Sunday, May 29, 2011

On Diagramming (& the Art of Being Right)

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey released a flood of memories for me.

In high school, we had a somewhat dour old-maid school teacher named Miss Mackey. She took her English seriously and of course taught all of us freshman how to diagram sentences. Diagramming sentences was in the air. In those days, the 1950s,  it seemed that every school child learned how to diagram, although I hear it's not much of a sport these days.

I loved to diagram. In that regard, I was in good company. Gertrude Stein loved to diagram sentences, too. "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences," she writes. I agreed. It was one of those activities I understood instantly. Soon I felt I could do no wrong.

And I couldn't.

I found this out when our school acquired a young coach who, to our amazement, taught us English. He assigned a research paper. I selected as my topic, "Miracles," and researched it thoroughly in my mother's stacks of Reader's Digest. I turned it in, expecting an "A," my usual grade when I wrote a paper. But when the Coach returned mine, the "A" was crossed out and replaced with an "F." He explained to me that he'd taken off a point for each time I'd misspelled "Miracel" [his correct spelling]. But when I could find no Miracel, only Miracle, in the dictionary, I demanded my A back which, of course, he had to return. Reluctantly.

After that, the Coach seemed to look for ways to take me down a peg, as we said in those far off days. I bristled, too. When he started teaching us to diagram sentences, he went backhesitantlyover the same material that Miss Mackey had covered so efficiently. I knew it well, and must have squirmed in my seat, because the first thing I knew,  the Coach had grabbed my textbook, opened it to the very back, and said, "If you're so smart, let's see you diagram this!" His finger landed on a sentence half a page long. Then he pointed to the blackboard.

I began to diagram, drawing lines here and there, copying the words onto the lines. I loved it. It was a joy. When I used up all the blackboards on one wall, I went right on to the next wall and used all those boards, too. Maybe Henry James wrote that sentence. He's known for his capacity to "construct convoluted but still perfectly lucid sentences." writes Kitty. But he wasn't the champion. Marcel Proust is even more famous than James for long sentences. His longest, 958 words in translation, is the subject of a poster whereupon it is diagrammed. It's a sentence with no subject.

"I'm finished," I said.

The Coach picked up his text and turned to the back where all the answers were printed. But he found no answer for that particular sentence. I guess it was too advanced. He looked at what I'd done, then read the original sentence, then looked again. At last he went out and asked Miss Mackey if she'd come in and see if I'd diagramed that sentence correctly.

I had.

He must have hated me.

Anyway, all this is just a preliminary to explain why I was so delighted to find Kitty Burns Florey's book on diagramming sentences. It made me long for a blackboard and a piece of chalk. It made me long for those days when I was always right.


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