Slide 1

Much technical prose is harder to read than it needs to be. It seems hard to readers not so much because the technical concepts are hard, but because writers are more focused on content than on readers’ needs. If writers can pay attention to certain principles of prose construction, readers are more apt to find technical prose coherent. Coherence is a quality of perception on the part of readers. Writers can only use techniques that promote cohesion and hope for the best.

(This web page owes much to Prof. G. Emlen Hall and his law-student editors of the Natural Resources Journal at the University of New Mexico's School of Law, who annually bring me out of retirement to try to explain syntactic strategies clearly and coherently, and to Prof. Bob Bond at New Mexico Tech, who used to ask me to explain them to the students in the Electrical Engineering Senior Seminar. Thus the preponderance of examples used in this presentation come from law and engineering.)

Slide 2

Clear prose should evoke the response "I see what you're saying." Clarity is often achieved by sharp editing or rewriting, which implies thinking about the needs and backgrounds of readers. It can be compromised by jargon (more about that later).

Cohesion can be organic or inorganic. As with broccoli, organic is better.

Coherence is not entirely within the control of writers and editors. Perhaps readers who don't find your prose coherent are inexperienced or lack your technical background. But they may also be misled by long, dense sentences and paragraphs that aren't organically cohesive.

Slide 3

Disclaimer: this presentation can do little more than suggest a path to further learning. What's here is distilled in part from a semester-long course I used to teach, and even that was a mere introduction to applied syntactic analysis.

Syntactic strategies use analytic techniques to understand the structure of sentences. “Syntax” and “grammar” are more or less interchangeable terms here, but “grammar” is perhaps more confusing because it’s often understood as “the rules for writing well or acceptably”--having good grammar, in this sense, is like having good table manners: it’s a social grace.

Traditional grammars were based on Latin, an inflecting language. English was an inflecting language until the 11th century, but now it’s a word-order language. English is also phrasal--a German might use a jawbreaking compound where an English speaker uses a phrase. The recognition of this crucial fact about English--that it nests phrases inside phrases like Russian dolls--grows out of Noam Chomsky’s seminal 1957 work, Syntactic Structures, which first viewed English as a discrete combinatorial system.

Slide 4

Techniques that promote cohesion depend on attention to syntactic structure, or grammar. Sentence diagramming wasn’t much fun in school, perhaps, and wasn’t seen as having any practical value. But in fact, I contend, the sort of sentence diagramming that follows the analytic methods of post-Chomskian transformational grammar is very useful to technical writers and editors who need to write either connected discourse for paper publication or short chunks to be used in a screen-read, hypertext environment.

Slide 5 This web page will discuss three kinds of problems that compromise readability and show how syntactic strategies can solve them:

  • Jargon, aka technical terminology, which derives from extreme syntactic reduction

Sentences that are ambiguous or hard to parse

Paragraphs that lack cohesiveness
Slide 6 A discrete combinatorial system (DCS) combines a small, fixed number of finite elements in infinite numbers of combinations. For example, the English alphabet contains only 26 letters, from which we can create hundreds of thousands of words. These letters can be used in certain sequences but not in others. “Kcta” doesn’t work in English, though it might in some other language.  

Rules govern combinations all the way from the “atoms” of language that the alphabet represents poorly to the most convoluted and complicated sentences. As applied to grammar, a DCS describes the rules for creating, transforming, and embedding phrases, of which there are only four kinds--noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases, and adverb phrases.

Rules are tacit in the sense that people use them without thinking when they speak or write. Rules reside in the brain in much the same way a Javascript resides in a web page: only run when needed. These are the real rules of language, not to be confused with “rules” invented by language mavens (e.g., “Don’t split infinitives.” “Always use a subject-case pronoun after a be verb.” “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”)

Sentences may follow the rules, as we’ll see later, and still be hard for readers to understand. Syntactic strategies are simply ways to figure out what’s going on in a sentence so that it can be reconstructed.

Slide 7 Some background: In the DCS of English, we create mental trees. An English sentence (S) consists of a noun phrase (NP) and a verb phrase (VP). But the subject noun phrase may contain a noun phrase followed by an adjective phrase, and that phrase could contain a noun phrase that contains a relative clause, so the reader has to hold open the slot where the verb phrase goes until the relations among all the elements of the subject noun phrase have been established.

The six verb types: 1) Be, 2) linking, 3) intransitive, 4)transitive with one object, 5) transitive with direct and indirect objects, and 6) transitive with object complement.

