Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences

Posted by nliakos on July 22, 2009

by Kitty Burns Florey (Harvest 2006)

I am of the generation that was taught English grammar through diagramming.  Unlike Kitty Burns Florey, I don’t remember particularly liking it at the time.  As a matter of fact, I was not a born grammarphile; I became one after I started teaching ESL in the 1970s.  I am well aware of the research that tells us that explicit grammar instruction is not particularly helpful for ESL students, yet I persist in explicitly explaining; my students do not remember or apply the rules I try to teach them, but that doesn’t seem to stop me.

At one time, I became intrigued by the idea of using diagramming with my ESL classes, but I never actually did it.  The main reason may have been phrasal verbs.  I remembered how to diagram prepositional phrases, but what about two-word verbs?  Do you diagram “She ran into her old friend” the same way you diagram “She ran into her old house”?  Obviously not.  So what is “into” in the first sentence?  We ESL teachers would call it a particle.  I don’t think the rules of diagramming included particles.  Would Reed and Kellogg have called it an adverb, and put “friend” in the direct object position?  Or would they include it as part of the verb (my preference)?  It was these kinds of questions that stumped me, so I never actually used diagramming with my students.  But I did enjoy reading about it.  Florey also concludes that diagramming sentences does not result in better writing, but that gives students the perception that they control the sentences. Also, she claims that it’s fun!  Maybe for her it was. In any case, I enjoyed deciphering the diagrams in the book, and it was interesting to realize that diagramming, like new math, was an educational fad that I happened to experience when I was a kid in school.


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