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Technical Stylist’s Tip: The Diagramless Diagram

Kathy Underwood

You know the kind of paragraph that seems to resist all your attempts at editing? Its sentences are usually filled with noun stacks (filled with abstract nouns), pronouns without clear antecedents, and passive voice—not to mention multiple independent and dependent clauses. You just want to write “awk” in the margin and move on, right?

The problem, of course, is that “awk” says no more than “This sentence makes me unhappy.” So what can you do to help both yourself and your writer to untangle a big sentence mess?
Over the years, I’ve adapted a technique to create a “diagramless sentence diagram” to help analyze problem sentences. Because sentence diagramming is not widely taught any more, I wanted to provide a visual representation of the sentence structure that could be used by writers who had no diagramming experience.

Let’s try this bit of bureaucratic reportage, which bears all the signs of a first draft:
Following a series of well-attended information sessions concerning the new multi-user features as well as other enhancements, user group members were invited to review and evaluate a project plan for the new users’ Web site to be established during a public forum sponsored by the Steering Team last Friday. However, the Steering Team was disappointed when only 2 of the 50 users were in attendance and because no questions were presented to the expert team assembled for the occasion.

“Awk” doesn’t begin to describe the problems in this paragraph. So let’s try to find something substantive by first identifying actors and actions as represented by the subjects and verbs.

sentence 1
  • actor user group members
  • action were invited to review and evaluate
sentence 2
  • actor the Steering Team
  • action was disappointed

At this point, we know that there are some users who’ve lost interest in whatever it is that the Steering Team is doing and that the Steering Team is disappointed. And if they all talk like these sentences are written, we know why. So let’s see what else we can dig out from those sentences.

sentence 1
  • actor the Steering Team
  • action were invited to review and evaluate
  • when “Following a series of . . . sessions . . . concerning . . . features”
  • why “to review and evaluate the project plan”
sentence 2
  • actor the Steering Team
  • action was disappointed
  • when “when only 2 . . . were in attendance”
  • why “because no questions were presented”

This far into the analysis, we should be seeing something meatier. What are we missing? The subject of the meeting—the actual topic about which there’s a lot of apathy, disappointment, and, one infers, smoldering resentment.

Note that as you identify additional key bits of content, your idea about the meaning of the text may shift significantly. Not infrequently, you’ll find that a writer will have buried a significant detail in a dependent clause or at the end of a prepositional chain. Also note that you might find that the explicit topic might be incidental to the real point of the sentence. It’s highly likely in such cases that you will need to query your writer.

So here’s a quick fix, admittedly done without the writer’s response to your carefully worded query and with a rash number of assumptions:
After the sessions on the new product release, the Steering Team invited user group members to ask questions and offer comments to an expert panel. The panel’s report will serve as the basis for services on the new product Web site.

The little set of labels (actor, action, when, and why) won’t rewrite the sentence for you. But they can at least help you tease out important details that seem trivial, thus enabling you to realize whether the writer might have hidden the real topic in the least significant parts of the structure.

I would like to add that this primitive analytical tool I’m using pales in its utility next to the real thing—sentence diagramming. For those of you who weren’t fortunate to be exposed to diagramming in school (and even if you were), I recommend Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Dog Barking: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.

Page last modified on Friday, March 12, 2010 01:56:00am EST
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