Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Diagramming Intransitive, Transitive, and Linking Verbs

Posted by Neal on May 14, 2011

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Every now and then a reader will ask me why I don’t use Reed-Kellogg sentence diagrams, or what I think of them, or recommend them over the tree diagrams I use. So I’ve decided it’s time to begin a series of posts comparing the two ways of diagramming sentences — or in the case of tree diagrams, phrases. They’re not limited to just sentences, which is one reason I prefer them.

The most recent person to write to me about R-K diagrams is Martha Kolln, a retired English professor at Penn State, and author of several grammar books. She argued that R-K diagrams “clearly [show] the differences among transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs.” This seems like as good and limited a topic as any to start with, so here goes. I’ll start with intransitive verbs, with the sentence Syntax rocks. The R-K diagram of this sentence, shown to the right, has the subject to the left of the vertical line that crosses the main horizontal line. The verb rocks is to the right. That’s all there is to it, because rocks is intransitive, and doesn’t require any direct objects, predicate nominals, or any other kind of complement to complete the verb phrase.

Now let’s see how this looks using a tree diagram. Since the whole thing is a sentence, the root node of the (upside-down) tree is labeled S. To show that this S consists of a noun phrase (NP) subject and a verb phrase (VP), this S node divides into two branches. On the left is the NP node. This NP consists of just the noun syntax, so it has only one branch coming off of it, leading to the N node. The “leaf” of this branch is the noun syntax. The VP node also consists of just one word, the verb rocks. So a single branch comes off the VP node, and ends in a V node, just above the rocks leaf.

So far, the two systems are pretty similar, although the tree diagram explicitly gives information that the R-K diagram assumes you will have; i.e., the category and part-of-speech labels. This will be useful for when we diagram isolated phrases that aren’t part of a sentence.

Next up, a transitive verb, illustrated in the sentence Syntax excites me. As before, the subject is to the left of the vertical line that crosses the horizontal, and the predicate is to the right. This time the predicate consists of the verb excites, and its direct object, me. The direct object appears to the right of another vertical bar, which does not cross the main horizontal. This is the hallmark of complements of verbs other than linking verbs in the R-K system.

Now for Syntax excites me in a tree diagram. The NP subject is as before. This time, the VP node branches into the V node for excites, and another NP node for its direct object. Thus, both systems distinguish between intransitive and transitive verbs. The direct object NP consists of the pronoun me, so just a single branch ends in a Pronoun node followed by the leaf me.

Finally, let’s look at linking verbs, with the sentence Syntax is awesome, which contains the linking verb is and the predicate adjective awesome. The R-K diagram on the right is like the other two as far as separating the subject syntax from the predicate. R-K diagrams distinguish linking verbs from transitive verbs by having a slanted line instead of a straight line between the linking verb and its complement. The slanting line is supposed to indicate that the subject has the property named by the predicate adjective (or that the subject and predicate nominative refer to the same thing).

Represented as a tree diagram, Syntax is awesome has precisely the same branch structure as Syntax excites me. The differences are that the leaf labels excites and me are now is and awesome, respectively; and that the NP and Pronoun nodes under the VP node are now Adj(ective)P(hrase) and Adj, respectively. The identicalness of these trees means that this kind of diagram does not distinguish between transitive verbs and linking verbs: Both direct objects and predicate adjectives (and predicate nominals and predicative prepositional phrases) are represented as complements of a V — that is, as a sister node to a V under a VP mother node.

How can a tree diagram represent the information of the slanting line in a R-K diagram? From a syntactician’s point of view, that’s not the diagram’s job. That information isn’t about syntax, but semantics. For that matter, neither R-K diagrams nor tree diagrams show that (at least in more formal varieties of English) pronominal complements of transitive verbs are in accusative case (e.g., They criticized her), while pronominal complements of linking verbs are in nominative case (e.g. It was she). To do that, you need enriched diagrams that can show features like these, but that’s a whole nother story.

