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.

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