Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences is not a new book — it was published in 2006 by Melville House Publishing — but it is one that, until recently, had been absent from my shelves. It might be missing from your shelf as well, and if you are any type of logophile or grammar guru at all, that would be a shame.
Many editors — myself included — trace the first stirrings of their love for words back to a day in grade school when some enterprising language arts teacher showed a room full of impressionable younglings how to turn sentences into diagrams on the chalkboard. That’s also where Florey begins her book, which weaves linguistic history with memoir. In her case, the story starts in a parochial-school classroom headed by the eponymous Sister Bernadette, who taught her that sentence diagramming was part writing, part math, part game, and all fun.
To be clear, this book will not teach you how to diagram sentences, except through oblique references that assume you already more or less understand the basic structure of a diagrammed sentence. Instead, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog gives readers an overview of how the diagramming system she learned — that we all learned, if we learned diagramming at all — came to be in 1877 at the hands of Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg. She also shows glimpses of an earlier system created by S.W. Clark that placed the words of a sentence inside connected bubbles, such that a diagrammed sentence resembled nothing less than a badly made balloon animal. Everything starts somewhere, of course, but we’re lucky sentence diagramming didn’t end there as well.
As with learning diagramming, where one starts with the simple and graduates to the more complex, Florey then takes readers from early diagramming history to its application among some of the greatest writers of English prose and poetry. We learn, for example, that Gertrude Stein loved diagramming, even while she penned some of the most undiagrammable sentences in the language.
Then comes what to me is the centerpiece of this volume — which is ironic because it is tangential to the subject of diagramming. In Chapter 5, “Youse Ain’t Got No Class,” Florey writes about how the path Sister Bernadette revealed to her in that grade-school classroom both revealed and complicated her life as an adult. She tells the plight of living a life somewhere between prescriptivism and descriptivism, of practicing restraint (or sometimes not) when someone misuses a word, and of being forced to deal with the shortcomings of our language (like singular and plural pronouns and contracting “I am not”).
Chapter 5 is the stuff that leads copy editors of even moderate experience to raise a hand to God and shout “Amen!” (If you’re the kind of person who does that sort of thing.) It’s a point of both commiseration and camaraderie that I believe all copy editors will identify with.
But more importantly, it should be read by anyone who is considering marrying a copy editor or proofreader.
Underlying everything in this book is a single question: Of what benefit is diagramming sentences? Florey ends the book by examining this question and its corollaries more closely. Some of the conclusions she draws are self-evident … given a little thought. Other considerations about the benefits of sentence diagramming — especially for math-minded people and visual learners — reveal it to be not just a tool for teaching grammar but a way to help connect students with their own language.
But I don’t want to spoil it. The book is short — only 155 pages — and is filled with examples of diagrammed sentences both brief and prolix, including a 93-word monster from Henry James that occupies an entire spread. You can read it in an afternoon, and I recommend that you do.