John Hancock

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 23:17

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 5

Please start with Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 1 and work your way through. Diagramming is the best way to learn grammar, so stick with it.

The sample sentence for this tutorial comes from a friend’s CV cover letter. It stars everybody’s favourite subject -- ourselves. Or does it? Exactly who -- or what -- is the grammatical subject of this sentence?

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

I highlight the subjects of sentences in blue:

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

The verb is highlighted in red:

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Draw your story line, and write the subject and verb either side of the dividing line.

Does the verb have an object? In other words, what was helped? That’s not such an easy question. The story is easy enough to understand; my friend helped corporations improve their profitability. But the object of has helped seems to be ‘(to) improve’.  I highlight objects in green.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped (to) improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Were did I get that ‘(to)’ in parentheses? It’s what I call a virtual word -- also known as an ‘understood’ word. These are neither written nor spoken but are required to fill a slot in the grammatical structure. They are understood to be there, even when they are not there. Diagram virtual words in parentheses.

In this case (to) is required to make improve into an infinitive. You learned about infinitives in Diagramming Tutorial No. 2. They’re the basic form of all verbs, but they are used as other parts of speech. In this sentence the infinitive to improve is used as a noun.

Remember how to diagram objects: Draw a vertical line down to the story line, but not through it. Put the object to the right of that line. Here’s how your drawing should look:

Infinitives can take objects, just as prepositions do. In this case the object of the infinitive is profitability. Highlight objects in green. You’ll notice that we now have an object of an object.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped (to) improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Diagramming the object of an infinitive used as a noun is tricky. Putting it up on the line would confuse the diagram, because we have an object of an object.

The authorities want you to put the entire infinitive phrase on a little stand, but that’s too complicated as a picture. (Official method here -- http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/diagrams2/diagrams_frames.htm)

I put the object below, on a dog-leg line. It looks just like a prepositional phrase without a preposition. Here’s the diagram:

That’s the story line completed. The story line gives you the bare, grammatical bones of a sentence. This one says, ‘record has helped (to) improve profitability’.

The next job is to identify modifiers of the story-line words. Modifiers answer questions we might ask about the words they modify.

For instance, we might ask ‘WHOSE record?’ – ‘My record’. Like all possessives‘My’ is a modifier. Then we might wonder ‘WHAT KIND of record?’ – ‘track record’. I highlight modifiers in orange.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Diagram modifiers on slanted lines below the words they modify:

 

Another answer to‘WHAT KIND of record?’ is the prepositional phrase – in services marketing. I highlight prepositions in generic purple. The objects are green – same as objects of verbs and infinitives. Modifiers, if any, are orange.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

You learned to diagram prepositional phrases in Tutorials 1 & 2. Put the preposition on a slanted line. Put its object on a horizontal line. Put the modifier on a slanted line below the object.

Here’s how your diagram should look:

What shall we do with the words in parentheses – (financial, telecommunications and IT)? You will be delighted to learn that even grammar geeks label this structure in Plain English. It is a parenthetical phrase. Parenthetical phrases give essentially repetitive information about the words to which they refer. You can remove them without upsetting the grammar, syntax or meaning of the sentence.

Parenthetical phrases should be placed immediately after the word to which they refer – in this case, services. But my friend placed it after marketing, which is slightly confusing. Ironically, this is yet more proof of the power of diagramming. When something is difficult to diagram, that’s a clue that it needs to be edited

I diagram parenthetical phrases by putting them in brackets, as though they were clauses. Brackets are graphically the same as parentheses.

As you did when diagramming clauses in Tutorials 2 & 4, run a dotted line from the point of one bracket to the word to which the phrase refers. It should look like this:

Incidentally, don’t get hung up on positioning things like parenthetical phrases. I put this one where it is to keep the diagram as large as possible within the column width of this webpage. When you’re drawing them by hand – on a BIG piece of paper, like A3 – put them in the most logical place, or wherever you have room.

For example, here’s a fragment of what would be a much larger diagram, showing the parenthetical phrase directly to the left of services.

Finally, identify any modifiers of the object of the infinitive, profitability. We might ask the question, ‘WHICH profitability?’ First answer: ‘THE profitability.’