Nine transformations: 1) compounding; 2) passive voice; reduction of clauses to 3) relative clauses, 4) phrases, 5) noun clauses, 6) appositives, 7) absolute phrases, 8) adverb clauses, 9) nonrestrictive relative clauses. (See Morenberg 1997, Bush & Campbell 1995.)

Slide 7A

Slide 8 Nesting is easy to see in a sentence with a number of relative clauses:
“The cat that Bill owns ate the mouse that stole the cheese that was left on the counter in the kitchen that he recently had remodeled.”

The simplest form of embedding is compounding, stringing whole sentences or sentence parts together with conjunctions:
“The sea was calm but the boat sank anyway.”
“The ferocious tiger and the mongoose were cornered by the villagers.”
“The mayor viewed the report with alarm and immediately called his chief of staff.”

Reductions make for greater density: “The cat that Bill owns” becomes “Bill’s cat.”

More extreme reductions give us initialisms. A group in New Mexico that purports to act in the best interests of the public is commonly known as NMPIRG (New Mexico Public Interest Research Group, itself a reduction of "group that does research in the interests of the public in New Mexico").

Slide 9 These simple clauses were all teased out of a single sentence. Try embedding them to form a single sentence.

Slide 10
Here’s the original from which all those clauses were teased out. The first three sentences became the initialism NGO ( a bit of jargon), and the first four sentences became the sentence’s head noun phrase, NGO water trusts.

The fifth through eleventh sentences embed into a participial adjective phrase which itself contains an infinitive phrase that contains an adverbial prepositional phrase. The first and second groups of sentences constitute the finished sentence's noun phrase, or subject.

The sentences in the right column provide the verb phrase, or predicate, that in the embedded sentence starts at “provide.” Note that the reader has to hold the verb slot open before getting an answer to “NGO trusts do what?”

Note that two of the  right column’s sentences reduce to “water right holders.” This is a noun string, another bit of jargon formation that we’ll get to in a moment.
Slide 10A

Slide 11
I said earlier that sentences arise from grammatical rules, seemingly hardwired into our brains, that act like background subroutines. We produce convoluted sentences quite naturally.

Our listeners and readers have corresponding tacit subroutines for trying to make sense of our utterances. These work on a probabilistic principle, as we’ll see in the next examples.
Slide 12
Does time fly as an arrow does? Do you time flies as you would time an arrow? Do time flies like arrows just as fruit flies like plums?

Chances are you saw the “flies as an arrow does” meaning first. Your mental parser read “time” as a noun phrase and expected a verb to follow. The second meaning is less probable; you have to parse “time” as an imperative verb--an order. Since “time” is most commonly a noun and less often a verb, “time” as an adjective describing a kind of fly is least probable.

The other two sentences cause most readers to laugh: because of the placement of the final phrases, there’s a discordance between what we think the sentences are supposed to mean and what they appear to mean.
Slide 13
These sentences cause your mental parser to hit its reset button.

You tend to parse “the man who hunts ducks” as a noun phrase which should properly be followed by a verb phrase. When it isn’t, you go back and reparse: “The man who hunts” becomes the subject noun phrase, and “ducks” (most often a noun), taken together with “out”, becomes the verb phrase.

The other sentences require similar reparsing. They lead you down the garden path--that is, astray.
Slide 14

Many words don’t change form to change function. For example, “contact” can be noun, verb, or adjective. That is, it can fill any of these slots in a sentence structure.

Most words can have their basic form changed by add-ons. Some, notably so-called irregular verbs,  change form altogether: think, thought, drink,drank, drunk.

Slide 15
The reason for  words' changing form is to help them play a variety of grammatical roles, as dictated by the structural rules. 

"Holmes deduced that Moriarty was hiding behind the falls. His deduction was correct. However, Holmes’ deductive powers were of no use. His deductivity could not prevent his being thrown over the edge."

There is, of course, a reason why the “morphed” forms exist. It is that sentences must work together, and the morphed forms help that process.

Though unmorphed words are easiest for readers to deal with, constructing prose units longer than a sentence becomes  an engineering problem: in the tradeoff between clarity and cohesion, cohesion is more important, and the morphed forms help promote cohesion.

Slide 16
Which is it--a convention of old guys that play tubas,  or a convention of folks who play old tubas? A proposal that  comes from the railroad, or from the railroad workers, or neither?

