I find the art of sentence diagramming to be strangely appealing, while simultaneously wondering if it is a waste of time. My grammar education in school was mediocre — I seem to recall that each year we never got beyond learning to identify subjects, predicates, nouns and verbs. I got by in upper level college English classes with an intuitive sense of grammatical correctness. It wasn’t until I began doing freelance editing, and later homeschooling my own kids, that I felt a pull to improve my grammar education.
I’ve looked forward to learning to diagram sentences along with my oldest child. We’ve already parsed sentences — labeling the parts of speech and other aspects of the sentence — and the ideal time to learn diagramming seems near. Yet among all the other school subjects that beckon our attention, I have to wonder what we’ll gain by doing it.
I found Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Sentence Diagramming by Kitty Burns Florey while searching our library catalog looking to see if they hold copies of a few diagramming instructional books I’ve seen mentioned recently. Being that it is one of the only books in the library catalog on the topic, I requested it immediately.
Florey writes in a very entertaining style, mixing her own educational and professional experiences into her narrative of diagramming’s history. I was surprised to learn that diagramming only appeared on the scene in 1877 — and as an improvement of an 1860 sentence classification system involving bubbles! Diagramming was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century, and nearly dead by the 1960s. Homeschoolers, along with a few private and public schools, carry on the banner of sentence diagramming today.
With complex sentence diagrams sometimes taking up nearly an entire two page spread, Florey ponders the style and complexity of the sentences of various authors. Did the diagramming instruction (or lack therof) of these authors make any impression on their later style as a writer? Florey tends to think not. She argues that diagramming sentences doesn’t necessarily make one a better writer, or even a better student of grammar.
“Few people would deny that students need to master grammar in order to write decently. But there are other places to acquire it than sixth-grade grammar classes. And where brilliant writing “comes from” is always a mystery — the simple answer is that it comes from the deep psyche of the writer who perpetrates it– but there’s a lot more to it than correct grammar. The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else…” (p. 110).
While Florey doesn’t see a lot of direct value in teaching diagramming, the book concludes with warm thoughts about its practice: “The teachers I’ve talked to who teach diagramming seem to have found a nice balance: the kids are free to express themselves, but they’re being taught the skills they need–and diagramming is one aspect of that teaching–to express themselves not only clearly but also in correct, intelligible English that’s a pleasure rather than a chore to read” (p. 154).
Tonight my daughter saw Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog sitting out while I was preparing to write this review. We looked at a few diagrams together, and had fun trying to make out a few semi-complex diagrams in the book. We laughed together over the diagram of Chomsky’s famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” She admitted to be intrigued by diagramming as well. I’m leaning toward thinking we’ll give it a try in the fall. 🙂