Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book review - Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: the Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences,
by Kitty Burns Florey.

I heard about this book at a workshop on diagramming sentences this summer at Veritas school... and as soon as my library hold came in I knew it would be a treat.  I expected a book that does for sentence diagramming what Lynn Truss did for punctuation in Eats, Shoots and Leaves.  But it's actually far more than that. There is in this book an attempt to reconcile the two opposing sides of Language Arts: the linguistic and the artistic.  Or the editor vs. the author, the philologist vs. the poet, the grammar police vs. the free spirit.  This conflict comes up frequently in the Latin classroom: while striving to produce students who can grasp the grammatical concept, I also need to get them to express it in English that will not make the listener cringe.  Some grammatical problems do not have pat solutions, or as another Latin teacher once remarked, if you push too hard on some constructions, the Literature and the Grammar sides would have to resort to pistols at dawn.  In the end, Florey acknowledges the delicate balance between writing correctly and writing freely.  Sentence diagramming is a tool to help you achieve both.

Florey traces the history of sentence diagramming, which is an American phenomenon (parsing was the norm in Europe).  Although you can get some how-to from this book, it's not intended for instructional use, but rather provides the inspiration for language arts teachers and other grammarians to do what they do.

My favorite part of the book was the chapter entitled "Poetry and Grammar," in which some of the most famous stylists of the English language and a few others receive the diagram treatment.  We've all heard the famous Gertrude Stein quote, "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences." (Or we should have, even if Stein herself seems to be like other artists such as Heath Ledger, driven mad by the very art they pursue.)  Compare and contrast the sentence structure of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, and Joyce Carol Oates.  Even more delightful, hear them dish dirt about each other: Mark Twain of James Fenimore Cooper: "There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now."

There are kind words for the almost-lost art of Latin teaching in this book, too.  Eudora Welty, bless her, survived grammar school but didn't come to love language until her high school Latin class: "I could see the achieved sentence standing there, as real, intact, and built to stay as the Mississippi State Capitol at the end of my street."  Not since I encountered "Caesar non supra grammaticos" have I felt so validated.  And I loved the account of Eleanor Gould Packard, the famous copy editor for The New Yorker, who once found 4 grammatical mistakes in a 3-word sentence.  I have met my people, and they are a peculiar people indeed.

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