I own (and cherish) a copy of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, written by Kitty Burns Florey.
You’re shrugging your shoulders. Why wouldn’t an English teacher own a book about diagramming sentences?
Because I don’t know how to do it, that’s why, and (my voice gets loud here) I DON’T WANT TO LEARN HOW.
It’s a great book anyway.
I heard the author interviewed on NPR and was delighted by her offhanded attitude towards sentence diagramming. It is not, she declared, the answer to America’s writing problems. Imagine: Writing a whole book about a topic and then telling the world your subject isn’t important or necessary! You have to love a writer like that.
Before I go any further, I need to show you an example of a sentence diagram. I had to crib this one because, as I confessed earlier, it’s a skill I never learned.
You can see many more examples by Googling “sentence diagram.” Some of the more elaborate ones look like subway maps.
(The barking dog, incidentally, was the subject of a diagramming exercise invented by Sister Bernadette, who was Florey’s sixth-grade teacher.)
Back to our central question: Why would I read (and shell out good money for) a book about a skill that doesn’t interest me?
Answer: Florey is a great writer about a subject I’m passionate about – writing. Here, from page 47, are two sentences I particularly like:
Trying to stuff the complexities of the English language into flat visual structures is a bit like trying to force a cat into the carrier for a trip to the vet. And coming up with the idea in the first place seems comparable to the boldness and daring of cracking open the first oyster and deciding it looked like lunch.
Why is that a great sentence? One reason is the vivid images: forcing a cat into a carrier (been there, done that), and cracking open an oyster. Still another is Florey’s gift for words: You can hear her cracking open that oyster, and “looked like lunch” is…well…lovely.
And now, at last, I’m going to make today’s point. If you want to be a terrific writer, you need to think about words and ideas. You need to read good writers and get inspired by them. What isn’t going to help you (despite the fond wishes of leagues of English teachers) is diagramming sentences.
As Florey points out in her book, ungrammatical sentences can be diagrammed just as prettily as elegantly correct ones.
It’s true that diagramming will show you how to think about the parts of a sentence – a vital habit for good writers. Most of the students who walked into my college classroom for the first time had never thought about the way that words are grouped together to form a thought. Getting students over that hump was a big challenge. A background in sentence diagramming might have helped (though I wouldn’t spend more than 25 or 30 minutes on it – just enough to convince students that sentences have parts you can play with).
But if you’re reading this blog, surely you’ve already taken that first step! Please…don’t get bogged down in the parts of speech (another topic I’m shaky about). Find something enjoyable to read, figure out why it’s so good, and apply what you’ve learned. Soon you’ll be on your way!