Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Let’s Diagram the Oath of Office!

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2013

Just in time for tomorrow’s inauguration ceremony, but a little bit late for the actual swearing in that took place today, here is the presidential oath of office, as written in the Constitution, put into a tree diagram just for you! Over the years, I’ve used the PHP Syntax Tree Drawer to make my diagrams, but a couple of years ago, Miles Shang’s Syntax Tree Generator came online, so now I have two phrase-diagramming apps to choose from. I couldn’t decide which one to use this time, so I chose both! Now you can decide which style you prefer. Here’s the diagram from the PHP Tree Drawer, with the familiar blue labels and red words you’ve come to love, and the top node of the tree centered horizontally. Click to embiggen.

Oath of Office, take 1

Now here’s the diagram done with Shang’s Tree Generator, with blue node labels and green words. The top node of the diagram, like all the nodes in the tree, dominates branches of equal length, instead of making one branch reach much farther than the other, as you can see happens with the diagram above. Another nice thing about Shang’s Tree Generator is that it allows you to draw movement lines, so that if your theory of syntax has WH words actually moving from a place inside a clause to the front of the sentence (for a WH-fronting language like English), you can do that. On the other hand, the PHP Tree Drawer makes it easier to put subscripts on the labels. Look closely at my VP labels, and you’ll see that in the upper diagram, they’re subscripted to show whether they are nonfinite (headed by a verb’s base form in this sentence) or finite, but no such subscripts appear in the diagram below.

Oath of Office, take 2

If you want to try out these apps yourself, here’s the string I used to generate the tree for both of them:

[Clause_fin [NP [Pron I]] [VP_fin [Aux do] [VP_base [Adv solemnly] [VP_base [V_base [V_base swear] [Conj or] [V_base affirm]] [Clause_that [Comp that] [Clause_fin [NP [Pron I]] [VP_fin [VP_fin [Aux will] [VP_base [Adv faithfully] [VP_base [V_base execute] [NP [Det the] [Nom [N Office] [PP [P of] [NP [N President] [PP [P of] [NP [Det the] [Nom [Adj United] [N States]]]]]]]]]]] [Conj and] [VP_fin [Aux will] [VP_base [PP [P to] [NP [Det the] [Nom best [PP [P of] [NP [Det my] [N ability]]]]]] [VP_base [V_base [V_base preserve] [V_base protect] [Conj and] [V_base defend]] [NP [Det the] [Nom [N Constitution] ][PP [P of] [NP [Det the] [Nom [Adj United] [N States]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]

In particular, you might not agree with how I’ve parsed the adverbs. For example, I’ve taken faithfully to attach to the entire VP execute the Office of President of the United States, but you could also make a case that it attaches just to the verb execute, and that this string then forms the VP with the Office of President of the United States. And as we were reminded in 2009, adverbs have some flexibility in where they can be placed in a sentence, so you could even experiment with diagramming faithfully execute the Office…; execute faithfully the Office…; and execute the Office … faithfully. Have fun!

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7 Responses to “Let’s Diagram the Oath of Office!”

  1. strangeguitars said

    I hope that at some point a tree drawing app will include function labels (I guess you can fudge that with the PHP one), and some way to indicate which line is the head.

    I’ve experimented with both of these in hand drawings — putting function labels along the lines, and drawing heads with vertical lines so you can see which way the dependent branching goes coming off of either side of the head.

  2. Great post! I studied NLP at university and this reminded me about how much I enjoyed it! It’s very interesting i might re-blog this if that’s OK? Also is there a way to get in contact with you via e-mail?

  3. Great post. I actually found it accidentally, though, as I was searching for strangeguitars. Strangeguitars, if you see this, could you get in touch? FB? I want to ask you about the dictionary you made for OpenOffice back in 2007 for using the GSL.

  4. Regarding the question of how to parse the VP faithfully execute the office of President of the United States: The language of oath of office being prescribed by the Constitution, it seems appropriate to look at the case law on adverbial attachment. The controlling decision is Flores Figueroa v. United States, decided by the Supreme Court in 2009. In that decision, the court held that adverbs modify the full VP:

    In ordinary English, where a transitive verb has an object, listeners in most contexts assume that an adverb (such as knowingly) that modifies the transitive verb tells the listener how the subject performed the entire action, including the object as set forth in the sentence. Thus, if a bank official says, “Smith knowingly transferred the funds to his brother’s account,” we would normally understand the bank official’s statement as telling us that Smith knew the account was his brother’s. Nor would it matter if the bank official said “Smith knowingly transferred the funds to the account of his brother.” In either instance, if the bank official later told us that Smith did not know the account belonged to Smith’s brother, we should be surprised.

    So you’ll be glad to know that your parse is correct as a matter of law.

    • Neal said

      Great to hear from you, Neal!
      Knowingly is a great example of why adverbs, at least sometimes, must be taken to modify an entire VP. However, after closely re-reading a 1982(?) paper by Sally McConnell-Ginet, I have had to re-consider the possibility of at least some adverbs being able to modify just a verb.

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