Monday, July 24, 2017

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming SentencesSister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How does an author write a book about sentence diagramming that is both informative and downright entertaining? I never diagrammed sentences in school, but my mother did and was also an elementary school teacher. Maybe that's why I was interested in this book. The author provides the nuts and bolts of diagramming rules, a history of diagramming, and her own memories of sixth grade in Sister Bernadette's English class. She's a word nerd with the appreciation that not everybody feels the same need to obsess about grammar and punctuation. Hence, her humanity shines through in this story. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

"Few people would deny that students need to master grammar in order to write decently. But there are other places to acquire it than in sixth-grade grammar classes. And where brilliant writing "comes from" is always a mystery--the simple answer is that it comes from deep in the 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: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading—which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black rousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

Others understand their own language only when they study a foreign one: seeing it from the outside makes it come clear, particularly—as in the case of Eudora Welty—with the study of Latin, which is a bit like an encyclopedia of grammatical principles. Once you've mastered, for example, the elegantly succinct ablative absolute in Latin (and, incidentally, seen how clumsy its English equivalent can be: 'With the dog barking furiously, the girl drew a diagram' versus 'Cane fortiter latrante, paella diagram describebat') you probably will never have trouble with your own language again." p. 100

"I suppose if I have any rules of writing, they would go something like this:

1. Communicate
2. Communicate elegantly
3. When elegance is beside the point, fuhgeddaboutit.

It's good to remember the importance of context. I speak slightly differently to, say, my landlord than I do to my editor friends, and a smart kid who grew up saying 'youse' or 'ax' will know not to say 'I'm axing youse for a job' at an interview." p. 115

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