Another Lost Art Found

Jun 12, 2011 | 6 comments

“Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog”

     Yesterday a package arrived in my mail from a friend in Seattle – a new friend with whom I have connected on the basis of diagramming sentences!
     Granted, it’s not many people who even care about diagramming, much less know anything about it.  I’m sorry for them.  Diagramming sentences is one of the greatest pleasures of life.  Well… maybe not quite, but close.  I’ve had that opinion ever since eighth grade with Mrs. Barnes in 1948/1949.
     The book is called Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.  It’s by Kitty Burns Florey.  And it’s fabulous.  I was hooked when I read the first sentence:  “Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss.”
     And, it just gets better – all you ever wanted to know about sentence structure and how to make it visual, of course.  But also, there’s commentary on wordsmiths like my Uncle Willard’s friend William Safire and authors as diverse as Proust and Hemmingway.
     Were I better read, myself, I suppose I’d know that Gertrude Stein wrote, “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.”  And were I possessed of a better memory, I would have recognized copy editor Eleanor Gould Packard’s name and her famous claim to fame – finding four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence!
     So far, I’ve only scanned the book.  I’m looking forward to spending serious time with it and then pursuing some of the other authors mentioned, as well as a diagramming website or two just for curiosity’s sake.  Perhaps somewhere among Florey’s pages or references I’ll find the answer to my own nemesis – the dreaded comma.  But that, I fear, is another issue.  


  1. Stephanie Frieze

    I can see you’ve begun my Christmas shopping for me, Sydney! This is the sort of thing our family loves. We’ve all sat around talking about this lost art. The fact that it’s no long taught in grade school is one of the reasons (along with texting) that students are such abismal writers. Thank you so much for sharing this treasure with us!

  2. Linda J

    “playing the sackbut”?? I had to look that one up. Apparently, my brother played it

    • sydney

      Before the Green Show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival went funny on us, the music and dancing were appropriate to Shakespeare’s era. The sackbut was among the period instruments that were used. It was all so much better (and more instructive!) than the contemporary music at the Green Shows of recent years — at least in my opinion!

  3. Nancy

    Sydney! Today’s post brought back memories of Mrs. Barnes (one of my favorite teachers) and of some of her students (thee and me) who stayed in the classroom, at lunchtime, creating sentences for one another to diagram…ditto to what Stephanie wrote, “Thank you”.


  4. Lorrene Lemaster

    I had no idea they no longer taught it. When I write in my blog, I am always wishing I could remember more of the diagramming sentences. Have they also stopped teaching what nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs and all those are?
    Do they still teach basic math since they can do the math with a calculator.

  5. Cousin Ralph

    I remember my 9th grade English teacher John Saras (1963-1964), who was one of my best pre-college teachers. He is still active in the Sunnyside, WA community with the Sunnyside Museum. A major part of his teaching method was the diagramming of sentences. With my scientific mind, I found diagramming sentences particularly appealing. I recall that the only diagrams I made in error were involved with abstruse adverbial clauses, where is was difficult to determine exactly what part of the sentence they modified. Another important part of his method was that he required some form of written assignment every week of the year (due on Monday) such as a theme, story, report, etc.


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