Writing skills, diagramming a sentence

Lots of Highfalutin Words Add Up to Gobbledygook

My head hurts. I was doing some research today about the growing demand for STEM jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), and I couldn’t believe the bad writing.

It’s a fallacy that only writers need to be proficient in correct grammar and sentence construction. No matter what industry you’re in, or what job you hold, you need basic writing skills to communicate your ideas to internal and external audiences.

What Did You Say?

How could an organization publish this content on their website? 

Meeting the Challenge for STEM Gender Diversity project seeks to develop an Institutional Policy Matrix, supported by an analytic rubric, for collecting and cataloguing evidence-based family-friendly policies and practices that support STEM faculty career-life solutions.

Once fully developed, these instruments will empower four-year colleges and universities to qualitatively and quantitatively self-assess their workplace environments as a function of institutionalization, inclusivity, and culture. By focusing on policies and practices that support career-life solutions, the Gender Values project aims to set in motion the adjustments to institutional policies, procedures, and processes that result in the alignment of institutional missions of gender equity in STEM fields with federal agency efforts.

Through its attention to institutional purpose and faculty gender equity, this STEM initiative is integrally connected to all of these tenets of higher education reform, and is expected to build capacity in higher education toward achieving this goal.

Don’t be concerned if you got lost half way through. I read it more than once and darned if I can understand what it says. I guess the writer never learned to write a simple sentence. I broke the dense copy into paragraphs. Imagine reading it all as one chunk.

It’s Getting Worse

The problem of poor writing isn’t new and it’s getting worse. High school and college graduates enter the workforce and can’t write a sentence with a subject, verb and object. Studies supposedly show that teaching grammar to students doesn’t work.

I’m not sure I believe that.

Diagramming helps to understand where nouns, pronouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives belong in a sentence.

I can still remember as a kid standing at the blackboard (yes, not a whiteboard) and diagramming sentences. I know it helped me immeasurably in learning how to construct a sentence.

Thanks to WikiHow for this diagram and explanation.

Writing skills, diagramming a sentence
In the above sentence, The farmers gave their kids fresh vegetables, farmers is the subject, gave is the verb, vegetables is the direct object, kids is the indirect object, the is an article, their is a possessive pronoun, and fresh is an adjective modifying vegetables.

Let’s Get Back to Basics

Scholars on the subject of writing say that studying grammar doesn’t work because students get bored. Who said school is supposed to be a laugh riot all the time? Learning can be difficult and often tedious. Why do we let kids give up if they get bored and allow them to sneak peeks at their Facebook timeline?

When I held senior communications positions at agencies and companies, I interviewed many job candidates. Their writing skills, for the most part, were abysmal. A good friend, who was a managing director at a global PR agency, spent half his day re-writing press releases for young professionals. Dear reader, writing is the most important skill for PR people.

On bad writing, author Chila Woychik writes, “When reading a book, one hopes it doesn’t turn into a painful process…But with painfully bad writing, all one can do is grab a hatchet, slice off its head, and bury it.”

Amen to that.

Leave a Reply


  1. Thanks for this, Jeannette. Everything you say is absolutely true. So much of the writing we see nowadays is shorthand because we communicate electronically, but the sad truth is that even the briefest notes we receive on line are unintelligible. I spend a great deal of time editing copy, but increasingly the copy I receive is so badly written and laden with gibberish and mangled thoughts that I can’t even edit it because I don’t understand the premise. So simply getting into the practice of using an online thesaurus or dictionary, doing a spell check and reading our work aloud before hitting the send button would certainly help.

    Before the advent of the Internet it used to take many more steps to publish a written piece, and that gave us more check points for correcting mistakes. Even though speed is critical in the world of electronic communications, would taking a few extra minutes to check our writing really slow us down all that much? I know it would definitely improve quality.

    Best —


    • Mark — I completely agree. Even publishers are cutting expenses by eliminating proof readers. None of the agencies I worked for had proofreaders to edit press releases and other written materials before they were distributed to the clients and news media. I guess no one thinks good writing is important any more and that’s sad.

  2. I feel your pain! I read so many studies and research reports in conjunction with my work and sadly the example you shared is all too familiar. The interesting thing is that as I was reading your post I realized how other issues have completely overshadowed the quality of the writing for me. For one thing, how many of these studies are published as “fact” when they are little more than theory. But my real hot button is how often studies are picked up and printed as fact, then are shared, again and again, until in the mind of the public, they become fact just because they’ve seen it so many times. I recently read an article about this very thing and there were 132 studies listed along with the fact that 68 of them have been proven wrong. But of course, that is never reported in the media or shared in social media. Sorry, Jeannette I kind of went off track there a bit. Anyway, you are so right with your point!

