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Wednesday, 28 November 2007 00:00

An English breakdown

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Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey. Melville House Publishing, 2006. 154 pages.

Lovers of the English language have always suffered the pistol-whip cuts of poor spelling, dreadful grammar, and confused syntax. Our postmodern writing is no exception.

Tin-eared scribes, ignorant wordsmiths, and writers who couldn’t recognize a comma splice to save their lives daily flood the Internet, leaving it awash to its electronic gunnels in dreadful prose. Some bloggers produce sentences as gnarly as the serpentine curls of the Medusa. Seeking a companion, a woman goes to eHarmony.com and reads the profile of a noxious windbag in which he writes: “I am really inteligent.” Writing an attack on Hilary Clinton, Kevin McCullough, a conservative columnist, writes that “I wondered allowed” and then constructs several paragraphs whose syntax and failed verb tenses indicate a commentator seemingly drunken not on words but on booze or lack of sleep, or both.

In Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences (Melville House Publishing, 2006), Kitty Burns Florey, like other critics, does spend some time bemoaning our cavalier disregard for the nuances of our language. A copy-editor, author of nine novels and numerous essays and stories, Florey writes:

I recently silenced an entire dinner party when I began to rant about how one of my hapless editing victims doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘Indian summer,’ which — damn it! — is not a warm spell in November but the phenomenon of unseasonably warm weather after a killing frost. If you use it wrongly, you lose the whole bloody concept of Indian summer, which should not be jettisoned with all the other useful and wonderful English expressions that we’ve lost because people just don’t care enough or pay enough attention to blah blah going to hell in a hand basket yak yak yak the end of civilization as we know it yadda yadda yadda

When my little diatribe wound down, everyone started talking at once: What’s the problem, Kitty? Why was that so terrible? ... I could sense the unspoken — these were, after all, my good friends — subtext: What a bizarre way to make a living.

Unlike some, however, who offer only wailing and lamentation when appraising the current state of the English language, Kelly dwells far less on our failures and foibles, and instead spends a good deal of time celebrating both the English sentence and the nearly lost art of sentence-diagramming.

From her opening statement — “Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss” — Florey writes with zest and flair about sentence diagramming: its history, its widespread usage, its personal meaning for her (and for millions of other students who once learned the inner workings of a sentence through diagramming), its demise, and its current use by a few eccentric English teachers and home-schooling parents. She tells us how in the late 19th century Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, well-known pedagogues of the time, took S.W. Clark’s idea of breaking a sentence down using a series of balloons for each word and substituted instead a system of connected lines whose placement identified parts of speech. Their textbook, Higher Lessons in English, and their famous diagrams swept the country.

Throughout the book Florey gives the reader, often by means of clever examples, including the title of the book itself, examples of diagramming. Using sentences from the works of authors as varied as Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Jack Kerouac, Florey shows us how diagramming works and how it helps its practitioners break down the English sentence like a mechanic taking apart an engine.

Florey points out that all sorts of students, even those who disliked writing, once enjoyed diagramming sentences, which offered recreational solutions to the conundrums of English prose. At the end of the book, she writes in her homage to Sister Bernadette:

Looking at her twinkling eyes, I thought of something the Czech writer Milan Kundera said in an afterword to the Book of Laughter and Forgetting that has stayed with me since I read it: “What is the self? It is the sum of a everything we remember.” And I understood how Sister Bernadette and those sentence diagrams — that cheerful appreciation of the beauty and logic of language — have become a part of me. I was delighted to discover how many readers cherish them I their memories as well.”

•••

Sherry Austin’s Christmas novel The Days Between the Years (Overmountain Press, 2007) tells the story of Trixie Goforth, an elderly woman awash in memories of her early life during the Depression and World War II. Through Trixie Austin takes us back to the Appalachia of those days, showing us the joys and hardships of living in the mountains when poverty and war forced life-changing decisions on so many ordinary people. The hobos of the Great Depression, the employees and guests of the old rambling hotels that once dotted these mountains, the young men who joined Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps or marched off to fight in the far corners of the earth, the young women who worked in fields and factories to support the war effort: all find a place in this short, tenderhearted story.

The Days Between The Years offers some fine observations on growing old and on the importance of memories and love.

•••

A Christmas reminder to booklovers: your local independent bookstore deserves your support. Before shopping online or at a chain store for that special book, visit or call your local independently owned bookshop for suggestions or ideas. Most of these booksellers are knowledgeable about literature and may steer you in a welcome direction. Many of them also offer discounts and sales that rival their larger competitors.

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