The second answer to ‘WHICH profitability?’ is given by another prepositional phrase – of … corporations.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Let’s diagram just that much:

Now take a deep breath, because it’s going to get messy. First, look at the two words, such … as. Technically they form a compound preposition or, even more arcanely, a phrasal preposition. And while I understand the reasons for these clumsy labels, I’m not convinced they’re necessary.

I think the argument for calling ‘such as’ a compound preposition starts with the assumption that the two words are placed together. So, is there any grammatical difference between these two phrases?

1. ‘… of such corporations as American Express…’

2. ‘… of corporations such as American Express…’

You can see that there is no difference. This leads me to label ‘such’ a modifier and ‘as’ a preposition. I highlight modifiers in orange, prepositions in generic purple, and objects in green:

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

So the diagram looks like this:

Now all that’s left is the infinitive phrase, to name a few. It seems to be commenting on the list of corporations, but it doesn’t really modify them in the sense of answering logical questions. In fact it’s another parenthetical phrase, but without the parentheses. Diagram it in brackets, like the first parenthetical phrase. And use a single bracket to indicate that it refers to all of the corporations listed.

Your finished diagram should look much like this:

Now you probably spotted the fundamental flaw in this sentence when you drew the basic story line diagram. It has the wrong subject. My friend’s record didn’t help those corporations’ profitability; she did.

So let’s fix that first, then look at the rest of the sentence. The new subject is I and the verb is helped.

I helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Now where do we put the left-overs: My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT)? I would suggest an introductory phrase, like this:

Working in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT), I helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

The participle, working, modifies the subject. The prepositional phrase modifies working. With the Stage 1 Fix, the sentence is diagrammed like this:

Now we can clean up the rest of it. Remember you learned to identify parenthetical phrases by removing them from the sentence to see if it was damaged? That’s your clue. With the commentary removed, we’re left with this:

Working in services marketing, I helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM.

Here’s the diagram:

 

Note that both parenthetical phrases were redundant:

  1. ‘financial, telecommunications and IT’  -- These merely gave the categories of the corporations actually listed. They added nothing.
  2. ‘to name a few’ –My friend was trying to indicate that she had also worked at other big-league outfits. But if they were truly in the same league, she would have listed them as well. The comment added nothing of value.

But this means we could also get rid of ‘such … as’, for the same reason.

And if we’re serious, we could do away with the entire introductory phrase. Other parts of the cover letter – not to mention her CV as well – made it clear that she worked in marketing. The corporations listed are all service marketers. Therefore the intro – ‘Working in services marketing’ – is not really necessary.

We’re left with a straightforward statement of competence and experience:

I helped improve profitability at American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM.

The diagram is now much cleaner:

 
I hope these tutorials have given you a taste for sentence diagrams. Drawing diagrams is truly the best way to learn how words and phrases are put together into sentences. They are also the most dramatic way to see the difference between a murky sentence and a clear one.
 
Write Like You Mean Business contains much more detail on sentence diagramming, and it includes some exercises.
 
If you like, I can produce editing and diagramming tutorials customised to your organisation's communications. Email your brief for a quote. 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 22:37

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 4

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 22:29

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 3

Work through Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 1 and No. 2 before you do this one.

In this tutorial I will show you how to actually draw a diagram. Yes, I mean with a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. That's what you need to do if you want to learn this as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Drawing the diagrams burns them into your muscle memory, making it easier to remember. So this tutorial is all on video.

We'll work through the diagrams for a sentence before and after editing. It's yet another example of what a wonderful tool diagramming is, both for learning grammatical structure and for analysing troubled sentences.

Click on the video icon below, to see how it's done in the real world. Forgive the rough sound quality; I'm working with two different recording systems.

At the launch of Write Like You Mean Business, author John Hancock did a live edit of an "About Us" page.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 06:41

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 2

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.
 

 

 

 


 

 


Tuesday, 12 June 2012 06:00

Sentence Diagrams - Tutorial No. 1

'Don't let good grammar spoil good writing'. This was the headline of a piece by Philip Yaffe, posted at -- http://www.contentwriter.in/articles/writing/grammar-writing.htm

I agree with Yaffe on good writing.Bad writing, however, is never spoiled by the application of good grammar. Nor is mediocre writing. My business is helping you to write better, and that almost always involves applying grammatical structure, if not grammatical rules.

When you write to inform or persuade, you must understand grammar as structure. That's why I teach sentence diagramming. It's the best way to learn grammar -- and the best way to analyse sentences when editing.

