This 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?