Tuesday, 12 June 2012 06:41

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 2

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Work through Sentence Diagrams – Tutorial No. 1 before you do this one.

Mushmouth is business writing that appears to be a communication of some sort, but its true goal is preventing communication. By diagramming an example of mushmouth, you can see how clumsy grammar stymies readers. The inference should be obvious: if you want to communicate, don't do it this way.

This mushmouth quote comes from The Sydney Morning Herald of Wednesday, 11 April 2012 -- "Transpacific pays $35m in disclosure settlement". The headline is ironic because Transpacific's statement tries hard to disclose nothing. It was probably written by a paid flack, but the mouth of their Chairman was blamed for this glutinous mush:

'We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.'

As always the first step is to identify the subject, which I highlight in blue, and the verb, highlighted in red:

We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.

Draw your story line and divide it into a subject area on the left and a predicate area on the right. Fill in the subject and the verb.

Next, see if any words indicate what we took. Obviously it's 'decision'. This is the object of the verb. I always highlight objects in green. The object of a verb is diagrammed with a little vertical line separating the two, just like the objects of prepositions you diagrammed in the previous tutorial.

We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.

The story line is now complete, and here's the bare-bones sentence: We took decision. In fact, the story line of a proper sentence is, itself, a grammatically-complete sentence. Grammar geeks call it an independent clause.

Next, identify any words or phrases that describe or further explain 'decision'. These are called modifiers as you learned in Diagramming Tutorial No. 1. To identify modifiers, ask basic questions of the word being modified. Then look for the words or phrases that answer those questions.

For instance, ask yourself, "Which decision?"… "The decision" … "What kind of decision?" … "Decision to participate". I highlight modifiers in orange.

Diagram them on slanted lines below the word they modify on the story line.

We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.


The second modifier is an infinitive. This is the basic form of all verbs. In English the infinitive is formed by adding 'to' to the stem or root of the verb. So to + participate = to participate. Diagram infinitives as if they were one word.

Next, identify any words or phrases that might modify 'to participate'. Ask yourself, "to participate how?" … "to participate in a structured mediation process."

This modifier is a prepositional phrase. As you recall from Diagramming Tutorial No. 1, this includes a preposition, its object and the object's modifiers. I highlight prepositions in generic purple, objects in green and modifiers in orange.

We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.

Note the little elbow to connect the preposition with the slanted line for 'to participate'. The object of the preposition is diagrammed exactly like the object of the verb, and the modifiers are diagrammed exactly like modifiers of story-line words. This is the beauty of diagramming as a way of learning grammatical structure. It forces you to look at how words and phrases are used, rather than what they are called.

Now ask yourself, "what kind of decision?" … "decision having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks". Note that there are two phrases here, and the second one has three objects.

First, 'having regard' is a 'participial phrase'. In this case, 'having' is the present participle of the verb to have. Participles can have objects, like verbs or prepositions. I've highlighted the participle in purple and its object in green.

We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.

Then the prepositional phrase answers the question, "regard to what?" … "regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks". The preposition is purple and the three objects are green. I've also highlighted the joining words (conjunctions) in green.

'We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.'

You may recall from Diagramming Tutorial No. 1 how to diagram compound elements. Just stack them on top of each other, with a dotted vertical line connecting them. Put the conjunctions on the dotted line.

Take a moment to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of this diagram as a grammatical learning aid. Notice that there are THREE kinds of objects diagrammed -- 'decision' is the object of a verb; 'regard' is the object of a participle; 'process, costs, uncertainties, risks' are objects of prepositions. Yet they are all diagrammed the same way, with a little vertical line separating them from the word of which they are the object(s). This is why I say diagrams are the best way to learn grammar as structure. Similar structural components have similar diagrams.

Finally we come to the ultimate diagramming bugbear, a complete clause. Clauses have a subject and a verb, just like a sentence. In fact, a simple sentence is known in grammar as an independent clause. Which raises the question, "What's a dependent clause?"

The last section of our mushmouth example is a dependent clause. (Dependent clauses are almost a hallmark of mushmouth.) It has -- technically at least -- a subject and a verb. But the nature of the word that links it to the main clause makes it dependent on the main clause for its meaning.