I devote over half of my book, Write Like You Mean Business, to explaining grammar through sentence diagrams. I devote much of the remainder to sentence diagrams that illustrate structural problems and how to solve them.

Write the way people read

Sentence diagrams reflect how our minds process written language. The key elements of a sentence are arranged along the top of the diagram, on what I call the story line. The modifiers hang below the story line.

All modifiers are diagrammed the same way, whether they are adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, participles, articles, possessives or infinitives. So identifying these parts of speech is not as important as understanding how they are used. Diagrams let you see the sentence more or less as your reader's mind sees it. The focus is on structure rather than labels and rules.

If you weren't taught the parts of speech in school, don't worry; you'll pick it up. Instead of what they're calledconcentrate on what they do in the sentence and where they are in the diagram.

One last thing: You should actually draw these diagrams. Part of what makes diagramming such a powerful tool for learning grammar is that it engages both sides of your brain. Add the physical act of drawing, and you enlist muscle memory as well. Seriously, draw them by hand. You can rotate the paper to write on the slanted lines when the time comes.

Our sample sentence appeared in the annual report of one of Australia's biggest banks. This is about as close to the essence of business writing as you can get:

Key drivers of the Group’s earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking. 

The Story Line

Draw a horizontal line at the top of your paper. Draw a short vertical line through it to separate it into two parts. The left-hand part is the subject. The subject drives the action of the verb -- or is driven by it. The part on the right is the predicate. The predicate contains the verb and its associated words.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

Next, identify the individual subject, in this case 'drivers'. I highlight subjects in blue. Write it on the story line on the left of the dividing line. This sentence has a single subject, but many will have two or more. You'll see how to diagram these later.

Now identify the verb, 'were'. I highlight verbs in red. Write it on the story line to the right of the divider. This sentence has a one-word verb, but that won't always be the case.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

 

The predicate can also include a predicate noun or pronoun which refers back to the subject. These are usually words that mean the same thing as the subject word. They are placed after the verb, separated by a backslash to point back toward the subject. Identify the predicate noun in our sample sentence, 'leadership'. I highlight these in a generic colour, purple.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

This story line is finished. A diagrammed story line should always be a grammatically-complete sentence, also known as an independent clause. The story line is the backbone of the sentence. Everything else is just additional detail.

When you read a story line out loud, it may sound clumsy, but it should contain the essence of the story the whole sentence is meant to convey. If it doesn't, that's another reason to learn diagramming. A diagram shows you where a sentence needs editing.

In this case the statement, drivers were leadership is grammatically incorrect. The subject and verb are plural, but there's only one predicate noun, and it's singular. We'll come back to that after we've diagrammed all the modifiers.

The two broad types of modifier are adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives modify (describe or give additional information about) nouns and pronouns. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

Identify the words describing story-line nouns in our sample sentence -- 'Key' and 'continued'. I highlight modifiers in orange. Write these on slanted lines below the words they modify.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

Grammar geeks note that 'continued' is the past participle of the verb to continue, used as an adjective. This illustrates the great power of diagramming. Because the diagram for all modifiers is the same, it focuses your mind on where the words fit into the architecture of the sentence, rather than on arcane labels like adjective or past participle.

Call them A and B if you like, or marmot and vole; I don't care. But know where they go in the diagram, and you'll know what they do in the sentence.

Prepositional phrases are also used as modifiers. Prepositions are words that describe relationships in space and time. A preposition usually has an object, to which it refers. The prepositional phrase includes the preposition, its object and any modifiers.

In the sample sentence I've highlighted prepositions in purple, their objects in green, and modifiers in orange. Write the prepositions on slanted lines to indicate that they and their phrases are acting as modifiers. Write the object of the preposition on a horizontal line, separated from the preposition by a short vertical line.

Modifiers are diagrammed below the objects just as you diagrammed the modifiers of the story-line words. Here's the diagram:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking 

combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.

Two things are worth your attention: First, see how modifiers of modifiers are diagrammed with a little 'hook' or 'elbow'. Second, see how the two objects of a prepositional phrase are stacked one on top of the other, with their joining word (conjunction) on a dotted line between. This is how all compound elements are diagrammed.

