Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, by Kitty Burns Florey is an entertaining memoir of sentence diagramming rather than a complete history of it. Ms. Florey speaks for generations of students who learned to diagram increasingly complex sentences in private and public schools up until the 1960’s when sentence diagramming began to fall out of favor. Did these complicated illustrations of how sentences are constructed actually help them become better writers? Ms. Florey does not provide a definitive answer, but she does present a series of amusing examples and anecdotes along with many entertaining illustrations of diagrammed sentences.
Sentence diagramming began in the 1877 with the publication of Higher Lessons in English by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellog. It’s popularity with elementary school teachers grew and endured through the century that followed. Ms. Florey learned how to diagram from her sixth grade teacher, Sister Bernadette. Supporters of sentence diagramming included Gertrude Stein who famously said “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Which, it turns out, is fairly easy to diagram.
Ms. Florey presents the basic rules for diagramming sentences and gives many useful and fanciful examples. When she is focused on sentence diagramming her Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog is at its strongest. When she moves on to her personal grammatical bugaboos, the use of ‘ain’t’ for example, the book becomes weaker. Too often she interjects her own political agenda in ways that do not add to the discussion of sentence diagramming. In the end one can see why students like Ms. Florey found sentence diagramming so much fun to do, but I cannot see that it had much real value. There must be a thorough study out there somewhere proving or disproving the effectiveness of sentence diagramming. I can’t believe no one ever did a doctoral dissertation on this topic. But if there is, Ms. Florey has not included it in her book. This is what makes Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog an amusing memoir rather than a more complete history of sentence diagramming.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009 as part of the Dewey Decimal Challenge. Other than my own challenge, The TBR Double Dare, I haven’t done many challenges lately. Maybe once The Dare is over. I intend to do a pretty thorough culling of what’s left on my TBR shelf and start revisiting my local library. Might be a good time to look into what sort of challenges there are out there these days.