Once wildly popular in grammar schools across the country, sentence diagramming has fallen out of fashion. But are we that much worse for not knowing the word-mapping method?
Now, in this illustrated personal history that any language lover will adore, Kitty Burns Florey explores the rise and fall of sentence diagramming, including its invention by a mustachioed man named Brainerd “Brainy” Kellogg and his wealthy accomplice Alonzo Reed ... the inferior “balloon diagram” predecessor ... and what diagrams of sentences by Hemingway, Welty, Proust, Kerouac and other famous writers reveal about them.
Florey also offers up her own common-sense approach to learning and using good grammar. And she answers some of literature’s most pressing questions: Was Mark Twain or James Fenimore Cooper a better grammarian? What are the silliest grammar rules? And what’s Gertude Stein got to do with any of it?
After its invention in 1877, diagramming sentences became a staple of English classes throughout America, touted as a supposed remedy for sloppy grammar and mangled syntax. The practice thrived well into the 1950s, lost popularity in the 1960s, and by the 21st century has become (with the exception of a few pockets of devotees) an arcane endeavor. Copy editor and novelist Kitty Burns Florey learned sentence diagramming from her sixth grade teacher, Sister Bernadette, and though she does not necessarily believe that diagramming helps teach grammar, she finds anachronistic delight in a well-diagrammed sentence, an aesthetic pleasure from the mapping of language. In SISTER BERNADETTE'S BARKING DOG, Florey's central theme is ostensibly "the quirky history and lost art of diagramming sentences," but like the multitude of branching lines in a diagrammed sentence her book splits off into a multitude of topics and tangents: the etymological connection between "grammar" and "glamour"; the battle of the prescriptivists (determined to preserve the supposed integrity of English at all costs) and the descriptivists (who believe "alright" is all right); Gertrude Stein's surprising love of diagramming; the proper use of the expression "the lion's share"; Florey's own philosophy of language, which she describes as "linguistic agnosticism"; and a discussion of the perfectly rational purposes of such vulgarities as "ain't" and "youse." Throughout this slim, elegant book, Florey's relationship with language is as charming and witty as one between two charismatic characters in a novel. Her footnotes and asides are pitch-perfect, and the ivy-like illustrations of diagrammed sentences that creep across the pages seem like the elaborate rules of a particularly clever and tricky game--which is exactly what they are.
- Language + Art + Disciplines
- Grammar, Composition + Creative Writing
- October 1, 2006
- October 1, 2006
- Kitty Burns Florey