Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Let’s Diagram a Sentence, Part 3

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2010

For two posts, I’ve been diagramming this sentence from Lewis Carroll suggested by a commenter:

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.

I’ve gotten as far as diagramming the whole thing at a high level as “S and S,” and completely diagramming the first of those component sentences. Now it’s time to take on the second of them: She felt that it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further. Where I left off in the first of these posts, it looked like this:

The first thing we can do with this VP is to note that it consists of two main parts: the verb felt, and the that clause that it’s taking as its complement. The category we’ll use for that-clauses is Complementizer Phrase (CP). I’ll also go ahead and break down this CP into the complementizer that and the sentence that it’s turning into a complement, it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further.

Now it’s time to figure out what to do with that “dummy it“, also known as an expletive it. It’s really only there because what’s semantically the subject, for her to carry it any further, has been placed at the end of the sentence, but English still requires something in its subject slot. In the traditional diagramming system, we’d do away with the it and put the infinitival phrase back into the subject slot: for her to carry it any further would be ridiculous. We won’t do that here, because those are two different sentences. Semantically, they’re the same, but syntactically, they have different structures, and we want the diagrams to reflect that. So we’re going to break this sentence into three chunks: the expletive subject, the VP would be ridiculous, and the infinitival phrase. We’re going to call that a CP, just like we did the larger sentence that it would be….

Next, how to handle the VP? Well, quite absurd is easy enough: It’s a predicate adjective, consisting of the adjective absurd, modified by the adverb quite. The question now is whether to chunk would and be together, or take be to form a chunk with quite absurd. I’m going with the latter, because it can disappear entirely, leaving the would standing alone: Would it be quite absurd? Yes, it would. Now we have a VP directly inside a larger VP, so at this point I’m going to introduce some subscripts to distinguish between different kinds of VP. Here, I’ll distinguish between VPs headed by a verb in its base form (in this case be) and VPs headed by a finite verb (in this case would).

Now to tackle the last of the three chunks forming the sentence it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further. Syntacticians usually treat infinitival phrases like her to carry it any further as sentences — not finite sentences (that is, sentences with a tensed verb for a predicate), but as infinitival ones, which I’ll note with an inf subscript label. Infinitival sentences have subjects, but instead of being in the nominative case (she), they’re in the accusative (her). The remaining infinitival phrase to carry it any further is a VP — again, not a finite one, but an infinitival one. The for, like the that for finite sentences, is a complementizer, making the chunk for her to carry it any further a CP, as seen in the last couple of diagrams.

Syntacticians usually consider the to that marks infinitives to be a kind of auxiliary verb, and that’s what we’ll do here. It takes the base VP carry it any further into an infinitival VP. Within this base VP, it’s easy enough to form a smaller VP consisting of the verb carry and its direct object it. All that remains is the adverb phrase (AdvP) any further, which consists of the adverb further, modified by the adverb any. Notice that instead of having the V, the NP, and the AdvP forming three branches under the VP node above them, I have the V and NP forming a VP, and that VP and the AdvP form two branches of a larger VP. This is how linguists show that any further is an optional modifier of carry it, not some kind of complement. I”ve also gone back and put fin(ite) subscripts on the other VP and S nodes as appropriate.

And there we have it! All that remains now is to glue together this diagram and the one from the last post, into one big grand diagram. Here it is!

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

  1. The Ridger said

    I’ve been following this eagerly to see if I’d do it the same way, and pretty much I would. I like your reasons for being different (treating “for” as a complementizer – that makes so much sense).

    I’ll be borrowing this to show my students.

  2. Having been through at least the first two parts of Carnie’s textbook, these trees make me cringe somewhat.🙂

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