As a final note, I should note that both kinds of diagram will let you parse an ungrammatical sentence. You could easily diagram *Syntax excites awesome in either system. To rule it out, you need a set of rules for what kinds of diagrams you can make. In R-K, you need to have a rule that only linking verbs get to have the slanting line after them, and can be followed by an AdjP, and indeed, such rules are taught in the grammar books. For tree diagrams, you need something similar. But with tree diagrams, you have the option of putting some of that enrichment I mentioned above in the category labels, so that you can verify each branching is legit. Below I’ve re-presented all three sentences in this kind of diagram. Here, the labels S and NP stay the same, and Pronoun is simply NP (because pronouns act as NPs). VP has been replaced by NP\S; that is, a VP is something that looks to its left for an NP, and results in an S. Instead of a simple V category for any kind of verb, we have labels showing what kind of complement the verb has to take before it can form an NP\S. Intransitive verbs are NP\S already! Transitive verbs are (NP\S)/NP; that is, they look for an NP on the right before they become an NP\S looking for a subject. Linking verbs are (NP\S)/Pr, with Pr standing for Predicative. This category covers predicative NPs, AdjPs and P(repositional)Ps. The adjective awesome is given the category Pr, since it can act as a predicative adjective phrase. (A noun such as former, though, which can’t be predicative, wouldn’t have this category. Instead, it would be N/N: something that looks for a noun on its right, and results in a bigger noun.) Syntax, by the way, is an NP only because it’s a mass noun, which can act as an NP. A count noun such as sentence would have category N, and would have to combine with something with category NP/N, such as the, in order to form an NP.

The nice thing about this kind of presentation is that at each branching node, you can see the label in the denominator of one daughter node get “canceled out” by the label of its sister node. For example, at the S node, you can see the NP in the denominator of the daughter NP\S node get canceled out by the NP of the other daughter node.

17 Responses to “Diagramming Intransitive, Transitive, and Linking Verbs”

  1. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    Oh my my my.

    As a syntactician, this post kind of makes me want to cry, but I don’t know if that’s directed at you, at Martha Kolln, at Reed and Kellogg, or at your audience.

    Here’s why:
    1) This post is hugely over-simplified, as I believe you are aware. You have, for some reason, chosen to leave out any reference to X-bar theory, which allows for much greater detail when it comes to more complicated sentences like I shot and elephant in my pajamas or I like old men and women, which are ambiguous.
    2) Neither the Reed-Kellogg system nor your trees with slashes allow for language variation. That is, they are extremely English-centric (particularly, emphasizing SVO order). A true X-bar tree would allow the same sentence to be represented in other languages simply by flipping the various head-complement pairs. (Granted, that in and of itself is an oversimplification, but I think the point still holds true.)
    3) Once you get past the English teacher’s “grammar” and get into actual linguistics, I think the Reed-Kellogg system falls apart fairly quickly. As you mention, it does not represent syntactic categories, nor case marking or movement or any other complex phenomena that crop up when your sentences start getting long.

    Also, I wouldn’t say so much that linking/helping/auxiliary verbs are different semantically from regular verbs so much as they are different categorically. But that’s probably a rather meta-semantic discussion that’s separate from my qualms with this post.

    So yeah, I guess I’m on the other end of your reader spectrum from whoever’s asking you why you don’t use Reed-Kellogg. 🙂

    • Neal said

      1) There were tree diagrams before there was X-bar theory. Also I don’t buy the idea of forcing everything to be in a Spec-Head-Comp framework. Even if I did, the main thing I want people who may be more familiar with R-K diagrams is that there’s a better (though still imperfect) system of representing the hierarchical structure of a phrase. These simplified tree diagrams will show the ambiguities you mention just fine; in fact, I’ve used them to illustrate these kinds of attachment ambiguities in other posts.

      2) True, and as Damien points out, the audience for these particular posts consists of English speakers. For serious linguistic analysis in other languages, you’ll need a more detailed and generalizable system. Heck, even for English sentences these tree diagrams break down, with phrasal verbs and noncanonical coordinations.

