Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why I Love Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

Some generous soul at Harcourt sent me a complimentary copy of Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey in December. And to you, Mr. Public Relations at Harcourt, a hearty thank you!

Florey does a super job of reviving all the wonderful memories of junior-high grammar and sprinkling it with a heaping helping of the history of diagramming. (Bet you didn't know diagramming had a history worthy of documenting, but it certainly does.)

What makes this book so enjoyable is the nostalgia it stirs. If you love words (and who doesn't, really; we use them every day, for Pete's sake), how can you not enjoy pulling them apart and putting them back together like a puzzle?

Diagramming for homework was one thing, but diagramming IN PUBLIC was the social equivalent of being asked to make the morning announcements on the intercom. It was your opportunity to shine, or wither up and die in front of a tough crowd. If you were fortunate enough to be called to the front of the room to diagram, you would toss back your oily hair, adjust your corduroy Levi's and strut to the board like you were about to embark on some great feat.

And oh, the pleasure of scoring a prepositional phrase! Or compound subjects! Or having to decide whether an object was direct or indirect! Get it right, and they might as well elect you Most Likely To Do Whatever You Darn Well Please. Get it wrong, and you were destined for a lonely lunch period or at least a silent locker visit. Diagramming in public was the stuff that would make you or break you in sixth grade, at least in my sad circle. "Wow, that was really neat how you knew the line should be diagonal instead of straight," or "Adverb phrases. Gosh. I don't know how you do it." Those were the exchanges heard when the bell rang.

Diagramming was different than solving a math problem. Screw up a math problem in front of the whole class? Who cares! But fall short in dissecting your native language? Woe to you.

Anyway, Florey's book is a masterpiece, a tribute to all things grammatical and a reminder of why schools everywhere should resurrect diagramming, if they haven't already. I could go on and on, but I'll not spoil the ending.