Rightly Divide! Why You Should Learn the Lost Art of Sentence Diagramming

I’ve harped on a previous post reasons why sentence diagramming is helpful for studying and exegeting a biblical passage. In this post, I hope to give some reasons why a person would want to bother learning to diagram at all. Here are some reasons to learn all that grammar jargon and all those nonsensical nuisance shapes.

Sentences are structured with purpose

Most people have a main idea along with their sub-ideas they are trying to convey when they write. Typically, we don’t write willy-nilly unless for practice. There is purpose behind every letter, word, sentence, synonym. If we feel our message is that important for the person who is going to receive it, how much more the biblical authors felt as they wrote to the fledgeling churches and Christians? I’m certainly not suggesting they “diagramed” their own writings. But it is most certain they took great care in the wording and structure of their epistles and biographies. It was common practice for one to use an amanuensis (an ancient secretary) to pen their words and then to sign off on the letter before it was distributed. We see this in the book of Romans. As chapter 16 comes to a close, we understand that someone named Tertius actually wrote Romans, but the letter was approved by Paul before being sent out to the churches. In short, don’t dis proper grammar and sentence structure.

God spoke through grammar

Photo Courtesy of Beinecke Library

God has given us His written word for our comfort and assurance. This word includes things such as pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and participles. It seems unpleasant to have to learn all this stuff, but if it is viewed as a high and holy thing of God, it becomes less burdensome. Unfortunately, there’s not much glamour in learning grammar. You just have to dredge your way through it. Do it anyway! Make the best effort you can make. And no matter how tough it gets, don’t give up. A better understanding of grammar means a better understanding of God’s written word to us.

Diagrams help visual learners

Photo courtesy of The Tasmanian Archives and The State Library

Some people learn easier when they study a picture. Sentence diagrams are simply “pictures” of the sentence structure. Each word is placed according to its function in the sentence. Once these placeholders are memorized, it expedites the learner’s awareness of how each word is being used. Visual aids are always a helpful tool.

How do we go about learning diagramming? The internet has become a plethora of information. You can learn just about anything you desire by simply Googling the topic. But if you’e still not sure where to go, I’ve listed some great resources for you below. These will get you headed in the right direction.

English Grammar Revolution–this site is my go-to place for a grammar refresher. There are plenty of videos, exercises, and instructions to take you from beginning grammar student to Diagram Guru in their short and well-explained tutorials. The site is also divided nicely into their respective sections. Each section builds upon the previous, so be sure to read them in order.

Let’s Diagram Web App–Once you start learning sentence diagramming, you’ll need a place to practice. Why write it out when you can simply drag and drop all of your sentence elements onto a canvas? The web app allows you to type or paste any sentence, including bible verses, into the box and then diagram them. Be aware though, that the app costs $5/monthly to use. The free version only gives you five sentences a month. You’ll need much more than that to practice, so shell out the money for a few months. You’ll be glad you did! Below, is a video tutorial on using the web app.

Video tutorial of the Let’s Diagram web app.

The last resource I would like to share with you comes from a middle school grammar book published by Glencoe McGraw-Hill publishing. It’s pretty fascinating considering that most public schools have stopped teaching this lost art form. Below is a PDF of the book. It walks you through all the necessary steps of sentences and gives ample examples of sentence constructions that may be confusing to students when they first encounter them.

I hope this post has encouraged you to delve a little more into learning well the grammar and language God used to convey His precious message. God bless you seek to learn and study the bible in all diligence!

Text Flow Diagramming – Clauses & Phrases

In this step, we will begin to put things together. But first, let’s have a little review to refresh our memories.


Subjects, Verbs, Direct & Indirect Objects

Subjects are the nouns or pronouns that perform the action or that which the action is performed upon. We find the subject by first locating the verb and asking who or what of the verb.

Verbs are words that show action or a state of being. They are either transitive (transfer their action to an object) or intransitive (stays “stagnant”). Verbs also have two voices: active and passive. Active voice verbs perform the action. Bob hit the ball. Bob is the doer of the verb hit. Passive voice verbs are when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon. Bob was hit by the ball flips the action around. When the subject is being acted upon you know you have a passive verb.

Direct objects are a noun or another part of speech to which the action of the verb is transferred to. Jesus taught his disciples. The noun ‘disciples’ is having the verb ‘taught’ transferred to it and is acting as the verb’s object. We find the direct objects by asking who or what of the subject.

Indirect objects are the nouns and pronouns that the subject performs for or on behalf of. Jesus taught His words to the disciples. The phrase ‘to the disciples’ tells us whom Jesus did the verb of teaching for. We find the indirect object by asking to whom or for whom the verb was done.

