Tuesday, 12 June 2012 22:37

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 4

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Work through diagramming tutorials 1-3 before doing this one.

The sentence for this tutorial is another example of mushmouth, introduced in Diagram Tutorial No. 2. When the writer or speaker is compelled to produce some words but wishes to avoid communicating anything of substance -- generally out of fear or embarrassment -- the preferred form is mushmouth.

The sample sentence is a common story -- large outfit takes over smaller one; back-room operations must be consolidated to create economies of scale. This involves the shedding of jobs, so it generates some political heat. This, in turn, requires a statement in mushmouth, like this:

Staff were informed that management had formed the view that the current in-house IT operation at St George no longer fits Westpac's service delivery model.

This sentence has three clauses. A clause is a complete statement, with a subject and a verb. So the first job is to separate the sentence into its clauses and identify the subject-verb combination for each. As always, I highlight subjects in blue and verbs in red. I've placed parentheses around the conjunctions (linking words).

Staff were informed

(that) management had formed the view

(that) the current in-house IT operation at St George no longer fits Westpac's service delivery model

Diagram each clause on its own story line.


You should have had no problem with the first two, but the negative verb, 'no longer fits', may have troubled you. Negative verbs are diagrammed as if they were positive statements. The words negating the verb are modifiers (adverbs) of the verb, diagrammed below the story line.

Now look for any objects of the verbs, which I highlight in green. Objects are words that receive the action of the verb.

Staff were informed

(that) management had formed the view

(that) the current in-house IT operation at St George no longer fits Westpac's service delivery model

These are diagrammed right after their verbs, separated by short vertical lines.


Then it's just a matter of filling in all the modifiers, which I highlight in orange. Note the prepositional phrase with 'St George' as its object. (I highlight prepositions in generic purple.) Note also how the possessive form of the noun, 'Westpac's' is used as a modifier. Don't forget to include the negative adverbs for 'fits'.

'Staff were informed

(that) management had formed the view

(that) the current in-house IT operation at St George no longer fits Westpac's service delivery model'


My fellow grammar geeks will harrumph that 'in-house' is really a stripped-down prepositional phrase punctuated as a compound adjective. Ignore us.

Notice how the negative adverbs work: 'longer' modifies the verb, while 'no' modifies 'longer'.

A similar situation occurs with 'service delivery model' -- 'delivery' tells us what kind of model, while 'service' tells us what kind of delivery.

Now all that's left are the two conjunctions, 'that' and 'that'. Technically, these are called subordinating conjunctions because they make their clauses subordinate to the preceding one. In this sentence the third clause is subordinate to the second, which is in turn subordinate to the main (or independent) clause.

When writing or editing subordinate clauses, you must always know TO WHICH word, phrase or clause the subordinating conjunction refers. 

In our sample sentence, the first conjunction, 'that', refers to the verb of the main clause, 'informed'. It tells the reader that the entire second clause can be read as a modifer of the verb in the first clause.

Diagram this relationship with dotted lines leading to and from the conjunction, which you put on the left margin of the diagram. The first dotted line connects the conjunction to the word or phrase to which it refers in the previous clause -- in this case 'informed'. The second dotted line connects the conjunction to its own clause.

To indicate this, the dotted line leads to the story line of the dependent clause. When a conjunction links to an entire clause, draw a pair of brackets around the clause, with the dotted line leading to the point of one bracket, like this:


Now ask the same question of the second conjunction, 'that'. To which word or phrase in the second clause does it refer? It's the object, 'view'. So the dotted line runs from 'view' to 'that', and from 'that' to the third clause. The third clause is seen by the reader's mind as explaining 'view'. Here's how the whole thing looks:



This stacking of clauses is a common mushmouth tactic, precisely because it is so difficult for the reader's (or listener's) mind to keep all of them in suspension until the final full stop, then to decide what refers to what.

So if your objective is clear communication, don't do it this way. Here's the step-by-step transformation of this sentence from a mushmouth obfuscation to a clear communication:

Step #1 -- Delete the camouflage clause

The camouflage clause (or phrase) is a standard mushmouth trick. By inserting a bit of redundant or unimportant detail, it distracts and confuses the reader. The news for staff is not that 'management had formed the view', but that the IT section 'no longer fits … (the)… model'.

Here's how it looks with the camouflage clause deleted, in text and diagram forms:

Staff were informed that the current in-house IT operation at St George no longer fits Westpac's service delivery model.

Step #2 - Perform liposuction on the flab and the flim-flam 

The final bit of mushmouth is that guff about 'no longer fits Westpac's service delivery model.' We'll hit that with the liposuction tube. Then we'll use it on the redundant modifiers, 'current' and 'in-house'. By definition, the only IT operation able to be shut down is the current one. And it's obviously in-house, otherwise why would management be shutting it down?

Cleansed of all mush, the statement now looks like this in text and diagram forms:

Staff were informed that St George's IT operation would be closed.

Step #3 - Change passive verbs to active

I kept the passive verbs to soften the shame and fear such stories spawn in those who must publish or, even more terrifyingly, speak them. As a piece of pure news -- in active voice -- it would go like this:

Management told staff that they were closing St George's IT operation.

Ironically, this is what was actually communicated, despite the full-bore mushmouth. That's precisely my point. Senior executives and PR types need to learn that nobody is fooled by this stuff, but everybody is offended. It's offensive because the writer or speaker is saying to all of us in the audience, 'You're not smart enough to figure out what I'm really saying.'

Oh yes we are. But it does take some effort. So when you really do want to tell your readers what's really going on, don't use mushmouth.







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John Hancock

John Hancock, author