Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Let’s Diagram a Sentence, Part 2

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2010

In my last post, I took this reader-suggested sentence:

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.

and got as far as diagramming each of its component sentences as far as shown below:


Today I’ll continue with that first sentence. The next easiest thing to do is to see that the VP is composed of the linking verb was, and the predicate adjective neither more nor less than a pig. The way we diagram verbs and their complements (whether we’re talking about direct objects, clausal complements, predicate nominatives, predicate adjectives, or complements that don’t have a specific name) is to put the verb and its complement(s) as branches under the VP node. We’ll label the verb with a V, and the predicate adjective as an Adjective Phrase (AdjP):

By the way, if you consider neither more nor less than a pig to be a noun phrase (NP) instead of an AdjP, that’s fine. The shape of the diagram will still be the same, but the AdjP label will be an NP instead.

What now? The string neither more nor less forms a chunk within the AdjP, so it will have its own branch underneath the AdjP node. How do we know it forms a chunk? The replacement test: It can be replaced with a single word with a similar meaning and still be grammatical. You could replace neither more nor less with just more or just less and still have a good AdjP. And what category should we give this chunk? Well, what category would we assign to more in more than a pig? I’m going to call it an adjective (though you could also argue that it’s a noun), and more specifically an adjective that takes a complement. That complement is the than a pig phrase, so that will be another branch under AdjP. But what kind of phrase is than a pig? That’s a point of contention among grammarians, who argue over whether than is a conjunction, preposition, or both. I’m going to go with preposition, because prepositions are routinely used to “set up” a noun to be a complement of something else. For example, you can’t say *rely me; it has to be rely on me. So than a pig will be a prepositional phrase (PP). Conjunctions don’t do this.

Given the decisions I made in the last step, the next step is easy: Break down than a pig into two chunks: the preposition than, and the NP a pig. I’ll also go ahead and break that NP down into the determiner a and the noun pig:

Finally, we’re left with just the AdjP neither more nor less. What to do with that? We want to break this AdjP down into chunks that reflect how tightly the words stick to each other. We could have it as two chunks, three chunks, or four chunks:

  1. neither, (more nor less)
  2. (neither more), (nor less)
  3. (neither more nor), less
  4. neither, more, (nor less)
  5. neither, (more nor), less
  6. (neither more), nor, less
  7. neither, more, nor, less

In presenting these possibilities, I’m assuming that the chunks will consist of adjacent words, which isn’t always a safe assumption. For example, phrasal verbs like put up can be split apart by their direct objects: put the shelves up. And more relevant here, neither … nor come as a set, and ideally, the diagram would have a way of showing this dependency. Trying to solve this problem would turn this post from a quick exploration of syntactic tree diagramming into a hardcore piece of linguistic argumentation. So instead, I’ll just take the four-chunks option, and have four branches coming off the AdjP node, one for each word:

Whew! Done!

Wait a minute! Not done! There’s still another entire sentence to do: She felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further. An expletive pronoun (that doesn’t mean what you think)! A modal verb! Two embedded clauses, one of them infinitival! All coming up in (I hope) the next installment of “Let’s Diagram a Sentence”!

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3 Responses to “Let’s Diagram a Sentence, Part 2”

  1. Why no X-bar Theory, TP, or DP?

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