Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog


I'm reading a terrific new book, Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, by Kitty Burns Foley. It's all about the history of sentence diagramming, from its inception in 1877 in a text by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellog, to it's height in grammar schools across the country (where she fell in love with diagramming under the tutelage of Sr. Bernadette). She diagrams famous (and not-so-famous) sentences from the writing of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few; and tells delighful literary and historical stories to go along with the diagrams, that are a good read in themselves.

I loved diagramming sentences as a kid. And I agree with her, that diagramming is a lost art — a not-so-useful art, all said and done, but an art nonetheless. She writes about a poster that existed in the 1970's of a 958-word sentence diagram from Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe. I would love to see that. Below is a scan from the book, as an example of one of the many diagrams she includes, written in heavy black ink, as if copied from a chalkboard. This one, of the last sentence in Proust's A la Recherche, is a marvelous visual poem, don't you think? Come to think of it, I would like to diagram a poem . . . right now . . . hmm . . .

6 comments:

Pamela said...

I actually diagrammed "The Red Wheelbarrow," much to the stupefaction of my students. Is that one of her examples?

I'm putting this book on my wish list.

Peter said...

I haven't seen it yet (I am about 2/3 of the way through). I'd love to see yours. I am thinking of trying it with something of Ashbery's or Graham's. Or better yet, O'Hara.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

This is quite amazing. Thanks for posting it Peter.

Justin Evans said...

Last year, my last year of teaching sophomore English, I taught grammar by way of diagramming. I showed how sentence structure/diagramming is like a puzzle, and if you know even just the basics (I taught 7 of the 10 basic sentence types) you can understand how & where words go in a sentence.

I taught it with only participation in mind, so there was no stress about getting it perfect in practice, just the practice itself.

David Vincenti said...

Diagramming's not dead - at least not in NJ. My daughter's school makes a colorful exercise of it by assigning the parts of speech colors and shapes. She seems to enjoy it, and she and her third grade class write better sentences than many adults I know - so it must be at least a little useful.

cornshake said...

i loved diagramming sentences--i used to ask my junior high teachers to give me big sentences for "extra" homework! once a nerd....