Analyzing a 17 level sentence [CF Video]

original unlisted video with flicker issue

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Slide 1

Tree diagrams can help us understand the grammar of sentences, which helps us understand what people are saying, and helps us make our own sentences make sense. They’re helpful if you want to think or debate. They also help us understand all the work we do subconsciously when we read. They give us more insight into what’s going on in our own heads.


We’ll look at a real sentence from a forum discussion. It’s 17 levels due to heavy nesting, but tree diagrams can handle it.


I’ll show my process so you can follow along and learn to do this yourself. Here’s the start after my script typed each word into an individual box for me. Pause here if you want to try making your own tree. This is Keynote, which is similar to Powerpoint. It’s pretty decent but you might prefer using a mind mapping tool, art app or real paper. I’m using Keynote because it has animation for my video.


I found a “distribute evenly” function in Keynote. To use it, take two words and move them to opposite corners. Then select all the words and distribute evenly. It spreads objects out both vertically and horizontally within the range defined by the furthest objects. I dragged “on” and “exactly”, then Keynote spread out the rest of the words. Now they’re pretty readable instead of overlapping so much.

Now I’ll start organizing the words.


The words are mostly organized by part of speech. But I tried to save time by grouping prepositions with nouns. They’re usually near each other in the sentence and easy to pair up. Words I didn’t deal with yet stayed black.

Next I’ll split up the contractions and categorize the last few words. Contractions need to be split because the two words are different parts of speech and serve different grammatical roles. If you’re not sure about a part of speech, the dictionaries help.


Now, I want to figure out which conjunctions and verbs go together, and I’ll include their nouns too. To do this, I just read through the sentence and find clauses. For example, it says “but I’m not sure”. So I’ll group the conjunction “but” with the verb “am”. And the subject for “am” is “I”. To make trees, you need to be able to read clauses and identify conjunction, verb, subject, etc.


I’ve put the main clauses on top and started arranging them as a tree. I’ve got every noun accounted for now. I took “of what” out of the preposition area when looking for the subject of “counts”.

Next, I’ll start connecting the tree.


My next goal is to get the other clauses connected to the tree. I’ll arrange them individually.



Let’s go over what I did here. For “that is” I found the parent which “that” connects to, which is “self”. I brought “self” over along with its preposition. I also found the complement for “is”, which is “different”. Linking verbs always have two nouns, a subject and complement.

For “how you are thinking”, I found the word before it in the sentence, which is “sure”. “How” modifies “sure”. And “sure” is also the complement for “am” so I put it there.

“like you have idea” is simple to arrange. I checked the “of what counts” in the sentence and found it went with idea, so I nested it there.

Next, I looked for where the “like” group goes. The sentence says “it seems like”, so “like” is the complement of “seems”.


Next I want to position the “as” group. The sentence says “counts as” so I’ll move it there.


It’s getting crowded so I’ll shrink the words.



Now I’ll link everything up.


This is the main structure of the sentence. The rest is just modifiers which provide extra details. A few of them are really important to the meaning though, particularly the “not”.

I’ll start arranging the modifiers. Modifiers are generally easier to connect than conjunctions, verbs or nouns.



I arranged the “as” group at the top right without figuring out where in the tree it goes. You can often understand sub-trees by themselves and connect them later. It can be easier to work on parts in isolation.

Now I’ll figure out where to put the “as” group. The sentence says ‘different than “yourself at any point in the future (as opposed to yourself in”’. I need a noun for “as” to modify. I’ll start with the closest one. Is it the future as opposed to yourself? No that doesn’t make sense. Is it the point as opposed to yourself? Nope. Is it yourself as opposed to yourself? Yeah that makes more sense. That’s a little confusing when you only look at the nouns. You should oppose different things, not two of the same thing. But they are different yourselves because they have different modifiers. It’s yourself with some modifiers as opposed yourself with some other modifiers.

So I’ll move and connect the group.


This is unusual because I have a connection line going upward. Normally I put children below parents, but I don’t have enough vertical space.

Next I’ll add connections within the groups I made with the prepositional phrases.



