Friday, December 08, 2006

Two short reviews

Kitty Burns Florey: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

The subject of this non-fiction book (published in the US by Melville House) is the English language; in particular, English grammar.

It's partly in the form of a memoir (the author was taught English by Sister Bernadette), and partly a speculation upon such abstruse topics as whether Mark Twain was a better grammarian than James Fenimore Cooper, and what the hell Gertrude Stein was talking about half the time.

More specifically still, the book deals with a method of diagramming sentences which was once, apparently, quite widely taught, and even popular, in American schools.

Kitty Burns Florey is the author of nine novels and many short stories, and there's lots more about her on her web site. She is also described by the publisher as a 'veteran copyeditor' -- in other words, she's one of those eagle-eyed nit-picking people who want to know why you've referred to a character in your novel as an artist on page 49 and as an artiste on page 113. (I had an answer, and it was a good one. You don't catch me so easy.)

Speaking of nit-picking copyeditors, one of the things we learn from this book is that Eleanor Gould Packard, who worked at the New Yorker for 55 years, once managed to find four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence. The sentence was perpetrated by New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wechsler, but no one can remember what it was. (Typical.)

Most of the book concentrates on the diagramming of sentences business. This was invented about a hundred years ago by a couple of teachers named Brainerd Kellogg and Alonzo Reed. (There's that name Brainerd again; we had it earlier in the week, if you remember, and I bet you thought it was a typo.) The system is a bit like parsing, only you do it on a blackboard, or on paper, splitting up the subject, object, definite article and so forth, and setting them out on a sort of tree, with branches at all angles.

On her web site the author gives a brief description of the method but doesn't actually give us a link to an illustration, which I think is a pity. However, the book itself is full of illustrations, sometimes covering two pages.

Having outlined the diagramming of sentences method, and its history, Kitty goes on to apply it to the output of quite a few distinguished writers, and a few who aren't terribly distinguished. Such as George W., who said this.
We want our teachers to be trained so they can meet the obligations, their obligations as teachers. We want them to know how to teach the science of reading in order to make sure there's not this kind of federal -- federal cufflink.
Right... Well said, George. I think.

If you are interested in the English language -- and frankly you have to be very interested to enjoy this book -- you will find lots of intriguing snippets here. Did you know for instance, that the word grammar is 'an outgrowth of the word glamour: they are, in fact, the same word, through the magic of something called "dissimilation," in which glamour becomes grammar in much the same way peregrine becomes pilgrim.'

It was thought, when diagramming was popular, that it was a method of improving children's writing. Well, possibly. Personally, I think the way to improve your writing, when young, is to read lots and lots of well written books: by which I mean books which are grammatical, properly spelt, and properly punctuated. Style I am less concerned about.

If you do that, and acquire an instinctive feel for the language, then formal knowledge of grammar becomes almost irrelevant.

Years ago, in another life, I used to teach English to small boys. And, because of the examination which they would in due course sit, I was obliged to teach them some grammar. I must have been taught this myself, as a child, but by the time I came to teach it I had long since forgotten the difference between an adjective and an adverb, and had to learn it all over again.

In the meantime, however, I had, I like to think, read enough good books to give me the aforementioned instinctive feel for what was correct and what was not. More importantly, I had also acquired a willingness to ignore what was 'correct' if I thought that would communicate more effectively.

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog will make a good Christmas present for anyone who teaches English for a living, and anyone who is studying Eng. Lit.

Nowadays, of course, teachers of English, in England, don't do grammar; read my essay on 'English as she is tort', and weep. All that is important, my dears, is that the children should express themselves.)

And finally, breaking news. Publishers Lunch has just announced that Becky Kraemer, acting on behalf of Melville House, has sold the (presumably paperback) rights to Sister Bernadette to Tina Pohlman at Harcourt, for six figures, for publication in fall 2007.

Nick Parker (editor): Bling, Blogs and Bluetooth

Subtitled 'Modern Living for Oldies', this book is a collection of short articles from the UK magazine The Oldie; a magazine which, as its name implies, is intended for those who are retired, or just plain old.

Essentially, each piece in the book takes a subject which most old people have heard of, but perhaps know little about, and explains what it is. So, for instance, I learnt what Bluetooth is. Or at any rate I did while I was reading the article; I've forgotten it now, of course (short-term memory not being what it was).

Other essays that I read with interest include those on dissing, distant healing, identity theft, McLabour, psychometrics (particularly useful), and the rhubarb triangle (oh yes there is). I decided not to read the one about dogging; I am more of a cat man myself.

All of these were entertaining and informative. Identity theft, one learns, is a way of selling paper shredders to people who don't really need them. And the McLabour item was an eye-opener. Written by environmental activist George Monbiot, it is about how big business buys influence with British politicians. And you know what? British politicians come dirt cheap. For £10,00 you can buy the Government's question-and-answer session on education.

The Oldie is one of the more literate and well informed magazines on the UK market, and this collection gives a pretty good flavour of its contents. It would, obviously, make a good stocking-filler for the older members of your family. It's also a handy -- ahem -- bathroom book.


Anonymous said...

"Or at any rate I did while I was reading the article; I've forgotten it now, of course (short-term memory not being what it was)."

OK you owe me a keyboard!
This youngin can write I tells ya!

Anonymous said...

I should add Maud had a bit on this.

Anonymous said...

There was no worse punishment than being called to the chalk board to diagram a sentence (for whatever reason, we never did them on paper--it was always a much more public humiliation). There were usually one or two kids who got the idea and loved showing off, but for me I'd prefer going to Latin class and conjugating for a couple of hours. Or going to the dentist.

Anonymous said...

"I think the way to improve your writing, when young, is to read lots and lots of well written books: by which I mean books which are grammatical, properly spelt, and properly punctuated. Style I am less concerned about.

If you do that, and acquire an instinctive feel for the language, then formal knowledge of grammar becomes almost irrelevant."

Have to disagree. That was the educational theory when I was young (end of the 60's). All I remember learning was the definition of a noun, verb and adjective. I only learnt about exciting stuff like pronouns and adverbs from my children's homework.
Reading might leave you with an instinctive feel for language, but when I instinctively feel that something I have written is incorrect, I can't work out how to fix it.
And while I think I'd have been bad at languages in any school system, I suspect I might have been less lost in Latin if I'd known the basics in English.

Anonymous said...

I used to love diagramming sentences. It was so fun. Especially compound-complex ones, sticking out all over the place. I guess I was a showoff.

Pandi said...

I think it Dorothy Parker who said when Calvin Coolidge died, "The only man who could make three grammatical errors in a simple declarative sentence is dead." Thanks for your writing - it's always interesting.


Jon Allen said...

Brilliant. Thanks for the hint Dad.
That's your christmas present sorted :)

Anonymous said...

The concept of a "bathroom book" is a strange one. Unless you are reading in the bath. If you have time to so much as open a book while evacuating your bowels, then there is something seriously wrong with your diet.
Which is true for most of the world, today.

Anonymous said...

No problem. I can diagram a sentence!

I didn't know this was an American talent!

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