    • Marquita, totally agree with your point about all the studies that go viral with misinformation. So many studies that are published in respected medical journals turn out to be wrong because researchers lied about their results or the samples are so small that they can’t be extrapolated to the entire population.
      We live in an age of misinformation, unfortunately.

  3. I agree. Writing is so important especially these days with everyone online and having to read even the shortest paragraph.

    I didn’t learn diagraming in school but wish I did. I think the visual aspects of this style of learning would have worked for me.

    My big pet peeve is social media and software support sites that don’t write instructions well. There are some sites that I came across that write paragraphs for their instructions, really? Why?

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Sabrina – amen to your comment about sites that write unintelligible instructions. Makes me crazy, too.

  4. Jeannette, I love your heading and when I read the statement by STEM I totally understood how you got it. Wow, that really is quite the mission – too bad no one other than the writer knows what it means.

    Using ‘highfalutin’ seems to be the thing these days. We always watch the evening news and many times the anchors will either use big words inappropriately or pronounce them incorrectly. Having learned grammar and spelling in the old days when they were a basic educational requirement we always pick up on it and do a bit of an eye roll. Instead of making them look smart, it works in reverse.

    • Lenie — Totally agree. What happened to using simple words in a sentence that includes a subject, verb and object?

  5. The example you’ve provided is quite painful to read. I would come across many college comp papers where student used such language because they thought it made them sound smart, even when they weren’t really saying much at all. As a former teacher who has tried to teach grammar in nothing short of a hundred different ways, it’s hard to say where it’s place is in the curriculum. Personally, I feel diagramming can be most helpful when taught to sixth grade students and below. After that, it’s time to move on and work on higher-order skills. Too often students are taught the same things over and over again and we wonder why they get bored. It’s a hard call. Getting back to basics is called for, but at the right time and place in the curriculum. That just opens up a whole can of worms for how to best move students along who have widely varied skills. And pity the English teacher who actually assigns a lot of writing because then they have to read it 😉

    • Jeri — I think you can learn correct grammar by simply writing a lot. My favorite English professor in college required us to write about everything we read. He didn’t give tests. He felt reading and then writing promoted understanding. He would read every paper carefully and then return it with comments and say, “Why don’t you try writing this again?” But he was exceptional because he really cared. I can’t imagine how he ever got through the hundreds of handwritten papers (this is before the advent of computers and turning in papers electronically). He had a great influence in my life and I wrote about him in a post “Just Write Something” – a Tribute to Dr. Chalfant.” As you are a former teacher, you might enjoy reading it.

  6. Spelling and grammar should matter. Perhaps standards have lowered over the years. Text talk has not helped young people at all.

    I am shocked that people working in PR need their work redrafted. Surely writing skills should be at the top of their skill set. Why were they appointed?

  7. I have read recently where educators want to Dumb down grammar because it is too hard for our kids. We brought them up in a bang-shoot-them-up video game society, so I am not surprised.
    Grammar might be hard, but so is math to me. I think we need to put more emphasize on grammar education, instead of removing the grammar.

  8. Hello Jeannette, I think the lack of learning about grammar because it’s not fun, speaks to the short attention span of young people today. They want everything immediately (texts, Instagram posts, tweets) and don’t care if it is grammatically correct, spelled incorrectly etc. Due to the limit on characters in tweets they have to abbreviate, in texts it’s just easier …so in my opinion grammar is not seen as that important anymore.

  9. You often hear people demean degrees like journalism or English, which in their mind just means you’re not guaranteed a high-paying job when you graduate. But in some ways these are the most valuable degrees you can have because learning how to communicate clearly is a skill that will serve you well in any profession. Obviously the person who wrote the blob of words that you quoted above must have been a STEM graduate.

  10. Hi Jeannette. I agree with everything you have said. Back when I had a job, I talked at length with one of my coworkers about the education system. It is the same thing with math. Kids these days are taught to do math with calculators. The result is that they have no idea how to do math. If they accidentally press the wrong key and get the wrong answer, they have no way of knowing because they can’t even estimate the answer in their head. Needless to say, I homeschool my kids.

    As far as the paragraph, it isn’t so much bad grammar as it is all written passively. I was in software development back in that old job. All project specifications were written in a passive voice like that. Then you had a group of 10 people sit around a table to decipher it, come up with a proposal, and translate it back into the same passive double-speak. It’s absolutely insane. It’s how they justified their overpriced salaries.