Noun clusters, or noun strings, are reductions from full clauses that show the relationship among the nouns. They are a common means of streamlining semantic units for everyday use. The problem is that they are inherently ambiguous: as in this example, they can be understood several ways depending on how the syntax is reconstructed.

Trying to clarify with hyphens isn’t much help because there are several possible ways to group these nouns into noun phrases.

Slide 17
This practice of stacking nouns can be illustrated by a selection from an article from a journal for members of IEEE. This particular journal is not a research journal but is geared toward keeping electrical engineers abreast of new technology. Its articles contain plenty of examples of noun stacking, a practice that’s exceedingly common in professional life. 

Jargon often looks like initialisms or stacks of nouns, but it can be analyzed as if it were formed by a process of clause reduction. The advantage of such jargon is that it helps insiders communicate efficiently. However, outsiders may be unable to get the meaning even if they are able to undo the clause reductions--primarily because there are many possible underlying clauses. 

BGA, here, stands for ball-grid array. This is just a further reduced noun string.

That one short sentence contains this information, embedded and transformed: 

A die is used in manufacturing microprocessors of the Pentium variety; an array, based on a printed circuit, carries a medium to high count of silicon leads and transforms from the silicon to an array of balls made of solder under the substrate through a microvia (an electrical path < 0.1 mm between layers of a circuit board) ; an interface attaches a semiconductor to the next level of inter-connection by putting conductive bumps on the face of the chip and mounting it face down.

Slide 18  

The subject noun phrase is also a noun string, probably parsed as “local development of energy sources” or perhaps as “development of local energy sources.” “Energy sources” is a simple noun string, or nugget of jargon, within the longer noun string.

In the predicate verb phrase, “infrastructure options” is another nugget within a longer noun string, which might be parsed as “quantitative measures for assessing infrastructure options.”

Slide 19 Realign parts: In traditional grammar, we speak of sentences as having subjects, verbs, and objects or complements. Some newer grammars use the terms agent (who or what did it), action (what was done), and goal (who or what it was done to) to identify the main parts of a sentence, regardless of its transformations. Making the subject of the sentence the same as its agent, action same as verb, and goal same as object usually makes clearer sentences.

Example: "Bill caught six largemouth bass" aligns subject, verb, and object with agent, action, and goal. In "Six largemouth bass were caught," the goal is the subject and the agent disappears or is relegated to a preposotional phrase ("by Bill"). In "The catch was six largemouth bass," the agent has disappeared and the action has become the subject.

Convert Nominalizations into Verbs: Nominalizations are nouns that came from verbs. Verbs make prose more active, so look for nominalizations that you can make back into verbs. Example: turn consideration (noun) into consider (verb). Thus "Three factors were given consideration" becomes "Three factors were considered." 

Passive to Active: A passive is made by putting a part of the verb to be in front of another verb's past participle. (In the sentence you just read, is made is a passive.) Sentences with verbs in the passive voice sometimes become awkward, and because the goal or the receiver has become the grammatical subject, the reader can't tell who did what. Changing "Three factors were considered" to "we [or whoever] considered three factors" makes the agent clear.

Cut out Clutter: Certain phrases pop into writers' minds unless writers fence them out. Phrases such as "on the basis of," "in excess of"; nouns such as "factors"; weak verbs such as "occurs," "experiences": all these make the reader work harder. Overqualification can also clutter sentences: change "the data would seem, superficially, possibly to indicate that . . ." to "the data indicate . . . ." Indicate is inherently less definite than mean. 

Slide 20

See G. Gopen & J. Swan, “The science of scientific writing.” American Scientist 78 (1990): 550-555.

There’s an unstated expectation among readers that a sentence names something familiar in the subject noun phrase and then goes on to add new information about it in the predicate or verb phrase. However, this expectation is routinely violated in technical prose. Gopen andSwan suggest that, from a reader’s standpoint, technical prose is more often written with new info on the left and familiar info on the right because it’s the new info that most interests the writer. However, this practice makes reading unnecessarily difficult.

Editors have to be of two minds. With one mind, they have to understand the writers’ jargon and more importantly their intentions. In the other mind, they have to think as a reader: Is there enough context to let a reader connect? What terms need explanation? What noun strings need reconstitution? What is new information to the reader? How did we get from the “here” of this sentence to the “there” of the next one?

When paragraphs seem scrambled--new information up front, context somewhere in the middle of the paragraph--it’s up to the editor to realign it. Put the contextualizing, familiar material first, then the new.

