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February 1st, 2010

ladychapel: Blue Moon (Default)
Monday, February 1st, 2010 06:42 pm

When I saw the book Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey, I knew it had to be mine. Not only did it remind me of the quaint grammar class relic but it contained reminiscences of the author's time in Catholic school, an experience I share. Yes, I too, remember the bizarre disciplinary tactics employed by the nuns (and the lay teachers) such as having children stand in trash cans, charging a penny for dropping a pencil, etc. She doesn't mention the "stand up, sit down" drills that my teachers made us practice so that we would learn to jump out of our desks and stand at attention whenever an adult visitor entered the classroom. I so don't miss Catholic school. Thank God I escaped it all in high school.

But most of this book is about diagramming sentences. I toyed with the idea that diagramming sentences might have been a useful practice for a young writer. Perhaps it taught you how to analyze sentence structure. Reading this book cured me of that notion. As she described the practice in the first chapter and how it came about (it started in Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute), I realized that diagramming sentences was a dull and tedious as a I remember.

The book drags when it starts out but gets better when she starts investigating whether diagramming sentences will make one a better writer. The verdict: no. She demonstrates by trying to diagram sentences by some of the world's greatest writers with particular attention to Gertrude Stein and showing that they don't necessarily fit easily into the narrow structure of a sentence diagram. She contrasts this by showing that sentences that are completely wrong can be easily diagrammed but that doesn't turn them into good language.

Interesting and short read but it might be interesting only to writers, editors, and Catholic school survivors.