Book review: Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

My friend Alisha is a university professor. She teaches biology and other intelligent things and tells me she often invites her students to “embrace their nerdiness.”

Well, I’m embracing mine, which is why I read a book all about the history of diagramming sentences and why the practice is (or isn’t) a good exercise. But let’s just get on with the show!

Book: Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey

Date finished: 3/22/11

An admission: it was this book’s title that drew me in. And when it arrived last week inside a big box of new reading material I had ordered from Amazon, I was equally captivated by its quirky cover art and the seemingly hand-drawn sentence diagrams inside. Then, I started reading the book. Instead of being dense and hard to decipher, Kitty Burns Florey chose to present the information with style and—wait for it—a sense of humor. When I first ran across a footnote, I thought, Awesome. I can’t believe I’m reading a book with footnotes. Then I read the note and it made me chuckle. The footnotes in this book are sometimes true footnotes. Sometimes, though, they’re just funny, off-hand narrowly related quotes or quips the author just had to share with her readers, which turned out to be something I enjoyed immensely, since that’s the way I’d like to use footnotes, too.

This book isn’t long and it’s definitely a quick read. You’ll learn about the creators of the practice of sentence diagramming (and a few precursors) and learn the various reasons it has been used to teach grammar and why it may have fallen out of favor with many. All along the way through this quirky adventure into the world of word nerdom, Florey makes some interesting points, among them:
• sentence diagramming doesn’t teach good writing; that’s a God-given talent;
• you can even diagram bad sentences;
• diagramming teaches the science of words rather than the art (that’s my term. What I mean is that diagramming teaches you the parts of speech and units that make up sentences and paragraphs, but it can’t teach you the art of putting them together in ways that stir the heart and activate the brain.)

Florey’s discussion of poetry and grammar (and the diagrams of florid sentences penned by the likes of William Faulkner and Jack Kerouac) is interesting, even if you get a bit lost and confused in the large section of the chapter that discusses Gertrude Stein. Who even though Florey says again and again is brilliant was SO confusing to me in those quotes that I doubt I’ll be reading any of her work anytime soon. Add in a little ranting about the precise meanings of words and how our culture so often misuses them and the revelation of a philosophy of editing that so closely resembles my own that I wish I had written it myself, and you’ve got a winner!

This isn’t a how-to diagram sentences book or overly scholarly. This is a quick, fun, informative read for people who are in love with words and grammar and remember with the nostalgia when that realization came. Which may or may not have been when we were diagramming sentences in grade school.


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