      3) Agreed. You’ll note I haven’t had much to say about these diagrams in 7 years of writing the blog. But people have asked about it enough that I want to get down once and for all why I don’t use R-K diagrams — and why they shouldn’t, either!

  2. Matt Gordon said

    When I teach the differences between these systems of representations, I highlight the fact that R-K diagrams are about function while the others are more about form. So it’s no surprise that the R-K approach results in different representations for transitive vs. subject complement sentences.

    The R-K approach doesn’t, however, distinguish a formally distinct pair like “I gave him the book” vs. “I gave the book to him” except by filling in the slot leading to the indirect object with the prep.

  3. Damien Hall said

    Surely – apart from the objections given in the above two comments – a good reason not to use R-K trees in a blog read internationally is that they are a system understood only by people who’ve had their school education in the USA? (Speaking as a Brit) before I came to the US, I wasn’t aware that ‘sentence tree’ could have any referent other than the X-bar-style type you go into here. Not that we learned X-bar syntax at school, but we learned about sentence structure in a way that was closer to that than R-K is.

  4. Philip Whitman said

    When I learned grammar, all anybody around me knew was the R-K system, except that we didn’t know it had any name other than sentence diagramming. I prefer the R-K system to tree diagramming, probably just because I am an old man who was naturally outstanding at R-K in school and always made A’s in that phase of English class with hardly any effort at all. In fact, I actually liked it and diagramed sentences from books by authors like Dickens just for fun. It looks simpler than tree diagrams to me, and I don’t like to work hard anymore. I will concede that not being a linguist, I might not appreciate all the things embodied in the tree diagramming system.

    As for the X-bar theory, I have never heard of it before this day, and the guy who wrote about it might consider the possibility that there might be some igmos like me reading the blog who won’t understand some of the stuff he’s saying, so he might give us an example now and then.

    • Well, I’ll state for the record that I never actually learned or used the R-K system in school. I only came across it by accident while browsing Wikipedia a couple of years ago. In addition, being a linguist, I have been given the justification for the X-bar system in a much longer form than a simple blog post, so it’s understandable if you didn’t understand what I was talking about. (I was more directly the comment at Neal, who I do think understood me; I didn’t really think about who else might read it.)

      X-bar diagrams look very similar to the tree diagrams that Neal used in this post (the ones without those rather English-specific slashes). The main difference, really, is notation, in that an X-bar tree would be much more specific, using grammatical categories that you likely wouldn’t be familiar with from traditional grammar. These new categories and different notation are generally motivated by more subtle linguistic variation than the difference between a noun and a verb. For example, rather than have an S (which, as you might notice, arbitrarily “S” for “sentence” rather than following any sort of XP pattern that everything else follows) split into NP and VP, X-bar (well, really, it goes beyond just X-bar theory into more specific linguistic research and hypothesizing) would have a CP (complementizer phrase) containing a TP (tense phrase; sometimes referred to as IP, or inflection phrase). The TP is then split (more complicatedly than the above examples) into your subject (NP or DP, depending on who you believe) and predicate (your standard VP).

      As you can see, it can get complicated very quickly. The general idea behind X-bar theory is that everything follows one of three rules (which Neal alluded to as “a Spec-Head-Comp framework” in his response to my original comment). In particular, something in the pattern of XP (like NP or VP) has a specific meaning, that of the phrase as a whole. Thus, you wouldn’t use, for example, NP again when you really mean N’ (N-bar, or an intermediate level between the whole NP and the specific N head).

      Rest assured, for the purposes of Neal’s blog and its intended audience, these technicalities likely aren’t all that relevant. So, if you had trouble understanding what I just wrote (and I wouldn’t blame you, as I’m quite fond of the parenthetical), you needn’t worry if you only read Neal’s blog. 🙂

  5. Joshua said

    If I’ve seen R-K before today, I can’t recall, but it strikes me as encoding all the interesting information such as the “is a” relationships into the notation itself to produce something “Clear Only If Known.” Looking at the tree diagram I can see that a VP can be a V followed by an AP; in the R-K diagram, if I don’t already know the significance of the slanted line vs. the vertical line, I’m stuck.