Slide 20
This sentence requires a reader’s mental parser  to keep incomplete branches in suspension until the verb phrase finally appears. Note that the subject noun phrase ends just before “is very wide, ” creating a left-branching sentence.

This sentence also uses a few reduced clauses that show up as stacked nouns: “fabrication processes,” “microvia boards.” Further reduction could have made the sentence still harder to decipher:  “The cellular phone microvia board material and fabrication process range is very wide.”
Slide 21 Here’s a diagram that shows how the subject noun phrase is constructed. Note that it uses the two noun strings (which can be analyzed as reductions of longer phrases) essentially as single nouns. 

Note also that an infinitive phrase nests within a past participial phrase that nests within a noun phrase that is the object of a preposition, and that the prepositional phrase is bound to another noun phrase. The whole conglomeration constitutes the noun phrase that is the subject of "is very wide."

Slide 22 Here’s another sentence from the same article. This sentence branches to the right. Its subject noun phrase is fairly uncomplicated, while the predicate verb phrase is more intricately nested. From a reader’s standpoint, this right-branching structure is easier to handle because it follows readers’ normal expectation that familiar information belongs in the left branch, the subject noun phrase, and new information belongs on the right.

This convention is routinely violated in technical prose. Gopen and Swan (writing in American Scientist, 1990) suggest that, from a reader’s standpoint, such prose is written with new info on the left and familiar info on the right because it’s the new info that most interests the writer. However, this practice makes reading unnecessarily difficult.
Slide 22a
Visual observation of the waterflood displacement mechanisms after asphaltene precipitation are shown to be similar to the mechanisms of displacement of the unprecipitated crude oil.

This sentence was brought to me a dozen years ago by a student who was interning as an editor with Tech’s petroleum-research institute. He found it baffling, and so did I at first. My intuition said there was something deeply wrong with the sentence. At the time I used a quick-and-dirty bracketing method to isolate the principal components of the sentence. Bracketing involves eliminating prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, relative clauses, participial phrases as ineligible candidates for the sentence’s subject and verb. It turned out that the core of the sentence was “observation are shown.” This is not just a disagreement in number between subject and verb; there is also a semantic disagreement because “observation” and “mechanisms” aren’t really similar. Also, somebody’s observing and showing, but because of nominalization and passive voice we don’t know who. And it may not be important.

Years later, I tried to diagram the sentence, as shown in the next slide.
Slide 22b
This diagram is hard to see at this scale, but what it shows is that there’s an apparent subject phrase labeled “NP-head” and another noun phrase labeled “NP-True Subj” which in the diagram is stuck inside a prepositional phrase. “After asphaltene precipitation” shows up in the middle of the sentence as a sentence modifier, not attached to any other phrase. The verb is passive, and unless an actor doing the showing is somehow important, it could be deleted. Noticing that “mechanisms of displacement” and “displacement mechanisms” are really the same thing, we could put the sentence modifier first in the sentence and get rid of some redundancy:
After asphaltene precipitation, displacement mechanisms of the waterflood are similar to those of the unprecipitated crude oil.

Note that this clarifying magic can be pulled off by a syntactician without a degree in petroleum engineering.
Slide 23 Sentences in isolation, like my previous examples, don’t offer enough context to help us discern meaning. Hence, we rely on longer units--paragraphs--to help us get meanings across. Paragraphs can specify, elaborate, enumerate, illustrate--just as our freshman comp teachers always told us. But some paragraphs simply work better than others.

More effective paragraphs observe several principles that lead readers easily through them:
  •     Consistent topics--if the topic of the paragraph appears at the left of the sentences, the paragraph will seem more coherent
  • Those changed-form words and "misaligned" sentence structures mentioned earlier can help keep to topic to the left
  • Forecasters help readers develop a mental picture by orienting them in space, time, and sequence

Slide 24 By using Ford or a pronoun equivalent, this paragraph keeps the focus where it should be--by keeping "Ford" forward in all the sentences if not actually in the subject position. The first sentence treats "Ford" as new information and places it in the verb phrase or predicate (right side). All sentences thereafter treat "Ford" as the old information for this paragraph. The transition from the first sentence to the second uses what I call the inchworm principle.
Slide 25 The inchworm strategy works best as a transitional device between paragraphs--the last noun phrase in paragraph 1 becomes the topic of paragraph 2; the last noun phrase in the first sentence becomes the topic in subsequent sentences. Within this example paragraph, there is a surface cohesiveness but no real coherence.
Slide 26 The transformations that are sometimes the enemies of clarity can become the friends of cohesion. In the second sentence of these pairs, the first sentence’s verb--rose--becomes a noun. But it’s more effective as the subject of the second sentence, creating a short left branch that allows new information to occur in the right branch.

