Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

DSC_8942My husband, home sick from work, was fixing to fascinate me with stories about locks at the hospital. My responses cycled between “Hmmm” “Oh?” “yeah” and “wow.” He shook his head in exasperation and complained, “I’m trying to impress you and you aren’t responding!”

“Babe,” I lifted my head and made eye contact. “I have three pages left of this book.”

“Oh?” he said. “What are you reading?”

“Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog … a book about diagramming sentences.”

We dissolved into laughter at the absurdity of diagramming edging out locksmithing.

When I was a student, I was not gripped by grammar. Caron, my camp friend, used to amuse herself by counting the spelling and grammar mistakes in my letters. The fun flattened when the error count declined to three or four. I still stumble over less and fewer, lay and lie, hopefully and I hope.

Kitty Burns Florey is a fun look back. Moderately fun. To those who suffered through grammar, it has about the same nostalgic power as a teeter-totter has to two chunksters in their fifties. (Have you noticed that teeter-totters disappeared from playgrounds? Hmmm?)

Relax! Florey’s acerbic tone spices up this bland subject. She calls Eats, Shoots & Leavesa “popular scold-fest.” I enjoyed her prose and reveled in her side notes.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading—which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black trousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

I learned details about words, a bonus she couldn’t resist throwing in. (When Kitty isn’t writing books, she is a copy editor.) I learned that enormity means a very great wickedness, not a very large hugeness. Likewise, infinitesimal means endless, not very, very small. She explained that a Lion’s share is 100%, not a majority. Ain’t, don’t you know, exists because we don’t have a contraction for “am not.” So ain’t used with the first person singular (the pronoun I) is technically correct.

My opinion is that English grammar can be taught with more ease and more adhesion through the ear rather than the eye, with vocal chants/songs such as those used in The Shurley Method or Grammar Songs. But, I enjoyed the refresher course on sentence diagramming.

The visual delight of the book are the diagrams of unwieldy sentences by James, Hemingway (whose sentences are normally spare), Fenimore Cooper, Twain, Proust, Oates, Updike, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Welty and Powell.

I couldn’t resist trying a long sentence myself. Above is the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Corrections are welcome.


12 thoughts on “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

  1. This made me smile! I love diagramming, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I like jigsaw puzzles, and diagramming is definitely a grammatical puzzle. I will often find myself in church mentally semi-diagramming a verse of Scripture (particularly if Paul wrote it!) or a line of a hymn. And by doing so, the words seem to come alive with their intended meaning more forcefully than by simply reading them. Maybe I should add diagramming the Westminster Shorter Catechism to my bucket list of things to do. Hmmm. Thanks, Carol!

    • I agree with the jigsaw analogy. We should add diagramming the Westminster to our list of fun things to do together. I need to find a good tool to use the computer to diagram. I see excellent diagrams online and wonder what program is used.

      • When I was teaching, part of the problem with the students’ learning how to diagram was remembering how to construct the diagrams. To help them in the beginning, I provided the structures and did so using my computer. Boy, did that take time! I used the Word –> Insert–> Shapes. But doing so minimized paper used. 🙂

  2. Oh, my! This sounds like a must-read! (I took a grammar course in college which required the diagramming of KJV Bible verses. Fun times! 😉 )

  3. I would rather diagram a sentence than do any kind of math. This book might be right up my alley. 😉 love and prayers, jep

  4. Carol, my three favorite books along these lines are by Patricia T. O’Connor: ‘WOE IS I — the grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English’; ‘WORDS FAIL ME — what everyone who writes should know about writing’, and ‘ORIGINS OF THE SPECIOUS — myths and misconceptions of the English Language’. In addition to being excellent references they are simply a fun read. I mean, who could not love an author who creates tongue-in-cheek chapter headings such as, WOE IS I, PLURALS BEFORE SWINE, COMMA SUTRA, VERBAL ABUSE, GRAMMAR MOSES, POMPOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, SMOTHERING HEIGHTS, FROM HERE TO UNCERTAINTY, and maintains a witty conversational tone throughout?

    • I have Woe is I! I read through it with a high school girl a few years back. I’ll need to check out Words Fail Me and Origins of the Specious.

      Have you read Sin and Syntax? I liked that one, too.

      And I’m always *super delighted* to read a NanFran comment. Thanks!

      • Impressed by diagramming. Learned to do this for note taking, but somehow want to pad too much. Sounds like a must read book, which is somewhat challenging if relying upon local library. So do Nanfran’s additions. So – how would you diagram a line in recent hymn/song re Jesus “… On a white horse wearing a crown…” ?

  5. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Rasher, taught us diagramming and I loved it! I’ve tried it a time or too since and have forgotten too much to attempt any corrections. 🙂 It really helped me understand grammar more than anything else, though, until homeschool Latin!

  6. Cynthia S., I don’t know if you will see this comment.
    I would diagram on a white horse, wearing a crown like this:
    \______ (“on” on the diagonal line, “horse” on the straight line)
    \ “a” \”white”
    | « supposed to look like a chair, “wear” on the seat of the chair, “ing” on the legs of the chair l « the line between subject and predicate ________ “crown”
    \ “a”

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