    Thanks for taking me back to that dark place 😉

    • Ben — writing in the passive voice also drives me crazy. It is scary that kids today don’t have to memorize their multiplication tables. They are so wedded to their calculators that they wouldn’t know the answer to 3 x 10 = 30.

  11. Jeannette, I agree with you all you’ve written. I used to teach high school English and created my own “Power Writing Process.” With it, I taught students to use “good” and appropriate words. The aim was to write clearly, intelligently and with style; it was not to confuse or to show off cleverness. Regarding grammar: yes, it’s important, for sure, not just for reading and writing but also for learning another language. Once students buy into grammar’s importance, they just do it, no fuss. And anyway, who says that grammar has to be boring?

    “Highfalutin” words, unless appropriate (are they ever?) need to be avoided. In my view, bafflegab, gobbledygook = BS. If writers question this, they need to read George Orwell’s brilliant insights on how the abuse of language kills our ability to think and denies us our freedom. (I realize that’s the aim of some writers. Readers beware!) Thank you for your valuable offering on this subject.

    • Ramona — I haven’t read Orwell but it sounds like I should. My “bible” is Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” Written over 50 years ago and it is still current.

      • George Orwell was a brilliant and engaging storyteller who revealed how destructive the misuse of language can be. His “1984,” a remarkable classic that always had my grade 12 students hooked from the 1st page, provides a perfect example. It is well worth the read! (In my view, the old movie is not worth watching.) As far as I am concerned, using highfalutin gobbledygook is one form of deliberate misuse. Again, Jeannette, thanks for your great article! 🙂

        • Ramona — I think people who write gobbledygook are insecure in their own writing and think big words will make them look smart.

  12. Am currently studying language development at university. Have noticed that what you describe is currently happening in Sweden. Turns out that the main reason is that in the late 80s Swedish schools stopped teaching grammar. Pupils were encouraged to be creative with their writing which has enabled gobbledygook. Friends of mine who are professors complain that their students neither know how to express themselves, write or even accurately understand Swedish. And what’s worse is that we are talking about pupils studying law and medicine that only pupils with the highest grades manage to get accepted to. Having said that it’s also a fact, pointed out in one of my university textbooks, that older people since time immemorial have been complaing about how young people don’t know how to write. All languages constantly change and develop so how American English and Swedish will be written, say 100 years from now, will make today’s young people complain.

    • Catarina — it’s true the older generation is always comparing itself favorably to the younger generation. But I do think there are basic rules to follow. if you don’t have command of your language, then how will you be able to communicate your ideas and influence others to your points of view?

      • Jeannette I’m also critical about how younger people express themselves. But quite a lot of what was not allowed when we were at school is now frequently correct from a grammatical point of view. Learnt that recently when I studied grammar again at university. Was an eye opener for me. Had fun asking a lot of people between approximately 35 and 65 years old if x or y was correct to say in Swedish. They all, like me thought it was one of the options. Turns out nowadays both are correct.

        • Catarina — A lot has changed with the advent of the Internet. New words and changes in grammar. For example, the AP stylebook which is the Bible for reporters and other writers now allows you to write “There were over 100 people in attendance,” as well as, “There were more than 100 people in attendance.” The “over” version was not acceptable in the past. Got to keep up with the times!

  13. Hi Jeannette; I think they may be right about teaching grammar not working. People tell me I am a very good writer. I did learn sentence structure in junior high school, but what made the most difference in my writing ability and style was continual writing exercises. We had to complete daily or weekly assignments in various types, styles, and lengths. This continued into high school where we had to write a term paper that we would work on all year long. So, while I don’t think teaching grammar and sentence structure is a waste; I do think its much more effective when combined with actual practice and repetition. After all, how many articles have you seen about good writing where the first paragraph includes the line that writers write. I hope I didn’t assume wrongly that I write well because no one has complained about it. I am smart enough to hire an editor when the product is really important to me. Thanks for sharing. Hoping that blogging may actually help improve writing through practice. Be well, Max

    • Max — you are a good writer but most important is that you put your heart in your writing. Your writing is conversational and so easy to read.

      • Hi Jeannette; Thanks for that compliment. I do try to write it so people can read it. I think the fact that I use a screen reader and depend more on how it sounds than on how it looks may help me in making it readable. When asked what is one thing I would tell other writers, I always say before sending it out into the world or into the trash folder read it out loud. Maybe scientists would be a good group for me to target with my work in online publicity as the first step in getting booked on radio or tv is having a story that you can tell in a way people can understand. Thanks again, Max

        • Max — I think you’ve hit it. It helps to read what you’ve written. I do that a lot and it’s surprising how it helps in editing your writing.