Finally, for my fellow grammar geeks -- note that the article 'the', which modifies Group's is diagrammed as if it were an adverb. That's the power of diagramming. The student can SEE that the possessive noun functions as an adjective, therefore its article must function as an adverb.

I make no apology for repeating this; it's important: For working writers -- and most especially for working editors -- grammar is structure. That's why I teach it through diagrams, and that's why I believe they're the best way to learn it. Diagrams shift the emphasis from terminology and rules to pictures and structures.

Anyway, this diagram makes it clear that something is amiss with our sample sentence. The plural subject and plural verb lead us to expect a plural or compound predicate nouns, but there's only a singular, single one.

However, the diagram also shows us where the other one is hidden. The word is 'growth', and it is buried way below the story line because it is the object of the preposition 'with'. Worse, the entire prepositional phrase merely functions as an adverb modifying 'combined'.

This is what I mean when I say that editing is usually much more profound that just reducing the word count. The writer probably used 'combined with' instead of 'and' because he or she believed two words totalling three syllables were more appropriate for the annual report of a major bank than one word of one syllable.

Sadly this attempt at dignity failed on structural grounds. Correct it by deleting 'combined with' and inserting 'and'. Here's the diagram of the edited sentence:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking and strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking.


Now you can see what a huge difference this little edit makes to the structure of the sentence. It now reads as I believe the writer intended. There were two drivers of the bank's earnings:

1. Leadership in the business sector

2. Growth in the consumer sector

Transforming 'growth' from a prepositional object into a predicate noun makes all the difference, because it elevates the word up to the story line.

I harp on story lines because they are where your reader's mind looks first for clues about the meaning of your sentence. The more of the story you can get up on that line -- and the clearer you can be about it -- the easier you make it for your reader to understand what you've written.

This diagram indicates the need for one more bit of editing. That's to delete the prepositional phrase 'in deposits and mortgages'. It's an unnecessary detail in this context, and cutting it out makes the structure perfectly parallel, like this:

modifier              predicate noun      preposition           modifier              object                 

continued                leadership                  in                   Business               Banking    

strong                      growth                     in                   Personal               Banking

The final edit looks like this when diagrammed:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking and strong growth in Personal Banking.

 

The parallel structure shows clearly in the symmetry of the diagrams for the two predicate nouns and their modifiers.

This method of diagramming sentences was published by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg in 1877. I learned it at school in the 1950s. It is virtually unknown outside of the USA, and rare these days even in the USA. The best diagramming site on the web is produced and maintained by Capital Community College of Hartford, Connecticut. Here's the URL:

grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/diagrams2/diagrams_frames.htm

I teach simplified diagrams for verbal phrases (participial, gerund and infinitive) -- so you should probably wait until you've gone through my tutorials before moving on to the CCC site. My method is designed specifically for working writers, rather than specialist grammar or linguistics students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 05:46

Dangling Participles - Tutorial No. 4

Here are two introductory phrases that do not refer to the nouns or pronouns following them -- which in these cases are the subjects of the sentences.

Subjects are in blue, verbs in red, problem words in purple. The first example is from a letter offering customers a Platinum Visa card:

Dear <NAME>,

As a valued Brand Insurance customerwe are pleased to offer you …

The company making the offer has confused itself with the customer to whom the offer is being made. This is a very common syntactical problem. There are two fixes:

Fix #1 -- Change 'we' to 'you', and re-write the remainder of the sentence to suit:

Dear <NAME>,

As a valued Brand Insurance customeryou are invited to accept …

Fix #2 -- Move the introductory phrase or clause to follow the noun or pronoun to which it refers. In this location it needs to be as short as possible, so I'll delete the brand name.

Dear <NAME>,

We are pleased to offer youas a valued customer, …

The next example comes from a Forbes online story:

After all, prior to filing its Initial Public Offering (IPO), I argued that Groupon lacks a competitive advantage …

This journalist may very well have argued that Groupon lacked a competitive advantage, but he never filed Groupon's IPO forms. In this case, the best fix is to move the misleading phrase to immediately before 'Groupon', because that's what the phrase is talking about.

After all, I argued that prior to filing its Initial Public Offering (IPO), Groupon lacked a competitive advantage …

Note that I changed 'lacks' to 'lacked', to suit the past-tense verb, 'argued'. Sticklers would also insert a comma after 'that'. I would join them, except for the comma that already lies after 'all'. Two comma in five words seems a bit chunky, but ... it's up to you.

