Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Let’s Diagram a Sentence, Part 1

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2010

Michael Foy asked in a recent comment:

So how would you analyze these sentences in tree diagrams?

1. Alice was just beginning to think to herself, ‘Now, what am I to do with this creature when I get it home?’ when it grunted again, so violently, that she looked down into its face in some alarm.

2. This time there could be no mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig, and she felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further.

Let’s give it a try. I’ll tackle It was neither more nor less than a pig, and she felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further. The first thing we can do is notice that it’s a compound sentence, composed of two independent clauses joined by an and. This is typical of phrases joined by and: If the component phrases are of category X, the phrase as a whole will have category X, too. (And if the component phrases have different categories, which does happen? I’m not even going there today.) There are a couple of ways we could diagram this, shown below, and linguists have yet to agree on which approach reflects better what’s going on in human language.

The diagram on the left says that a coordinate structure has three parts: the two things that you’re coordinating, plus the conjunction. The diagram on the right says that a coordinate structure naturally falls into two chunks, not three: The first thing you’re coordinating, and a chunk consisting of the conjunction and the other thing you’re coordinating. Where I’ve put a ? label, there is further contention over what kind of phrase this is. To simplify things, I’ll go with the approach on the left.

The next easiest thing to do is to divide each sentence into subject and predicate, or I’m labeling them here, noun phrase (NP) and verb phrase (VP). I’ll present these as two diagrams, and trust that you can graft them onto the one covering the whole sentence at your leisure. The first sentence:

And now the second one:

Notice that I’ve labeled the pronouns Pro for short. (Actually, this is a bad choice on my part, since syntacticians often use Pro to refer to missing pronouns, but I’m not going to redraw the diagrams now. I’ll just make it each have only one branch coming down from them; that means that these NPs consist of only one thing, namely a pronoun.

Things are going to get more complicated now, as we move down into the sentences. What are we going to do with the correlative conjunctions neither … nor? What about the “dummy it” in it would be quite absurd to carry it further? In the Reed-Kellogg system of diagramming sentences, the answer to that last question would be to recast the sentence as to carry it further would be quite absurd, and then use the infinitive as the subject. But in the tree-diagramming system I’m using here, we’d like to show the structure of the sentence without destroying the information about how it’s actually spoken or written out.

So stay tuned for the next post, where we’ll kick it down to the next level, so to speak!

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5 Responses to “Let’s Diagram a Sentence, Part 1”

  1. Trey Jones said

    See also “Modern and Historical Graphical Representations of Structural Relationships in Spoken and Written English Sentential Utterances”: http://specgram.com/CLIII.d/02.nattapong.diagram.html

    The Clarkian Balloon Diagrams are even real.

  2. […] Whitman at Literal-Minded takes a stab at diagramming some Lewis Carroll (in three parts). from → In the News ← Conference: Quantitative Investigations in […]

  3. shaimaa said

    So how would you analyze these sentences in tree diagrams?

    1. Alice was just beginning to think to herself, ‘Now, what am I to do with this creature when I get it home?’ when it grunted again, so violently, that she looked down into its face in some alarm.

  4. dainichi said

    It’s hard to be 100% sure without the surrounding context, but I find the parsing of

    it was neither more nor less than a pig, and she felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further.

    as a constituent quite unlikely. I mean “there could be no mistake about [the fact that] she felt that…” ? Whether it’s “legal” or not to have a colon in one of the coordinates or not, I feel that the natural reading is that the “and” coordinates

    “This time there could be no mistake about it: it was neither more nor less than a pig”

    and

    “she felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further”

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