Sentence diagramming on a Saturday night

sr b barking dogThis past Saturday, I curled up on the couch and read Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey. It was only after I’d finished the book (cover-to-cover) that I noticed what a punchline opportunity I’d created by being bookish and grammarish on the week’s most social night. Needless to say, I enjoyed myself.

I didn’t like diagramming sentences. It was, I believe, in high school we did a bit of it, a little past the usual age I gather from the book. I didn’t really care later in life in teachers’ grad school, either. But, this time I actually was looking forward to it. How times change!

Alas, there were no puzzles for me, but there was a lot of humor and a general history of diagramming as a pedagogical method. The author, Kitty Burns Florey, threw in generous anecdotes in the form of footnotes on topics historical and pertinent ( E.B. White talking about grammar) and personal and trivial (Florey’s husband at one time cleaned the car of a rock ‘n roll star who used, by stylistic necessity, double negatives – none other than Elvis Presley, dreamy crooner of You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.) These were great fun. I love whimsy in a footnote.

If you are wondering, the Sister Bernadette of the book’s title is a nun from the days when habits were worn and knuckles rapped, though I doubt Sr. Bernadette was the kind to do that latter. The  edition I read contained a sweet afterword with info about Sister, plus photos of her! If you went to Catholic school, you will find the pics familiar and reassuring. Or, if your knuckles were rapped much, perhaps not.

Sister B. had a line – as grammar teachers tend to have – that she used for illustrating grammar points. For her, it was, “The dog barked.” This would be diagrammed on the board and built upon. Hence, the title.

I loved reading about Florey’s experiences in Sr. B.’s classes, as well as finding out who it was in the first place who created diagramming (a few people, actually), subjecting schoolchildren for generations to this, in my experience, annoying task. Oddly, I thought, Florey and her classmates loved diagramming. This was the first I’d heard of such a thing. To enjoy diagramming! I’d only ever known that as a one-line joke on a sitcom spoken, ironically, by an English teacher who tends to stay home on Saturday nights. (The Golden Girls!)

Perhaps, my favorite part of the book was a glimpse into a seventh-grade class where a really delightful group of students get very enthusiastic during their weekly sentence diagramming lesson. The precociousness of the students as they answer and joke reminded me of my own junior high classes, and likely would remind you of yours. (It was about boys, the icky things they eat and it was diagrammed amidst laughter. How can you not love that?)

So, this is a recommendation. It’s easily read in a sitting. The diagrams take up enormous space, which is good because they’d be a headache to make out otherwise. Big print makes a reader’s life so much nicer.

Did you diagram? Did it give you headaches or giggles?


7 thoughts on “Sentence diagramming on a Saturday night

  1. Diagramming and algebra are among the useless aspects of my education. I have to teach grammar and I can’t but wonder the necessity of knowing predicate nominatives in order to get a decent job after high school. The book sounds interesting though fun and diagramming sounx like polar concepts.

  2. What a wonderful review! I remember diagramming sentences with Mrs. Rock on junior high. Better have used a ruler or you’d have to redo all those sentences again. I wonder how much of this is done still in schools. In this world of social media slang, we could use some more people who can write a solid sentence.

  3. I had a teacher for 8th, 10th, and 12th grades who had us diagram sentences most of the time. We never composed. Never. We could have been learning so many richer language processes and concepts. She did more damage than good, even though well-intentioned.

    • We had lots of conversation which I LOVED, and we did write, as well. However, when I entered college, I was so surprised at what I hadn’t realized I hadn’t known. So grateful for a particular expository writing teacher I had. (Thanks, Mrs. Charshoudian!)

  4. I had the same teacher for 8th, 10th, and 12th grade English courses. We diagrammed sentences all the time. We did it so much that we never wrote. We read selections in the lit book and diagrammed sentences. Is it any wonder I scored 30 and higher on all sections of the ACT except English, where I scored much lower? I eventually earned two degrees in English plus over 30 hours beyond the M.A. I am confident that diagramming sentences had little to do with my English career except to instill a determination to do much better by my students.

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