January 12, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Using a tool to increase possibility

Cynthia DewesThis may not seem like an important subject but believe me, it is: diagramming sentences. Who knew?

Actually, no one under the age of 50 has probably even heard of diagramming sentences. Sounds like something out of Victorian literature, some moldy exercise in the English language now out of date and totally irrelevant to modern people.

Well, think again. It turns out that the diagramming of sentences is not only a subject for current discourse, but also the subject of a recent book! Forgive me for getting so excited, but I am (literally) an old English major.

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, written by Kitty Burns Florey, is described by a reviewer as her “homage to the lost, but not quite forgotten, art of diagramming sentences.” Florey recalls diagramming and her entire parochial school education with affection, a pleasant change from some of the bitter memoirs we’ve read recently.

She outlines the history and influence of diagramming sentences, which was first introduced in an 1860 textbook by a school principal in Homer, N.Y. And although Florey felt it was not useful to her as a writer, she thought it “made language seem friendly” and fun.

Briefly, to use Florey’s childhood example, this is how to diagram the sentence “The dog barked”: “… the words ‘dog’ and ‘barked’ sat on a horizontal line, with a short, vertical slash between them and with ‘the’ hanging below on a diagonal arm.” “That was it, subject, predicate and the little modifying article that civilized the sentence—all of it made into … a picture of language.” (If you are under the age of 50, ask an older person to explain this.)

During the 1960s, along with many other accepted disciplines, the diagramming of sentences was replaced by what’s been called by its critics “grammatical illiteracy.” Obedience to orderly language rules was replaced by encouragement of a student’s self-expression and, ostensibly, his or her self-esteem.

Students learned parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs and prepositions, but were on their own when it came to their arrangement on paper. The idea was for the child to put down his or her thoughts and feelings in order to validate them. Another reader’s making sense of them or finding meaning in them might or might not follow.

Personally, I agree with Florey that diagramming was fun, but I also believe it was extremely useful. The logic and organization of it taught me much, not only about language construction, but also how to think and speak with articulation.

How many times these days do we hear young people say “like” every third word in an effort to increase the meaning of what they say? Instead of hearing speech which is meaningful because the speaker’s thoughts were organized beforehand, we’re apt to listen to a garbled account full of vague and often superfluous words.

In the end, I think that language is a tool, not only of feeling but also of possibility. We’ve abandoned real self-expression in favor of selfishness. It seems that people no longer are willing to use such tools to earn their desired goals. They try to skip education or years of experience to become the boss, or ignore legal permissions such as marriage to enjoy family life and parenthood. And when they fail, they seem surprised.

Well, maybe I should lighten up. Diagramming sentences will not cure the world’s social ills. Then again, it just might help. That’s what tools are for.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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