Clauses and Phrases

We are now beginning the step that will allow us to split our passages into propositions. The previous posts was setting up this step. You need to understand how to identify subjects and verbs in order to find clauses and phrases. Each step builds upon each other and are important to learn. Now comes the task of pulling out chunks of the text in order to further your Bible study.

Grammatically, a clause is a group of words that always contains a subject and a verb. Without either, it could not be a true clause. A phrase, on the other hand, is a group of words that contains either a subject or a verbal word form but never both. The following illustration points out the difference between a clause and a phrase:

Galatians 1:6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel

The words in red color indicate the main clause. Blue text indicates another clause but is not the main clause. Notice that both clauses contain both a subject and a verb. The word ‘I’ is the subject with ‘marvel’ being the verb and the second clause has ‘who’ as its subject, ‘called’ as the verb, and ‘you’ as the direct object. The brown text indicates the different phrases within the text. Did you notice anything significant in the brown text? None of the phrases contain a subject or a verb. As we talk about the different kinds of phrases and clauses, they will be much easier to identify.

two kinds of clauses

Clauses are also independent or dependent. A dependent clause can stand alone and make a complete sentence while a dependent clause needs other clauses and phrases to complete the meaning. The sentence, Jesus died on the cross to save sinners, contains two clauses. The first could stand alone and be a complete sentence. If I say, “Jesus died on the cross,” you understand completely what I mean. But if I just blurt out, “to save sinners,” you will have to ask for more information in order to find out what I mean.

Typically, there will be “landmarks” to tip you off to a subordinate clause. Words an phrases such as “in order that/so that,” “because,” “when,” and others will help you determine subordinate clauses. You will find that most of the time you naturally spot these subordinate clauses provided you are working from a translation that is in your first language.

Types of clauses

Finite Clauses (independent, dependent) – These clauses will be the only types of clauses that will be the main clause. They will contain a finite verb rather than other types such as participles or infinitives. Be aware, though, that not all finite clauses will be the main clause, though they are the only ones qualified to be so. The book of 1Peter is a prime example of this. Verse 8 contains the finite verb ‘you love’ but is subordinate to verse 6 because it is contained within a relative clauses.

Relative Clauses (dependent) – These begin with a relative pronoun, who, whom, whose, which, and sometimes, that. Be careful not to confuse these with interrogative clauses, which can sometimes be a main clause. “There are some who trouble you…”

Interrogative Clauses (dependent/independent) – Interrogatives are clauses that contain a question. “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Many times they will start with an interrogative pronoun. Who is it that shall bring a charge against God’s elect?”

Infinitive Clauses (dependent) – You may remember infinitives from the verbs part. They usually start with our English word, to and add another verb to complete the meaning. “There are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel.”

Substantival Clauses (dependent) – These are the hardest of all the clauses to identify. The entire substantival clauses will function as a noun. Matthew 1:22 is an example of a substantival: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken.” The last part of this verse is acting as the direct object to the infinitive ‘to fulfill.’

Participle Clauses (dependent) – In the English language, participles usually end in ing and are relatively easy to spot. Participle clauses are very diverse and often indicate the way an action is carried out, and imperatival nuances, or complemental completion.


Prepositional Phrases (dependent) – The most typical type of phrase you will encounter are prepositional phrases. Prepositions show the relationship of the noun to the preposition, usually some kind of location or motion. “Jesus died on the cross.” In the sentence, the noun preposition shows the relationship between Jesus and the noun cross.

Unmarked Phrases (dependent) – Sometimes phrases are not clearly marked and you must look carefully to separate them out. In our verse above, Galatians 1:6, the phrase “so soon” is not so easily seen. It contains two adverbs and grammatically could be an adverbial phrase. I prefer to don them as unmarked so as not to confuse them with participial clauses, as they are often adverbial in nature.

Genitive Phrases (dependent) – Genitive phrases do not exist in English. In Greek, Genitives are extremely versatile and “genitive limits as to kind” (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 76). The closest English comes to translating the Genitive is with the word “of.” The Son of God. The Genitive limits the noun Son to that of which Son. It is God’s Son. Although Genitives do often show possession, they do much more than that. The easiest way to deal with Genitive phrases is to look for the word “of” and its noun. The main precaution is to carefully distinguish between it and a true prepositional phrase.

Everything we have learned up to this point will be used in our next post. We will be learning about propositions and how to separate them from the text. Continue to read Scripture and try to recognize the different types of clauses and phrases. Until next time, God bless your study of His Word.