In this case, the key word is 'that'. It obviously refers back to the objects of the prepositional phrase -- 'costs', 'uncertainties' and 'risks'. But it also functions as the subject of the dependent clause. I'll highlight it in blue, as if it were an ordinary subject. The verb of the clause is in red.

The dependent clause is diagrammed like a separate sentence, with its own story line. The only difference is the conjunction which connects it to the part of the main clause that it modifies. Use a dotted line to connect the two clauses.

The dependent clause has a predicate modifier, which is highlighted in orange. This is diagrammed exactly like the predicate nouns in Diagramming Tutorial No. 1. Draw a backslash to separate the predicate modifier from the verb. The backslash indicates that while this word is in the predicate, it actually modifies the subject.

'We took the decision to participate in a structured mediation process having regard to the likely costs involved, and the uncertainties and risks that are inevitably associated with claims of this nature.'

Diagram any modifiers, including prepositional phrases, just as you did when you diagrammed the main clause. Here's how the whole thing looks, in all its mushmouth glory:

 

I've used a large bracket to indicate that the dependent clause modifies all three of the prepositional objects. I've put a box around 'that' to indicate that it is essentially filling two roles:

1. It's a conjunction linking the dependent clause to the main clause.

2. It's a pronoun acting as the subject of the dependent clause.

So if your objective is to fill the medium with words from which your readers have great difficulty extracting information, this is the way to do it.

On the other hand, if you wish to communicate, trim your sentences back to their bones, muscle and sinew; and leave the flab and gab on the abattoir floor. Our mushmouth example was supposed to be a rationale for a business decision. Sadly, out of fear or incompetence, the writer chose to hide the decision and its perfectly valid rationale in a tub of mush.

Here's how it should have been done, in a way that would have reflected credit on the Chairman, instead of scorn:

We decided to participate in mediation to reduce cost, uncertainty and risk.

In the context of the settlement of a large lawsuit, this statement would be perfectly comprehensible, understandable, even laudable, by the overwhelming majority of shareholders and analysts, who are the audience for the Chairman's statement.

Here's its diagram. Note the huge shift in power and clarity when we change the story line from 'We took a decision' … to …  'We decided to participate'.



And here's a grammatical wonder: In the mushmouth version, the infinitive to participate was used as an adjective -- a modifier of a noun.  But in the edited version, to participate is used as the noun itself.

Once again we see the elegance of diagrams. You really don't need to know that infinitives can be used as nouns, adjectives or adverbs. The important thing is to know that they can be used as subjects, objects or modifiers. Know how they appear in the diagram, and you know how they are used in the structure of the sentence.  

Now look at the difference between the phrases modifying the object of the verb: 

Mushmouth keeps important words as far from the story line as possible. So the original version puts key words as objects of a second-tier modifier -- a preposition modifying the object, regard, of a first-tier modifier, the present participle, having. 

In the edited version, the key words -- costs, uncertainties and risks -- are one level up, closer to the story line. So it's easier for the reader or listener to understand. 

But this improves more than clarity. Corporates and PR types love to fuss over their organisation's image. So what sort of brand image is conveyed by the mushmouth original? And what image is conveyed by the edited version?

Mushmouth activity: took decision … having regard to costs

Edited activity: decided … to reduce costs

At issue is the process of decision-making. So which version paints the more decisive image of the Board and its Chairman? The answer is obvious. 

The stuffy, old-fashioned, legalistic phrase -- having regard to -- uses 'regard' in its original French meaning, regarder (ray-gar'-day), 'to look'. In the mushmouth context, it means the Chairman and his Board looked at the issues of cost, uncertainty and risk as they were taking their decision.

But investors are more impressed by a Chairman and a Board who will actually do something about cost, uncertainty and risk -- at least control or at best reduce them. Clear, muscular writing always creates a better image of the organisation and the person making a statement. Using mushmouth to convey dignity, fails. It fails in grammar because the only thing mushmouth conveys is complexity, whereas dignity is always simple.  

Mushmouth hurts a brand's image because those who read or hear it are not fooled. Instead, we are offended that the writer or speaker thought we could be tricked so easily. The example in this tutorial leaves us embarrassed for the Chairman, not impressed by him.

Sentence diagramming is covered in much greater detail in my book, Write Like You Mean Business. Sentence diagrams are the best way to learn grammar as structure, rather than as a list of rules. And structure is the bedrock of good writing.
 

 

 

 


 

 


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John Hancock

John Hancock, author