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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Reading List: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

Florey, Kitty Burns. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House, 2006. ISBN 1-933633-10-7.
In 1877, Alonzo Reed and and Brainerd Kellogg published Higher Lessons in English, which introduced their system for the grammatical diagramming of English sentences. For example, the sentence “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up” (an example from Lesson 63 of their book) would be diagrammed as:
Diagrammed sentence
Diagram by Bruce D. Despain.
in the Reed and Kellogg system.

The idea was to make the grammatical structure of the sentence immediately evident, sharpening students' skills in parsing sentences and rendering grammatical errors apparent. This seems to have been one of those cases when an idea springs upon a world which has, without knowing it, been waiting for just such a thing. Sentence diagramming spread through U.S. schools like wildfire—within a few years Higher Lessons and the five other books on which Reed and Kellogg collaborated were selling at the astonishing rate of half a million copies a year, and diagramming was firmly established in the English classes of children across the country and remained so until the 1960s, when it evaporated almost as rapidly as it had appeared.

The author and I are both members of the last generation who were taught sentence diagramming at school. She remembers it as having been “fun” (p. 15), something which was not otherwise much in evidence in Sister Bernadette's sixth grade classroom. I learnt diagramming in the seventh grade, and it's the only part of English class that I recall having enjoyed. (Gertrude Stein once said [p. 73], “I really do not know anything that has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” I don't think I'd go quite that far myself.) In retrospect, it seems an odd part of the curriculum: we spent about a month furiously parsing and diagramming, then dropped the whole thing and never took it up again that year or afterwards; I can't recall ever diagramming a sentence since.

This book, written by an author and professional copy editor, charmingly recounts the origin, practice, curiosities, and decline of sentence diagramming, and introduces the reader to stalwarts who are keeping it alive today. There are a wealth of examples from literature, including the 93 word concluding sentence of Proust's Time Regained, which appears as a two-page spread (pp. 94–95). (The author describes seeing a poster from the 1970s which diagrams a 958 word Proust sentence without an explicit subject.)

Does diagramming make one a better writer? The general consensus, which the author shares, is that it doesn't, which may explain why it is rarely taught today. While a diagram shows the grammatical structure of a sentence, you already have to understand the rules of grammar in order to diagram it, and you can make perfectly fine looking diagrams of barbarisms such as “Me and him gone out.” Also, as a programmer, it disturbs me that one cannot always unambiguously recover the word order of the original sentence from a diagram; this is not a problem with the tree diagrams used by linguists today. But something doesn't have to be useful to be fun (even if not, as it was to Gertrude Stein, exciting), and the structure of a complex sentence graphically elucidated on a page is marvellous to behold and rewarding to create. I'm sure some may disdain those of us who find entertainment in such arcane intellectual endeavours; after all, the first name of the co-inventor of diagramming, Brainerd Kellogg, includes both the words “brain” and “nerd”!

The author's remark on p. 120, “…I must confess that I like editing my own work more than I do writing it. I find first drafts painful; what I love is to revise and polish. Sometimes I think I write simply to have the fun of editing what I've written.” is one I share, as Gertrude Stein put it (p. 76), “completely entirely completely”—and it's a sentiment I don't ever recall seeing in print before. I think the fact that students aren't taught that a first draft is simply the raw material of a cogent, comprehensible document is why we encounter so many hideously poorly written documents on the Web.

The complete text of the 1896 Revised Edition of Reed and Kellogg's Higher Lessons in English is available from Project Gutenberg; the diagrams are rendered as ASCII art and a little difficult to read until you get used to them. Eugene R. Moutoux, who constructed the diagrams for the complicated sentences in Florey's book has a wealth of information about sentence diagramming on his Web site, including diagrams of famous first-page sentences from literature such as this beauty from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Posted at January 13, 2007 22:44