss three types of diagrams. Using John 3:16 as our example verse we will discuss all three types.

Sentence Diagram

The first type of diagram is the basic sentence diagram. These are the ones you probably learned in school and are the most familiar to you. They are called Reed-Kellogg diagrams, named after the two men that popularized the system. In this type of diagram each word is placed on a horizontal or slanted line. The position tells us which role in the sentence the word plays. Look at the picture below.
Notice how each word is carefully placed. The sentence starts with the coordinating conjunction ‘for.’ It is placed on its own separate line to show its connection to the preceding verse(s). The main thrust of the passage is “God loved the world.” This is shown by the horizontal line with the subject, main verb, and direct object separated by two vertical lines, the first extending beyond the horizontal line, telling us that what follows will be the verb, and the second being flush to the line, telling us that what follows is the object of the verb ‘loved.’
Observe how everything is indented underneath the main subject and verb. This is how we distinguish which are the most important parts of the sentence and which are secondary. Line diagrams can be very useful in determining the function of each word in the sentence.

Text Flow (Block Diagram)

The second type of diagram is a block diagram. This type of diagram shows the flow of thought rather than the function of syntax. Block diagrams are constructed by placing the main clause in the left margin and indenting the subordinating clauses underneath the main clause. Each subordinate clause is indented underneath the word it is modifying.  Any elements that are parallel or antithetical are usually indented at the same level, as per the phrase, should not perish but have eternal life below.
Some methods of block diagram indent subordinating clauses underneath the clause itself rather than the word that is being modified. There is no real conflict in these varying styles of block diagramming  because block diagramming is useful in two ways: (1) it is flexible enough to accommodate many styles, and (2) it only has two main rules, that being to keep main clauses in the left margin and all subordinating clauses indented underneath the main clause. For this reason, many people follow the two main rules and adapt the diagram to the style that will best benefit their understanding of the passage.

Syntax Tree Diagram

The third type of diagram is the syntax diagram, also known as a tree diagram. Like the line diagram this type focuses on each word and the function it plays in the sentence. But unlike the line diagram the structure is displayed vertically or in a tree-like structure.

Each word is not only syntactically tagged but also tagged as to their function as a whole in the sentence. Through this type of diagram we see that so loved, or in this way, as the diagram renders it, is not only an adverb but stands at the beginning of an adverbial phrase. These types of diagrams are helpful because they display both the syntactical role of each word as well as the syntactical contribution to the entire sentence. Abbreviations such as Sn (sentence), Cl (clause) Np, (noun phrase), etc. help distinguish the various parts with arrows starting at the word and branching out to the sentence level. By following these arrows one can easily identify all syntactical parts to a sentence.

Syntax is one of the most important aspects in hermeneutics. Words have meaning but in context of other words they function together to form meaning. This is why considering the syntactical context is so important when doing word studies. A simple definition or even the force of a single verb is not the only consideration when interpreting a passage.

Closing Thoughts

All three types of diagrams are useful in the study of Scripture. Which one should you choose? It will depend upon your learning style, level of understanding of grammar and syntax, and the amount of time available to invest in study. How much of the passage should you diagram? The answer to this question will usually depend upon time constraints one has in preparing a sermon or lesson. If the individual is simply studying for his/her benefit, then by all means, should diagram as long a passage as content with. A word of caution—it’s easy to loose the forest through the trees. In other words, even if you’re studying for your own benefit try not to take too large of chunks or you may get bogged down on the mechanics of how to do rather than actually learning from the actual diagram. Here are some guidelines to determine how much of a passage to diagram.

  1. If you’re studying longer passages, especially narrative, block diagramming may be the best. It allows for a quick assessment of the flow of the passage.
  2. If you are desiring to hone in on specifics a traditional line diagram may be the best thing. These types of diagrams evaluate the function of each word.
  3. For those more interested in grammar, the syntax tree may be the best option. Line diagrams are useful for this as well. In my opinion the syntax is the best option as these were meant to hit the finer points of syntax and grammar within the sentence structure.
  4. If you simply want an overview of the passage or are trying to deduce the main points of the author turn to the block diagram. With its main clauses all the way to the left margin the big picture and points of the author’s interest are easy to spot. This is also the type of diagram you need for homiletical outlining.
When tackling any type of diagramming keep in mind that each type has its pros and cons. Weigh and evaluate each carefully. But also be confident that no matter which type you dive into it will yield a greater understanding and clarity of the passage you’re studying.
May you be encouraged to dig deeper into God’s word.