I began my career as a private teacher for a few families committed to providing their children with a real education. These parents had abandoned a fruitless search for a school in which their children would read the classics of literature, learn the story of history, grasp the fundamental principles of science, and develop the clarity and precision of thought that comes from an understanding of grammar.
I knew that a rigorous course in English grammar must include the art of diagramming sentences, but it was no easy task to find a good diagramming textbook in an age when grammar itself is unfashionable. Then, one day, a student’s mother brought me a copy of Phyllis Davenport’s Rex Barks. Here was a masterful presentation of grammar—a well-structured, incremental course in diagramming with clear explanations and memorable illustrations of each new principle—housed in a hand- folded, type-written book with a stapled binding and a tattered yellow cover. Such is the state of education today.
Schools everywhere have abandoned grammar either as unnecessary or as incompatible with the principles they hold most sacred. Educational theorists insist that the fundamental goal of education is to socialize the child, not to force upon him so rigid and academic a skill as grammar. Prominent linguists tell teachers that grammar is an innate faculty and cannot be taught. The so-called self-esteem movement calls for teachers to encourage and praise, not to correct. The “diversity” movement grants equality to all forms of speech and rejects the notion of a universal standard. Lending support to the myriad of reasons for expelling grammar from the curriculum is the often-repeated and self- contradictory view, “You don’t need grammar; you just have to make yourself understood.”
Phyllis Davenport understands that if you want to make yourself understood, you need grammar. Her textbook abounds with examples of the ambiguities that result from an ignorance of grammatical rules. Without knowledge of pronouns and elliptical clauses, you lose the distinction between, “You like Millie better than I” (which means, “You like Millie better than I like Millie”), and “You like Millie better than me” (which means, “You like Millie better than you like me”). This subtle distinction can have profound consequences if you and your wife are engaged in a deep discussion about your relationship with Millie. Or consider the confusion that results from the misplacement of a modifier. To cite a memorable example from Rex Barks: “Hanging over the side of the ship, his eye was caught by a piece of rope.” (The author wryly comments: “There goes that eye, like a fried egg or one of Dali’s watches!”) Clarity is impossible without grammar. As Mrs. Davenport points out, “Even the ‘educationists’ who write books about the unimportance of ‘grammar’ do so with sentences technically correct.”
Even among educators who acknowledge the value of grammar, diagramming has been scorned as an old- fashioned exercise in mental rigor. On the contrary, Rex Barks shows us that the value of diagramming lies not primarily in the mental gymnastics it requires, but in its presentation of a systematic method of identifying the relationships among words in a sentence. To any student who has studied this book and is struggling to identify the function of a word, you need only say, “Picture the diagram!”
Diagramming serves another purpose not served by other approaches to sentence analysis. A diagram brings the relationship among the words of a sentence to the perceptual level. Upon completing a diagram, students are given a visual reminder that, for example, the subject and verb are the core of the sentence, that prepositional phrases are modifiers that add clarification to other words in the sentence, and that dependent clauses are subordinate to main clauses. Through the process of diagramming, you both understand and see the functions of various parts of a sentence.
The art of diagramming sentences provides students with an indispensable foundation for the study of grammar, and Rex Barks makes the process of learning this skill manageable and fun. The book is laid out in logical, incremental steps, and students are given the opportunity to master one concept before proceeding to the next. They begin with sentences like “Rex barks,” and work their way up through modifiers, prepositions, verbs, clauses, verbals, and other complexities of grammar, until, to their delight, they are able to diagram the first sentence in the U.S. Constitution.
One of the best features of Rex Barks is the ever-present personality of the author. Mrs. Davenport reminds the reader of that teacher we all once knew: the strict, demanding teacher who made her students think and work hard, who knew her subject and required that her students learn it, who never accepted excuses—and who was loved best by everyone in the school. The book is filled with her firm admonitions for students to stay in focus. (In response to the question of how one can ever learn the difficult task of distinguishing among the various types of verbs, she says, “By THINKING.”) It contains many clever devices to help students with tricky concepts (e.g., prepositions are to be remembered as “anything a squirrel can do to a tree.”) And it is pervaded by her sense of humor and enthusiasm for her subject.
I am delighted that Paper Tiger Books is republishing this gem of grammar instruction. If today’s schools awaken to the importance of grammar, Rex Barks will be available to help them teach their students the lost art of diagramming. Such, I hope, will be the state of education tomorrow.
Click here to sign up for the VanDamme Academy’s free, weekly e-newsletter: “Pedagogically Correct.” Every week, you will be sent a new article about the principles of teaching employed at VanDamme Academy, along with stories about the results they are achieving.