  6. Gabe said

    Thanks for this post, Neal. I was never exposed to sentence diagramming in school (I think for the better), and so whenever anyone asked me about them, I’d just change the subject to something I actually knew about. Even though you kept this post simple, I think it gave me all I really need to know about the relationship between tree-structures and diagrams. It’s a pity we can’t get everyone who’s been participating in this recent revival of sentence diagramming (Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog and the like) to convert to promoting tree-structures instead, but maybe this post will help on that front.

  7. Trey Jones said

    You can read more about the long and sordid history of Reed-Kellogg sentence diagrams, syntax trees, balloon animal state machines, and other “Modern and Historical Graphical Representations of Structural Relationships in Spoken and Written English Sentential Utterances” here:

    My favorite is probably the Voronoi Semantic Distance Diagram.

  8. […] on It Was Made Today!Neal on Conspiratorially YoursTrey Jones on Diagramming Intransitive, Transitive, and Linking Verbscrsplace on […]

  9. One thing that I’ve been disappointed in regarding all sentence diagrams I’ve seen is that it’s either difficult or impossible to tell which is the head and which is the dependent.

    I wasn’t aware of the tree-diagram variation that you introduce at the bottom of your post; it seems that heads are easier to discern there. I must admit that I found your explanation a bit hard to follow. You didn’t explicitly say when to use / and \ and what they mean, and when to use parentheses. Where did this form of labeling come from? Is there a fuller explanation somewhere?

    I’ve been experimenting with tree diagrams that (looking like trees) have vertical stems to represent heads, and branches coming out of them at right angles to represent dependents, which in turn could bend up vertically to become their own heads (and finally becoming terminal leaves).

    There is also the problem of labeling function vs category, which seems to me to be the number one cause of confusion in students of syntax.

    • Neal said

      In response to Florence as well: These are good questions, and instead of trying to cram answers into a comment, I’ll put them in a separate post.

  10. Linda Seebach said

    6/2 The trouble with Reed-Kellogg sentence diagramming, as it was originally invented, and as it was still being taught when I was in middle school 50-plus years ago, is that it is woefully inadequate to deal with the real complexities of English syntax. That may not matter in middle school, where only a very limited variety of syntactic structures are considered in any case, and where many students read neither well nor much, hardly write at all and (in many cases) lack the kind of intellectual curiosity that makes bright children try to figure out How Things Work.

    Linguists use tree diagrams. Slightly simplified to a level suitable for middle schools, they wouldn’t be much harder to learn than traditional sentence diagramming, and they have the immense advantages of scaling up to any level of complexity an adult writer needs and being readily adapted to other languages with very different syntax if you need to do that.

    One of the linguistics blogs I read recently had a couple of posts about diagramming vs. tree diagramming, and that wold be a good place to start

    The post was sparked by a question from Martha Kolln, whose name has appeared here recently.

  11. Linda Seebach said

    Sorry, wrong blog! I apologize.

  12. […] sentences. However, they express their preference for Reed-Kellogg diagrams over tree diagrams: This blog post illustrates the differences between the Reed-Kellogg diagram and tree diagram methods for […]

  13. Yazen said

    I got this question with regards to x-bar theory analysis
    what would be the structure of a sentence with two objects one of which is the direct and the other is the indirect object. That is to say the verb is transitive: Hence which position would be assigned close from the VP is it that the direct objects will be the immediate constituent to the verb or is it the indirect object?

  14. Kathryn said

    Where did the phrase “a whole nother ____” come from? Is “whole” an infix? If not, then what’s “nother”? Sorry for the off-topic questions, I just noticed that in this post and have wondered about it myself since–well, since before college. So seeing it in the idiolect of a more well-established linguist than one in her second year of undergrad seemed like a good opportunity.

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