8th Grade English and Other Tales of Torture….

I will put up a post of my weekly acquisitions tomorrow (a bit late, but we put off going to the library for another day). But today, I have a special treat to share. I actually have a book to review! (Given that this was one of the major reasons I started this blog, and the fact that I have yet to finish ANY book, I thought it was about time to do something that remotely follows up on my initial good intentions). I just purchased a book that I have been looking at for some time (meaning a couple of months, which for anyone who knows me, represents a LONG time to wait for a book):

The title of this gem is Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, by Kitty Burns Florey. I was so excited to find this book in the bookstore today that I ended up almost squealing with delight as I ran over to show my rather perplexed husband. (Actually, he wasn’t that perplexed–he’s rather used to my love of grammar books by now).

This book brings back memories of my eighth grade English class. In the first place, my English teacher was not a nun, but I did go to Catholic school (for 13 years I might add–if you combine preschool and kindergarten–and I did have a Sister Bernadette somewhere along the way). We diagrammed sentences before 8th grade, but Mrs. P., as I’ll call her, was mad about diagramming sentences. I loved the exercise with one, huge, glaring, can’t-be-missed exception: she made us write in pen–AND WE COULDN’T CROSS THINGS OUT. Nor could we use erasable pens (which was fine with me, as my burgeoning 8th-grade aesthetic sensibilities were entirely incensed by the idea of erasable pens). I have, however, been forever scarred by this experience, and I blame my sometimes-debilitating perfectionism on this period of my life (oh, ok, I actually was a perfectionist from the day I was born–ask Queen Mother). But this was a moment that crystallized my rather obsessive-compulsive attitude toward my penmanship. To this day, if I don’t like how my handwriting looks, chances are I will rewrite it. (Computers have been a godsend, as I can change the font at will with only a few clicks of a mouse, hooray!) We were allowed to use those horribly useless pen erasers, however, with the result that nine times out of ten our paper would end up a hole-y mess (no blasphemy intended). The only recourse was to rewrite and waste even more paper.

Moreover, Mrs. P. demanded that we write in a specific way. It had to be cursive and we all had to have the same slant, etc. We used to have to practice writing on the board this way, and Mrs. P. would judge our ability to conform from the back of the classroom. It wasn’t bad enough that we all had to be wearing the same crappy uniforms (although my middle school uniform was a blessing compared to the brown, yellow, and white plaid jumpers from grade school–yes, I said brown–to this day that plaid gives me nightmares), now we had to write like everyone else as well. This wasn’t as bad for me as it was for some of the other students (particularly the boys), because I had long ago perfected the art of adopting different styles of handwriting (my ability to pick up and drop styles of handwriting should have been an early warning that I have a hard time making up my mind). To this day I have about 7 different styles that I will use depending upon my mood. I don’t actually remember anything else from 8th-grade English–just the fact that we had to write in pen, we couldn’t cross things out, and we had to write in slanting cursive. Ahh, Mrs. P. if only you could see how I’ve managed to forget everything you so desperately tried to drill into me!

Despite the tortures of 8th grade, I retained my love for diagramming sentences (which we continued to do in 9th grade to my everlasting glee). A beautifully diagrammed sentence creates a truly wonderful, visual expression of the architecture of language. I found my heart skipping a beat and my head nodding in agreement when I read Florey’s description:

“I remember loving the look of the sentences, short or long, once they were tidied into diagrams–the curious geometric shapes they made, their maplike tentacles, the way the words settled primly along their horizontals like houses on a road, the way some roads were culs de sac and some were long meandering interstates with many exit ramps and scenic lookouts. And the perfection of it all, the ease with which–once they were laid open, all their secrets exposed–those sentences could be comprehended” (15).

I love the idea that diagramming sentences exposes their secrets, making one privy to the innermost meaning hiding behind the letters and punctuation. Moreover, I think Florey points to something important: the fact that, for all its initially forbidding majesty, the practice of diagramming sentences was (and is) a rather democratic experience, allowing young students to participate in decoding the blueprint of the English language. As Florey declares:

“In the end, I think the important thing was not what we learned from diagramming in Sister Bernadette’s class, but simply the fun we had doing it. Diagramming made language seem friendly, like a dog who doesn’t bark, but, instead, trots over to greet you, wagging its tail” (154).

For those of you fellow grammar nerds out there, I highly recommend this book. Her description of Gertrude Stein’s relationship to various marks of punctuation (such as the “servile” comma) make me want to grab Stein’s essays on grammar and devour them. (It’s rather disturbing how “carnivorous” I can get with grammar!) Even if you didn’t go to Catholic school, or spend inordinate amounts of time diagramming sentences, you’ll enjoy the tidbits of information thrown your way, and the chance to travel along with Florey as she revels in the “lost” art of drawing “maps” of the English language.

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