The Enigmatic Mathematics of Language: Sentence Diagramming

Yes.  I most certainly DID read a book about sentence diagramming.  As many have expressed: only me.

But, despite the fact that I may be the only person of my generation to enjoy diagramming sentences, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey is something I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to show to the layman.  It is not a prescriptive grammar guide, nor is it an instruction manual (something my fellow Modern Grammar peers would be glad to note).  It’s exactly what it claims to be: a quirky history with lots of beautiful, complicated diagrams to satisfy any nut.  The diagrams, with study, can be very instructive, but this is no grammar course booklet.  It is simply the reminiscing of a woman who is the product of a 50’s Catholic school education.

Why I chose this book for this week was something of an accident.  It was supposed to be next week’s book (it arrived in the mail on Tuesday), but this week’s planned book (Atlantic by Simon Winchester) turned out to be a bit too much for me.  I don’t know if it’s because this week was so busy at work and at home or if it was because the style of his prose isn’t as fluid as it was in The Meaning of Everything or if it was an off week.  Of course, Atlantic did disappear on Wednesday and for most of Thursday, making the entire attempt more difficult than necessary.  Yet, I hadn’t made it a full fifty pages into a 400+ page book by that time, either.  So on Thursday, with many contributing factors, I made the decision to switch books.  I don’t like doing it, but considering that I managed to finish this coming week’s book already, I now have almost two weeks to finish Atlantic, which will give me any buffer room I feel I might need.

However, despite all that rigmarole, choosing this book was not an accident in any other sense.  I was introduced to sentence diagramming in seventh grade.  It is the first test I can clearly remember having an anxiety attack about (I can still remember that the sentence that killed me had an appositive and two prepositional phrases in it). One would expect this to be a black stain on my conscious, but by the time I got to my Modern Grammar course in college, anxiety attacks mid-test were so normal (I may have been a bit too serious about school) that I was able to approach sentence diagramming with a sense of whimsical fun.  I was the only one.

Thankfully, Kitty Burns Florey seems to have grasped the innate fun in diagramming a sentence as well, as the anecdotes she tells are games and competitions in a small Catholic school with a benevolent nun named Sister Bernadette (who is memorialized in the title).  In her class, diagramming was a game.  Or:

Florey takes the time to diagram quite a few gnarly sentences in the book, as well as the simple (as above, which I did).  The diagrams that take up two pages each thrill me to bits, and are probably the most instructive for those who wish to learn the art.

But, as I said, that is not the purpose.  The history of the art itself is fascinating (diagramming started out using oval bubbles abutting each other (much like overlapping speech balloons) rather than simple lines–it was “a mess, a medieval muddle”), as well as the history of the educational applications.  Right now, diagramming is in a half-awake, half-asleep mode.  Some teachers use it (though not always correctly–my teacher who managed to produce the anxiety attack atmosphere certainly didn’t go about it the right way), some don’t.

What I appreciated most about this anecdotal love letter to diagramming was the attitude.

Florey knows that it does not improve writing and may not necessarily improve a grasp of grammar.  What sentence diagramming can do is make grammar accessible.  To those who find logic (and/or math) appealing, diagramming can help make the vagaries of language logical.  To those who find compartmentalization the best way to learn, diagramming is helpful.  It can be made a fun competition for students who are struggling.  When used correctly, diagramming is a marvelous tool.

After a desperate two days with this book, I feel better about loving diagramming.  After all, I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Florey and I know the secret of diagramming.  It’s beautiful.



***** It’s been a while with the diagrams.  I’m pretty sure these are correct, but please forgive any mistakes.  Click for larger, clearer images.

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