In its heyday, sentence diagramming was wildly popular in grammar schools across the country. Kitty Burns Florey learned the method in sixth grade from Sister Bernadette: "It was a bit like art, a bit like mathematics. It was a picture of language. I was hooked." Now, in this offbeat history, Florey explores the sentence-diagramming phenomenon, including its humble roots at the Brooklyn Polytechnic, its "balloon diagram" predecessor, and what diagrams of famous writers’ sentences reveal about them. Along the way Florey offers up her own commonsense approach to learning and using good grammar. Charming, fun, and instructive, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog will be treasured by all kinds of readers, from grumpy grammarians and crossword-puzzle aficionados to students of literature and lovers of language.
ENTER THE DOG
Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss. When it was introduced in an 1877 text called Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, it swept through American public schools like the measles, embraced by teachers as the way to reform students who were engaged in (to take Henry Higgins slightly out of context) “the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.” By promoting the beautifully logical rules of syntax, diagramming would root out evils like “him and me went” and “I ain’t got none,” until everyone wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or at least James Fenimore Cooper.1
1 I’m thinking here of Mark Twain’s famous and still highly entertaining essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” in which Twain concludes that “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 literary offenses out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” But Wilkie Collins called Cooper “the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.”
Even in my own youth, many years after 1877, diagramming was serious business. I learned it in the sixth grade from Sister Bernadette.
Sister Bernadette: I can still see her, a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the blackboard, flourishing her chalk in the air at the end of it, her veil flipping out behind her as she turned back to the class. We begin, she said, with a straight line. And then, in her firm and saintly script, she put words on the line, a noun and a verb—probably something like dog barked. Between the words she drew a short vertical slash, bisecting the line. Then she drew a road—a short country lane—that forked off at an angle under the word dog, and on it she wrote The.
That was it: subject, predicate, and the little modifying article that civilized the sentence—all of it made into a picture that was every bit as clear and informative as an actual portrait of a beagle in midwoof. The thrilling part was that this was a picture not of the animal but of the words that stood for the animal and its noises. It was a representation of something that was both concrete (we could hear the words if we said them aloud, and they conveyed an actual event) and abstract (the words were invisible, and their sounds vanished from the air as soon as they were uttered). The diagram was the bridge between a dog and the description of a dog. It was a bit like art, a bit like mathematics. It was much more than words uttered, or words written on a piece of paper: it was a picture of language.
I was hooked. So, it seems, were many of my contemporaries. Among the myths that have attached themselves to memories of being educated in the ’50s is the notion that activities like diagramming sentences (along with memorizing poems and adding long columns of figures without a calculator) were draggy and monotonous. I thought diagramming was fun, and most of my friends who were subjected to it look back with varying degrees of delight. Some of us were better at it than others, but it was considered a kind of treat, a game that broke up the school day. You took a sentence, threw it against the wall, picked up the pieces, and put them together again, slotting each word into its pigeonhole. When you got it right, you made order and sense out of what we used all the time and took for granted: sentences. Those ephemeral words didn’t just fade away in the air but became chiseled in stone—yes, this is a sentence, this is what it’s made of, this is what it looks like, a chunk of English you can see and grab onto.
I remember loving the look of the sentences, short or long, once they were tidied into diagrams—the curious geometric shapes they made, their maplike tentacles, the way the words settled primly along their horizontals like houses on a road, the way some roads were culs de sac and some were long meandering interstates with many exit ramps and scenic lookouts. And the perfection of it all, the ease with which—once they were laid open, all their secrets exposed—those sentences could be comprehended.
On a more trivial, preteen level, part of the fun was being summoned to the blackboard to show off your skills. There you’d be with your chalk while, with a glint in her eye, Sister Bernadette read off an especially tricky sentence. Compact, fastidious handwriting was an asset. A good spatial sense helped you arrange things so that the diagram didn’t end up jammed against the edge of the blackboard like commuters in a subway car. The trick was to think fast, write fast, and try not to get rattled if you failed nobly in the attempt.
Copyright © 2006 Kitty Burns Florey
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PRAISE FOR SISTER BERNADETTE’S BARKING DOG
"Florey writes with verve about the nuns who taught her to render the English language as a mess of slanted lines, explains how diagrams work, and traces the bizarre history of the men who invented this odd pedagogical tool . . . It’s a great read."--Slate
"This gem from copyeditor Florey is a bracing ode to grammar: it’s laced with a survivor’s nostalgia for classrooms ruled by knuckle-cracking nuns who knew their participles."—People
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