The passive “was sparked by” of course lacks an attributor. One could avoid the passive by rewording: “This rise resulted from an increased demand for barrel hoops.”

Slide 27 The art of using forecasters was probably something you learned in freshman English. They are useful, but they add only a surface sort of cohesion--inorganic rather than organic.  Organic cohesion comes with the kinds of sentence realignments that produce single-topic paragraphs--cohesion through structure.

Logical Forecasters: also, because, for example, therefore, furthermore, in addition, however, in conclusion, not only/but also, on the other hand, similarly, etc.
 Sequential Forecasters: first, second, third, next, etc.
Temporal Forecasters: after, before, finally, soon, next, when, then, etc.
Spatial Forecasters: above, below, beside, adjacent, next, under, over, etc.

Slide 28
Readers have to work less hard if each paragraph or chunk becomes a unit in which the second and subsequent sentences have a consistent, identifiable topic in the left branch. (The first sentence names the topic, which may occur in its right branch.)

Noun strings of four or more words may be fine for technical audiences, but nontechnical audiences may need to have them unstrung to show relationships and supply background knowledge or context.

The last point addresses a personal peeve. Many of the ads I see for writers and editors specify that applicants must know how to use Word, Publisher, Photoshop and other software. It seems from the ads that editors' skills with language are relatively unimportant. But it is these skills that create documents more likely to satisfy clients and customers and thus to increase the prosperity of the companies and agencies.  For more on this question, see Chapter One of  How to Edit Technical Documents.

Slide 29

Suggested Readings

Max Morenberg, Doing Grammar. 3rd ed. Oxford, 2002.
Morenberg’s book makes the basic transformations easy to understand.
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct. Perennial Press, 2000, partic. Chs. 5 & 7.
Pinker’s book is fun to read; the two chapters mentioned here explain tree structures in terms of both word morphology and syntax.
Don Bush and Chuck Campbell, How to Edit Technical Documents. Oryx, 1995, partic. Ch. 8.
Bush & Campbell present syntactic strategies as part of the technical editor’s toolkit--the first book on technical editing to do so. Oryx Press was bought out by Greenwood Press, which has allowed the book to go out ofstock. Check the library or email Campbell.
Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 4th ed. Longman, 2002.
Martha Kolln’s title reminds us that grammatical tactics serve rhetorical ends.
Joseph Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 8th ed. Longman, 2004.
Williams continues his two-decade struggle to strike a balance between clarity and cohesion.
Kim S. Campbell, Coherence, Continuity, and Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design. Lawrence E Erlbaum, 1995.
Kim Campbell’s book tries for a sort of unified field theory of coherence, both in prose and visual design.

Slide 30

Examples of Prose in Need of Revision

The presentations from which this web page is derived contain a number of examples of prose that is extremely dense with jargon. They also have examples of prose whose authors were evidently so deadline-bound or so enamored of the authorial voice that they forgot to notice that their paragraphs aren't cohesive and their sentences nearly defy readers' attempts to understand them.  If you find that your organization is putting out reports that are nearly unintelligible except to the people who wrote them, you might want to contact Campbell about doing a presentation or seminar for your people. Seminars can be tailored to the kinds of documents your organization produces, and examples drawn from your own documents.

But there are plenty of examples of infelicitous prose you can sharpen your skills on if you keep your eyes open. Standards of editing in the publishing field have slipped badly over the past couple of decades. There are a number of possible reasons for this slippage we needn't go into here.  My own practice when in need of examples has been simply to go to the university libraries and somewhat  randomly select texts and learned journals from the shelves.

If you do find yourself drawn toward trying to straighten out others' sentences and paragraphs, a certain humility is in order. As Joseph Williams has said, "You can't write a book too often; eventually you might get it right." After eight editions, he would know. Most of us don't have the luxury of multiple rewritings in a time-is-money  work environment. Balancing clarity and cohesion is a constant struggle. We might call it "prose engineering" because as writers and editors we're always trying for the best compromise.  Or at least the best compomise we can get under the circumstances.  I encourage people to use syntactic strategies on randomly found paragraphs: if you do so, you will become a more skillful reader and a more self- and others-aware writer.