Finally, I’ll connect the groups together, so the full tree is connected.

What the tree shows is that a lot of the sentence is telling us details about what kind of “idea” the writer means. Apart from the long main branch, there are three more sizable chunks, which modify “seems”, “sure” and “yourself”. The structure isn’t obvious at all when you just look at the sentence normally.

The tree makes clear claims about what is a child of what. It can help avoid reading errors, and it can help people communicate when they disagree about what sentence says. Making and comparing trees can also find misunderstandings that people would have otherwise missed.

So, with our tree to help guide us, what does the sentence actually mean?

It says it seems like something, but I am not sure. That’s the core idea. There are three mean groups of details. One says the seeming is based on your reply. One says the sureness is about how you are thinking. And the final group of details tells us what it seems like. It seems like you have some idea. An idea of what? Of what counts as future self. And that idea is different than yourself.

Oh but the tree actually says “that” tells us about “self”. There’s an error. “That” is telling us about the idea. It’s an “idea” that’s different. It’s not a “self” that’s different nor a “what” that’s different.

I caught this while writing the script, before recording anything, so I could have easily changed it. I left the error in the video because making mistakes is part of the process. It’s OK to make mistakes. A lot of creators hide all their errors or they’re extra careful and go slowly to avoid making errors. I think it’s better if I make things more quickly without being a perfectionist so you can see error correction in action. If you want to make fewer errors, practice more, but you’ll still make some errors. I’ll fix it now.


It’s easy to get things wrong with sentences this complicated. But fixing it wasn’t a very big deal. Most of the parent/child relationships didn’t change. Actually only a single one changed. I had to drag one end of one connecting line to a new place. That’s all it took to fix the tree. I also moved some words around to avoid overlap. Some tools do that automatically. When you make a mistake with a tree, often most of your work will still be usable. You can just move a few subtrees around instead of starting over. And you can treat the subtrees as groups. Although “that” got a new parent, I didn’t have to change anything in the subtree for “that”.

I counted out the longest branch. This tree has 17 levels. That’s really high, especially considering the sentence has 45 words. The tree has under three words per level. It’s taller and narrower than normal – or at least it would be if I had the vertical space to keep drawing downward. If you keep your sentences to fewer levels, they’ll be easier to read.

Let’s go back to figuring out the meaning. The idea is different than yourself at any point in the future. And that “yourself” is as opposed to yourself in the current moment.

So it’s saying you have some idea of “future self” that’s different than yourself at any point in the future. At least that’s how it seems based on your reply, but I’m not sure exactly how you’re thinking about it.

It could be rewritten in shorter sentences that are more understandable.


We seem to have different ideas of what “future self” means. My idea is “yourself at any point in the future”. I contrast future self with current self (self in the current moment). Based on your reply, I’m not sure what you’re thinking.

Those four sentences would be much better communication. You can probably understand them right away. There’s only one conjunction, the “what” in the last sentence. If you limit your sentences to two conjunctions maximum, they’ll usually turn out better.

As a reader, we often have to deal with hard sentences, so it’s good to be able analyze the original sentence even though it’s convoluted.


When you read a sentence using your intuition, then you’re subconsciously doing all the work of a grammar tree. To understand the sentence, you have to figure out what all the parent/child relationships are. You need to know which verbs are children of which conjunctions. You need to know which nouns are children of which verbs or prepositions. You need to know which nouns are subjects and which are part of the predicate. You need to know what the parent for every modifier is. And hardest of all, you need to know how the conjunctions connect together.

There’s basically no other way to read besides understanding the words and the connections between words. We all learn to read in terms of words and their meanings and relationships. That’s equivalent to a tree.

Knowing what your subconscious is doing has advantages. It helps you understand yourself better and gain insight into what goes on in your head. It also helps you have a better perspective on reading and writing. And it helps you recognize how easily your subconscious could make an error somewhere in all that work – especially when you’re done with the sentence after only a few seconds. And it helps you find errors in how you read or write, so you can practice some improvements until they become automatic and subconscious. Practicing in order to make a purposeful change requires being able to do things consciously.


This was my first ever scripted video. Let me know how you liked it.