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Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

When I heard of a book called Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, I had to have it at once; and, once I had it, I had to read it at once. A copy editor by profession, Kitty Burns Florey is a sometime parochial school student who was taught, or rather drilled in as one still might be in the Fifties the art of deconstructing sentences in a way that demonstrated the functional relationship of the words: diagramming. The subject and the principal verb were written on a level line, and separated by an intersecting vertical bar. The object followed, but separated from the verb by a shorter vertical that did not cross the level; if the object was a predicate, then this shorter line sloped, like an accent grave. Modifyiers articles, adjectives, and prepositional phrases appeared on lines that branched off diagonally, below the level. Dependant clauses were mounted on stick-figure cake-stands. Dotted lines connected hypotheticals. Xs stood in for "understood" elements. For example: "The house was more complicated than the birds had expected (it) (to) (be) (complicated). Diagramming sentences could be a diverting parlor game, or it could be hell on molasses in January, depending on your outlook.

You'd think hell, even I'd think that I was one of the kids who went in for diagramming, but I really wasn't. I found grammar an unpleasant topic. One either spoke correctly because one knew how to do so, or one was hopeless. There was no point in trying to study it; one might as well try to be tall. I was such a whiz at reading and spelling and all the other "language arts" that I resented having to pay attention to it. Not until college would I regard my language as in need of the occasional barbering. I awoke to a Gothic horror of perpetrating dangling modifiers. Then there was the time that I misused "penultimate" (in the way that it's ordinarily misused) in a published review of Guys and Dolls at Notre Dame a lapse that drew a reproving letter from Father Somebody, the recollection of which still makes me wince. Maybe that's what it took: publication. It still does. The most mindless solecisms pass me by on their way into my drafts, until I press the "publish" button. Then, all at once, they stand out like the patterns that John Nash thought he discerned. Except they're really there, these errors.

When I came to think of diagramming sentences in later life say about five years ago I was conscious of needing to know exactly how it was done, for I had not bothered to learn this in school. In a delayed reaction that has become painfully familiar in someone whose conscious life began decades after he drew his first breath, I sweat with terror lest my inadequacy as a diagrammer of sentences come to public attention. That is really why I had to have Sister Bernadette's barking dog. I would pretend to read the book for fun, but really I would master the skills on the sly.

Instead of which, I found myself pondering an observation that Ms Florey repeats several times: diagramming sentences does not make students better writers.

Among the people I've talked to about it, the consensus seems to be that learning diagramming may have helped us to understand the functions of words, to think more logically about language, and maybe even to write more correctly. But it didn't help us write well.

Can she be serious? Well, of course she can, and she is, or she wouldn't repeat the point. And yet, how can one say that understanding the functions of words or thinking logically about language not help one write well? Here's what she means:

I came out of my 1950s Catholic-school education writing hypercorrect but pretentious, showy, self-conscious prose that had awed my high-school teachers. Great things were predicted for me. Surely this was the work of a Real Writer! Then, in my first year of college, an English professor spent an hour kindly explaining how I could make my writing less stiff and pompous an hour that I can honestly say changed my life.

I can tell a story like that: my first paper at Blair came back marked "E," for "F," with Mr Dorn's chilling, dictionary-dooming admonition: "This paper is nothing but a tissue of circumlocutions." (Indeed, I hadn't read the subject book, The Iceman Cometh. I don't think I could read it today, either. But I learned presently that circumlocutions, however interesting-sounding, are not a Good Thing.) But if I'd said nothing, I'd said it unexceptionably well. When I buckled down to the business of saying something, I was already blessed with a useful facility that probably would have been more disciplined still if I had learned to diagram sentences.

Enough pontification. The fun of Ms Florey's book, aside from the pleasure of her sparkling, with-it prose, lies in deconstructing the diagrammed sentences. A very amusing party game would be to hand out diagrammed extracts from Proust and James and perhaps even Faulkner. Contestants would try to read them with fluent delivery in a very short space of time. How everyone would laugh at the hastily barked-out "I used to go early to bed for a time long"! (April 2008)

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