Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Diagramming Adverbs

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2011

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Having covered the basics of diagramming verb phrases (VPs) with intransitive, transitive, and linking verbs in my last post, I’ll turn now to adverbs and adverb phrases. I’ll use an intransitive verb to keep things simple: swim. The full sentence will be She swims very well, with the adverb phrase very well modifying swims. On the right is how it looks in a Reed-Kellogg diagram. As before, the subject is to the left of the vertical divider; the predicate is to the right. Well is attached to the horizontal bar underneath swims on a diagonal line to show that it modifies it. Since very modifies well, it is shown on a diagonal line, too, which turns 90 degrees to attach to the line for well. In general, modification is shown by having items on diagonal lines underneath the things they modify, with hooked diagonal lines to show submodification.

On the left is how we’d diagram this sentence using a tree diagram. Well, actually, it’s just a diagram of the VP swims very well, since I don’t care about teh subject right now. This is one advantage of tree diagrams over R-K diagrams, by the way. You can diagram whatever phrase you’re interested in, without committing yourself to diagramming a whole sentence, or adding material to turn it into a sentence. Anyway, let’s look at this VP from the bottom up. First off, swims the verb makes up a VP all by itself: She swims is a grammatical sentence. Moving on to the AdvP very well, notice that well is an adverb, and forms an AdvP all by itself. The adverb very is on a sister branch to the AdvP well, and together, very and well make … another AdvP. This is how modification is shown in a tree diagram: You have a node of category X, which branches into something of category M (the modifier) and something of category X again. In very well, X is AdvP, and the M category is Adv. Now look at the top node: It’s a VP. It branches into the AdvP very well, and another VP, swims. Once again, it’s the general pattern for showing modification.

So far, so good. R-K shows modification with slanted lines; tree diagrams show it with the [X [X M]] or [X [M X]] pattern. One problem with the R-K system, though, is that all adverbs are shown modifying not an entire VP, but strictly the verb. On the simple example we’ve done, it’s no big deal, but now consider the verb phrase write badly well. In the R-K diagram, the adverbs badly and well both appear on diagonal lines under the horizontal for write. Oh, and I’ll just put in an understood you for a subject, so we’ll have a whole sentence to work with. (This is how you represent subjectless imperatives in the R-K system.) The problem is that well doesn’t modify just write. It modifies the VP write badly, which means to do a good job of (deliberately) producing bad writing. But as represented in the R-K diagram, the phrase seems to refer to an impossible activity, of writing both well and badly at the same time.

Now here it is in a tree diagram. The entire VP branches into a smaller VP, write badly, which is modified by the AdvP well. The smaller VP write badly branches into a third VP, write, modified by the AdvP badly. This is the structure of a VP that makes sense, and as far as I know, there is no way of showing this in the R-K system. This deficiency is a reflection of the tendency of traditional grammars to focus on relations between individual parts of speech, instead of between larger chunks of syntax.

Last, let’s consider the VP behave badly. We’ll put it in a sentence so we can diagram it R-K style, and here it is. Nothing unusual here; the adverb badly goes on the diagonal line under behaved, right? The problem here is subtle. A modifier should be something that’s optional. Take away very well from She swims very well, and you’re left with She swims. We know she swims; we just don’t know if she does it well, poorly, fast, slow, or any other way. Take away badly from this example and you’re left with She behaved. Unlike the swim example, this doesn’t mean that she behaved in some manner or other. Used this way, behave has a more specific meaning of behaving well. It’s kind of like how He drinks doesn’t mean he drinks something or other and we don’t know what, but that he drinks alcoholic beverages. This is not the behavior of a modifier; it’s more like a verbal complement, like a direct object, or a predicate nominative, or a that clause after a verb like believe.

And why not? If NPs, AdjPs, and entire clauses can be complements to verbs, why can’t AdvPs? In fact, this could be represented pretty easily in the R-K system, by putting badly on the horizontal line after behaved, separated by a vertical line. It’s what we did with excites me in the last post, and it’s how other complements are represented, too (with the exception that the vertical line gets slanted backward for linking verbs). However, I’ve never seen this actually done in a R-K diagram, probably because R-K practitioners are used to thinking of an adverb exclusively as “a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.”

As a tree diagram, behaved badly would look as shown on the left. Notice that the VP node on top does not divide into an AdvP for badly and another VP for behaved. The verb behaved combines directly with badly to form a VP, just like the verb excites combined with me, and is combined with awesome in the last post. (More on the verb behave in this post.) This is how a word and its complement(s) are shown in these diagrams: They are sister nodes under a mother node that’s not the same category as either of the daughter nodes.

But wait? How do you know which daughter is the complement and which is the non-complement (i.e. “head”)? That’s for another post. The main thing here is that modification is shown by a mother and daughter node having the same label, while other relationships (such as complementation) are shown by having sister nodes under a mother node that has a different label from either daughter. And that modification is more accurately represented in tree diagrams than in R-K diagrams.

11 Responses to “Diagramming Adverbs”

  1. Bobo Linq said

    Thanks for this series about sentence diagramming.

    Perhaps you could help with a related issue: Is there any elementary explanation, whether in a book or on the web, of how to do tree diagramming?

    I have wanted to diagram sentences for my work as a lawyer, and I was unable to find an introduction to tree diagramming that was comparable to the many readily-available introductions to R-K diagramming. (This differential availability of method primers may be one reason R-K diagramming lives on!)

  2. Glen said

    This post did a better job of explaining the superiority of tree diagrams over R-K; the last post, frankly, confused me. The “write badly well” example is nice because it shows something that R-K diagrams simply just can’t show.

    But I still find the tree diagrams confusing because of all the seemingly unnecessary branches. In the “swims very well” tree, I don’t know why you couldn’t delete a bunch of the stuff in the middle. Why not say it’s a VP consisting of a V (swims) and an AdvP (very well)? I sort of see why the AdvP needs a further split in order to show that ‘very’ modifies ‘well’, but the general principle for doing these splits is opaque to me (does ‘very’ modify ‘well’ because ‘well’ is lower in the tree?). I’m especially confused by the need for these “straight-down” branches with an intermediate node with only a single branch (as in VP – V – swims).

  3. Ellen K. said

    What strikes me about the two methods is that Reed-Kellogg diagrams don’t tell you much at all if you don’t know the system. Where as the tree diagrams are nicely transparent even if unfamiliar with the system.

  4. Florence said

    Seriously, can this be explained a little better? I have friends..other English majors..
    who can’t leave their computers til they understand this! Assured them it would be there when they returned. I mean, it’s not like we’re teaching a class today, but it gets under one’s skin if something like this should seem over OUR heads. 🙂

    Also, what an ice-breaker to start doing this on a napkin at a backyard picnic!

  5. Florence said

    Ah, after studying this repeatedly, it is my understanding of the wording…these are to be “understood.” I now know what you’re saying, these advPs and advs. Now I can go about my day.

  6. How would a Reed-Kellog diagram handle “I tore the enemy limb from limb”? “I” is the subject, “tore” is the verb, “enemy” is the direct object with “the” modifying it. Then we have “limb from limb”, which is acting to modify the verb “tore”.

    Latin makes this enormously easier: “(Ego) scindebam hostem artuatim”, The subject is usually implied by the verb, but can also be “ego” (I). The verb is “scindebam” (I tore, I rended, I cut to pieces). The direct object is “hostem” (the enemy). Then we have the very helpful adverb “artuatim” (limb-from-limb).

    The Latin version is a snap to diagram, but I’m baffled by the English version.

  7. Luis Fernando Sandoval Bravo said

    can somebody help me diagramming?

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