The video tutorial presents all of this with sound, colour and movment.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 05:33

Editing - Tutorial No. 4

Here's a sentence from an annual report. It shows how a string of prepositional phrases can submerge an important word:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking. 

Start the edit by highlighting the subject in blue and the verb in red:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking. 

This sentence is telling us that 'drivers were …' something. In fact, since these are plurals, it's telling us that 'drivers were …' at least two things. In a sentence like this, the things 'drivers were …' are called predicate nouns. (Although they could just as easily be predicate pronouns or predicate modifiers.) We'll put the predicate nouns in purple.

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking combined with strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking. 

Oops. The only predicate noun available is 'leadership'. Stripped to its grammatical essence, the sentence reads like this:

driverswereleadership

This is what I call the story line of a sentence. It contains only the subject(s), verb(s), direct object(s), predicate noun(s), predicate pronoun(s) and/or predicate modifier(s). That's all. Everything else in the sentence modifies a word on the story line.

I think the writer of this sentence intended the story line to look like this:

Driverswereleadership … and growth

He or she was undone by writing '…combined with…' instead of simply '…and…'. The wordy version downgrades 'growth' from a story-line word to a mere object of the preposition 'with'.

Good editing is often much more than merely reducing the word count. Done with grammatical awareness, good editing can strengthen the structure of your sentences.

Here's the sentence, edited:

Key drivers of the Group's earnings were continued leadership in Business Banking and strong growth in deposits and mortgages in Personal Banking. 

It is now crystal clear that the two drivers of earnings were leadership and growth.

See this in more detail in the video tutorial:

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 05:17

Editing for Readability - Tutorial No. 1

In this tutorial I'll take you through the readability edit of a typical About Us page for a small business. The rule for readability is simple:

Use short words and short sentences. Your writing will be easier to read.

The original came straight off the web. I have changed the name of the company to "Brand Insulation". Here's how to nip and tuck a 3-paragraph text.

'About Us' AS PUBLISHED:

Brand Insulation is a family owned and operated company that supplies and installs high performing insulation products with the support of practical and friendly advice. The company was established by a husband and wife team in 1998 after twenty years experience working in the building industry.

Our management team are equipped with extensive knowledge of all aspects of the insulation industry and we draw on the depth of experience provided by our extended team of trusted contractors who understand all facets of insulation installation.

Brand Insulation provide a wide range of insulation products and services, we are also always available to provide free advice on the best insulation option for your home or office. 

FLESCH READABILITY DATA

Total words = 114                                   Flesch Reading Ease = 26.5

Avg. words per sentence = 28.5           Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level = 16.6 years

You have probably never heard of 'Flesch Readability Data'. Here's the extremely short version: In the 1940s Dr Rudolph Flesch developed an algorithm for calculating how easy a piece of text was to read. The higher the final number, the easier to read; the lower the number, the more difficult. With J.P. Kincaid he worked out the equivalent number of years of schooling required for a person to be able to easily read the text.

Edit your business writing to a Flesch Reading Ease score of 40 or more, and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of less than 11. According to the OECD's International Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey (2006), this is the average reading level for adults in English-speaking countries.

On the Flesch scale our sample text is a bit harder to read than the Harvard Law Review, which is said to Flesch out at just over 30.

Now I'll take you through the edit, step by step. Problem areas are highlighted.

Brand Insulation is a family owned and operated company that supplies and installs high performing insulation products with the support of practical and friendly adviceThe company was established by a husband and wife team in 1998 after twenty years experience working in the building industry.     (46 words)

Flesch Reading Ease = 30.8      Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level = 14.7 years

I would leave 'family owned and operated' until after we've established 'husband and wife team'. We can replace 'high performing' with a single word, and 'support of practical and friendly advice' is treated more economically in para #3. 'The company' can become 'It'. I would move 'in 1998' to right after 'established'. Also, if we say 'twenty years experience' in the context of installing insulation, then 'working in the building industry' is unnecessary.

To clean up the grammar and punctuation, the noun 'years' must be in the possessive case, years', when it is used to modify another noun, 'experience'.

