I saw Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog recommended on a friend’s Goodreads list, put it on my To Read list and my Amazon wish-list, then forgot about it until my brother gave it to me for my birthday a few months ago. I’d started it a while back, but then had to put it down when work and life got a little busy. Now that things are a little quieter, and I saw a recent article about the Oxford comma being declared legally necessary (a decision with which I happen to agree), I remembered to pick it back up.
The subtitle is a little bit misleading though. The book is a lot more the first half, the quirky history, than the second, and lost art (‘of sentence diagramming’). I was expecting more detail about how to diagram. I learned in a college linguistics class (that was the only quiz I got a perfect score on), and I was hoping for a little bit of a refresher, as I promptly sold that textbook back at the end of the semester; I remember hating it for some reason. While I was a little disappointed on that level, I really did enjoy the book overall.
The book covers the history of both the teaching and the theory of sentence diagramming from 1877 to the 1970s, when its popularity in schools started to fade. It’s not chronologically straightforward, but more organized by general theme. The first chapter covers the author’s own introduction to sentence diagramming in sixth grade, taught by Sister Bernadette, and the general appeal of why diagramming can be not dull. Chapter 2 is where most of the history of theory comes in, and a couple methods are presented, ranging from SW Clark’s method that looks like a bubble map (I vaguely remember a similar looking technique taught as a brainstorming method) to the more iconic Reed and Kellog, which is the linear one with slashes and angles branching off for various clauses or parts of speech. Chapter 3 is basically about Gertrude Sein and a few late 19th-early 20th century short story writers (Henry James, Hemmingway etc), and how they thought about and used language, as illustrated by diagramming some pretty complex sentences that make sense as sentences, but not always as diagrams. Chapter 4 covers colloquial speech, and of course revisits the “ain’t” controversy. I remember from grade school in the mid-80s “ain’t ain’t a word, ‘cause ain’t ain’t in the dictionary”; now that argument is no longer valid, and I kind of wonder if it’s much of an issue beyond a certain sect of grammar nerds. The last chapter reviews a little, but mostly considers uses and notion about sentence diagramming today in the 21st century.
It’s all very readable, although the footnotes are placed weirdly. The notes are more personal commentary and are actually part of the entertainment factor, but given that they’re placed more as marginal glosses than actual footnotes, makes the page set up a little hard to follow at times. But minor complaints aside, I now feel kinda inspired to bring sentence diagramming back as a part of my intro to composition class this fall (I’m an English professor by day), except that I still don’t quite remember the details of how it works….