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Writer's Subject? Diagramming Sentences


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

All right, class. Settle down now. Stop fidgeting. Sit up straight, eyes forward, all eyes on the blackboard. Today we're going to diagram sentences. "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog" is the title of a new book on sentence diagramming. It's subtitled "The Quirky History and the Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences."

The author is Kitty Burns Florey, who is a copy book editor and novelist. She joins us from member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut. Thanks so much for being with us.

KITTY BURNS FLOREY: Hi, Scott. It's great to be here.

SIMON: My informal Gallup poll suggests we almost need to get you to explain what diagramming a sentence is. Some people really don't know what we're talking about.

BURNS FLOREY: Diagramming is just about taking a simple sentence - and my perennial example is the dog barked - and putting the words that comprise a sentence on a series of lines that indicate what their function is. In other words, dog is the noun or the subject of the sentence, and that goes on a straight line. Next to it goes the verb, which is - shows what the dog is doing: the dog barked.

So you have a straight line that says dog barked and the two words are separated by a little line in the middle that bisects the line. And below dog is the on a slanted little road leading nowhere, just to show that that word pertains to dog. And there is the dog barked, which is about as simple a sentence as you can get. And of course it gets incredibly more complex after that. And when you're diagramming something by Proust or Henry James, all hell breaks loose and, you know, you have pages and pages and pages of little lines and rows and avenues and streets with words on them.

SIMON: At the same time, I'm intrigued by the fact that several times throughout this book you say diagramming a sentence does not necessarily make you a better writer.

BURNS FLOREY: I don't think it does. I think diagramming is really fun. I think that it's important to reinforce skills that you've already learned in grammar. It can really be great as a visual clue to help students remember what they've learned. Diagramming doesn't teach anything. You have to know the basics first. You can diagram a very, very bad sentence and it looks just fine. You don't know that it's wrong unless you have been taught that it's wrong. You can write, you know, him and me went to the movies and put those on the little lines, and it looks fine.

SIMON: Please tell about Alonzo Reid and Brainerd Kellogg.

BURNS FLOREY: The perpetrators of diagramming sentences. They invented it in the 1870s. They were professors at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, which was a very, very well thought of and very earnest school in Brooklyn that taught not just what you might think, technical things, but there was a very thriving Department of philology, for example, which Brainerd Kellogg was head of. And he and his colleague, Alonzo Smith, came up with this system based on an older system that was used, and not lines but balloons, and put a whole lot of balloons together.

The dog barked would be three balloons and they would all be attached, and kind of a crazy looking system. So they devised one that wasn't quite so strange. And when they published their book, "Higher Lessons in English," in 1877, it took the world by storm. It sold a zillion copies. They both became very, very rich, and you know, the rest is history. That was the beginning of diagramming and it lasted for almost a hundred years.

SIMON: When and why did diagramming sentences begin to fall out of favor?

BURNS FLOREY: I think it lost favor in the '60s. I think people were beginning to distrust that kind of teaching, that kind of ritualized rote analysis of sentences, that way of teaching grammar. And kids were being encouraged to do more expressing themselves, rather than expressing themselves accurately. I think it became more important that they get their thoughts on paper and were able to write about themselves and about what they felt. That, of course, was something that was never considered when I was in school in the '50s. We did not write about what we felt. We just were taught to write accurately.

SIMON: Part of the pleasures of this book is to see your diagram of sentences from - perhaps it's no surprise that Hemmingway can be diagrammed, can't he.

BURNS FLOREY: Any sentence can be diagrammed, almost. Gertrude Stein is pretty challenging. But yeah, Hemmingway...

SIMON: I mean, you take a sentence from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky."


SIMON: That a lot of people don't understand, but it can be diagrammed.

BURNS FLOREY: The words are nonsense. 'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. But the sentence structure is perfect.


BURNS FLOREY: One of the great things about the book is the diagrams and it's one of the things that people seem to be liking about it a lot. The diagrams look so crazy, they're so much fun. And you know, the sentences we've range from everybody from George W. Bush to Proust. And they're very different. And they're amusing, and they're also very instructive.

SIMON: You can take a look at a sentence and diagram it. Can you take a look at a diagramed sentence and rearrange it into a sentence, as you would see it in print?

BURNS FLOREY: Well, the strange thing is that you often can't do that. I often can't do that. Parts of the sentence are up in the air, when actually they - and so that looks like they should come first, but actually they come second. And there are a number of misleading elements like that. And also, so many diagrammed sentences, as you can see from the ones in the book, when you look at, you know, Faulkner and Proust and Henry James, are so huge and crazy and spread out and all over the place that to try to bring them back together into a coherent sentence is almost impossible, unless you're a real expert.

SIMON: You visit a teacher in Greenwich Village who - New York City - who has begun to diagram sentences and finds that her students really enjoy it.

BURNS FLOREY: The kids were wildly enthusiastic, I have to say, about diagramming. They weren't that good at it. They were making mistakes left and right, but they were very good-natured about their mistakes and they seemed to be learning from them. The teacher at that school explained to me these are adolescents, pre-adolescents. You know, they're 11 and 12-year-olds and they're very - they're going through a very unusual phase of their life. They're very self-conscious and yet at the same time they want the admiration and the attention of their peers. And so diagramming is - it fulfills that. And I remember that very well as a kind of a shy kid, that here was my chance to shine a little bit, to go up to the blackboard and do something that would make everybody, you know, look at me with a certain amount of respect. It was fun.

SIMON: Ms. Florey, awfully nice talking to you.

BURNS FLOREY: It was really fun, Scott. Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Kitty Burns Florey, the author of "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences". Of course diagramming sentences is very difficult on the radio because it's so visual, but the late comedian Victor Borge discovered there is a way to punctuate for the ear.


VICTOR BORGE: Suddenly she heard a well-known sound.


BORGE: It was he. In two strikes he was near her, embraced, kissed and caressed her. Henry. What is love? She asked. He answered, well, I couldn't live without it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND EFFECTS) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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