Here's the edited para:

Brand Insulation supplies and installs quality insulation products. It was established in 1998 by a husband and wife with twenty years' experience. The family still owns and operates it today.          (30 words)

Flesch Reading Ease = 44.4         Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level = 9.6 years

Now look hard at paragraph #2:

Our management team are equipped with extensive knowledge of all aspects of the insulation industry and we draw on the depth of experience provided by our extended team of trusted contractors who understand all facets of insulation installation.     (38 words)

Flesch Reading Ease = 14.65          Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level = 20.66 years

I would dump all reference to 'our management team', because we've already established that they had 20 years' experience when they started the business back in 1998. About the only news in this para is that the contractors are trusted and experienced. So let's boil the lot down to just this (and change the slightly pompous 'facets' to the more workmanlike 'areas'):

Our trusted contractors have experience in all areas of installation.         (10 words)

 Here's the final paragraph:

Brand Insulation provide a wide range of insulation products and services, we are also always available to provide free advice on the best insulation option for your home or office.           (30 words)

Flesch Reading Ease = 29.8          Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level = 16.6 years

We've established in para #1 that Brand supplies and installs quality insulation, so the highlighted clause is redundant. The 'advice' story is the only news, but we need to transmit it in as few words as possible.

As a rule of thumb, when you see phrases like '… X is able to do Y …' -- just change them to read like this: 'X does Y.' In this case we change 'we are also always able to provide' to simply 'We also provide'. I've also cut 'option', because Brand doesn't supply and install options, only insulation. I changed 'office' to 'business' as it's more inclusive; 'business' includes small shops, for instance. 

Here's the final edit:

We also provide free advice on the best insulation for your home or business.         (14 words)

The only thing left to do is to merge what's left of para #2 and para #3 into a single paragraph. I don't like leaving those two little sentences on their own like that. The edited About Us page now looks like this:

About Us AS EDITED:

Brand Insulation supplies and installs quality insulation products. It was established in 1998 by a husband and wife with 20 years' experience. The family still owns and operates it today.

Our trusted contractors have experience in all areas of installation. We also provide free advice on the best insulation for your home or business. 

Total words = 54                                     Flesch Reading Ease = 48.6

Avg. words per sentence = 10.8           Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level = 9.2

Comparing the data we see that the edited version is less than half as long as the original, with sentences almost one-third the length. The Flesch Reading Ease score indicates that the edited version is almost twice as easy to read as the original. And the grade level is down from university graduate to first year of high school.

Now don't get seduced by these hard-edged numbers. After scanning the original paragraphs, you probably had a fair idea of what Brand Insulation was about. You probably knew more about Brand Insulation than you would have known about three paragraphs in the Harvard Law Review, which is theoretically easier to read.

The issue here is not absolute readability, but improved readability. The point -- and the benefit of using the Flesch method with your word processor -- is to make your final draft easier to read than your first draft.

This is all a bit easier to follow when you watch the video tutorial:

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 04:58

Dangling Participles - Tutorial No. 3

Many grammarians identify the participles in introductory phrases or clauses as "dangling" when they are followed by an illogical noun or pronoun. This is usually the subject of the sentence. Here's an absurd example, with the dangling participle in purple and the pronoun subject in blue:

Swarming aggressively, I was attacked by bees.

The participle 'swarming' is said to be dangling because in syntax it modifies the first noun or pronoun following the introductory phrase, which is 'I'; but in logic it modifies 'bees'.

I think it's misleading to call these things dangling participles. That implies that the participle is in the wrong place. But as you can see, the problem is with the noun or pronoun rather than the participle. And the best fix is almost always to leave the participle where it is and to re-write the sentence with the logical noun or pronoun as the subject, followed by an active verb (in red) and its object (in green), like this:

Swarming aggressively, the bees attacked me.

This is pretty obvious in such a simple and outrageous example. But here's the same problem in a sentence you could see in any business document or email:

Listening to the market, the price was dropped by 15 percent. 

Well, no … the price is an inanimate abstraction; it cannot listen to real life. And there's another problem usually associated with these misbegotten subjects -- passive verbs.

The solution to both problems, as in the swarming bees story, is to change the subject to the logical noun or pronoun, followed by an active verb (red) and its object (green):

Listening to the market, we dropped the price by 15 percent. 

So let's stop blaming dangling participles when the real problem is illogical subjects. That term focuses the student's mind on the noun or pronoun, where the real trouble lies.

Watch the video for a more entertaining presentation of the same stuff.

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John Hancock

John Hancock, author