Sunday Salon: Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

The Sunday

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey

Release date: 2006 / 144 pages

Synopsis (from back cover): In its heyday, sentence diagramming was wildly popular in grammar schools across the coutry, Kitty Burns Florey learned the method in sixth grade from Sister Bernadette: “It was a bit like art, a bit like mathematics. It was a picture of language. I was hooked.”

First line: “Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss.”

Review:  I decided to read this quirky little book with the hope that it would teach me how to diagram a sentence.  Ever since I have been teaching with, I have realized that this exercise is still taught all around the country — and that students will come to me from time to time for help.

So, I have been checking out websites and can now evaluate whether a sentence is diagrammed correctly, but am not to the point of being able to diagram any sort of complex or compound-complex sentence sufficiently.

So, when I learned that Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog was at the top of the Millions Top Ten for two months in a row, I just had to give it a try…  and soon realized that it is NOT a primer for diagramming sentences.

However, it is a delightfully clever read that any language-lover would enjoy.  Although mostly concerned with the history of diagramming, Florey’s passion for language is palpable, as seen in her declaration of love at the beginning:

“It was a representation of something that was both concrete (we could hear the words if we said them aloud, and they conveyed an acutal event) and abstract (the words were invisible, and their sounds vanished from the air as soon as they were uttered).  The diagram was the bridge between a dog and the description of a dog.  It was a bit like art, a bit like mathematics.” (4)

Who know S.W. Clark was the first to diagram?  Not me…  Although his reasons for formulating a way to wrangle our difficult language resonated strongly:  

“Clark… compares grammar to both geometry (“an abstract truth made tangilbe”) and architecture (“like the foundation of a building… although out of sight and not always properly valued by those most interested in its condition”).

Now, the question must be asked — do we really NEED to diagram grammar in this day and age?  Does diagramming really make us better writer?  Florey answers these questions directly:

“The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading — which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical.  The language sticks to them like cat hair to black trousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.”

So true…  However, like learning complex math that we may never use in the “real world,” diagramming teaches us how to think and problem-solve.  And, in the opinion of this English teacher, is actually quite fun, too!

Anyone else enjoy diagramming sentences?  🙂

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4 Responses to Sunday Salon: Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

  1. I love diagramming sentences!

    As a teacher, I speak from experience when I say that it is one of the best ways to learn and teach grammar. It makes grammar visual, and students enjoy it because it is like a word game.

    After realizing all of these benefits, I have started a website all about sentence diagramming.

    Thank you for this lovely book review! It seems that I need to add this one to my growing collection of grammar books.

  2. Karina says:

    I LOVE it! I think it makes grammar so much clearer, and it’s really fun too. But then, I love logic puzzles too…

  3. Kristen says:

    Thank you, Elizabeth! Be sure to let me know if you do read it! Wonderful to find another fan of grammar, too!! 🙂

  4. Kristen says:

    Yes, Karina! I think grammar speaks to the “left side” of our brain, doesn’t it!?

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