Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Diagramming Interrogatives

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2011

A couple of months ago, Rentz and Lentz at the Bcomm Teacher Xchange blog were kind enough to include one of my posts in their list of resources for learning how to diagram 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 diagramming sentences. I prefer the Reed-Kellogg method. I know linguists prefer tree diagrams for their precision and more nuanced representation of sentence structures, but I’m not a linguist. I just want a visually accessible way for students to look at sentences, and (at least for me) the left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram presents sentence structures more clearly than the top-down reading orientation of the tree diagram.

I’ll respond to their two reasons. First, it’s true that if you’re a linguist, you probably prefer tree diagrams to Reed-Kellogg diagrams. It’s also true that if you’re a cat, you prefer meat to vegetables. But if you’re not a cat, that doesn’t mean you prefer vegetables to meat. Case in point: my son Doug, who is not a cat, yet still likes his pizza with pepperoni and bacon when he can get it, and will pick off any peppers or onions. Likewise, you don’t have to be a linguist to like tree diagrams (if you like diagrams at all). I respect Rentz and Lentz’s preference for Reed-Kellogg diagrams, but dispute their non-linguisthood as a valid reason for the preference.

As for the “left-right reading orientation of the Reed-Kellogg diagram”, I’m afraid I don’t understand. One of the advantages of tree diagrams is that they preserve the linear order of an utterance. Reed-Kellogg diagrams use a mixture of left-right and top-down orientations, and if you don’t know the original sentence that is being diagrammed, you can’t always get back to it by reading off a Reed-Kellogg diagram. If you don’t believe me, check out this Reed-Kellogg diagram of the opening sentence from the Declaration of Independence, and then compare it to this tree diagram of the same sentence (you’ll need to use the magnifying-glass icon). Both diagrams are big and unwieldy, but only the tree diagram lets you read back the original sentence in unwavering left-to-right order.

This willingness to undo a sentence’s linear order to get at its structure shows up especially in Reed-Kellogg diagrams of interrogatives. An interrogative like Do you like cats? in a Reed-Kellogg diagram is indistinguishable from the emphatic You do like cats!, because subject-auxiliary inversion (e.g. Do you) is ignored.

Also, wh elements are always left in situ in Reed-Kellogg diagrams. That is, a sentence like What did you see? is diagrammed as if it were the question Did you see what? — or more accurately, as if it were You did see what?, what with the undoing of the subject-auxiliary inversion in Did you. That would be the question you might ask someone if they said to you, “I did see it!” and you didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.

There are even diagrams in which the combination of undoing subject-auxiliary inversion and leaving all wh items in situ collapse even more sentences into one representation. Take the sentence

Brynn will say who stole the cookies.

In a Reed-Kellogg diagram, but it looks like this:

We already know this will be indistinguishable from Will Brynn say who stole the cookies?, but there’s more. This is also the diagram for the interrogative sentence

Who will Brynn say stole the cookies?

In English, the who in these sentences is placed at the front of whichever clause is a question. If the question is about who stole the cookies, the who stays at the front of stole the cookies. If the question is about whom Brynn will accuse, the who goes in front of will Brynn say. But when you diagram it in situ, you don’t know which sentence you’re dealing with, and the semantic difference is more than just whether you’re asking about or stating the same proposition. In a language like Chinese, where all wh items really are in situ, the ambiguity of this diagram would be excusable, because the actual sentence would be ambiguous, too — but we’re diagramming English, not Chinese.

In fact, the above diagram is even the same as the one for …who Brynn will say stole the cookies, but we can cut a little slack here, since this is a subordinate clause, not a complete sentence. A Reed-Kellogg diagram would have to connect situate this clause within a larger one; for example, Fenster knows who Brynn will say stole the cookies.

For comparison, here’s how Brynn will say who stole the cookies and Who will Brynn say stole the cookies? look in tree diagrams (click to embiggen):

It’s worth noting that only the first of these four English sentences can be read off the diagram left-to-right.

A couple of other reasons I prefer tree diagrams can be seen in the diagrams in this post. First, it’s easier to collapse tree diagrams into triangles to hide the details. In the Reed-Kellogg diagram, even though I wasn’t interested in the internal structure of the verb phrase stole the cookies, I had to diagram it out, right down to hanging the the underneath cookies. In the tree diagram, I just took it down to the level of VP and left that phrase in a triangle of its own. Second, tree diagrams let you diagram a phrase without insisting that you diagram the entire sentence it came from. If I wanted to diagram just the structure of the predicate stole the cookies, I could do that easily with a tree diagram, whereas a Reed-Kellogg diagram would look incomplete with a predicate on one side of the vertical bar and no subject on the other side.

I’m not saying that tree diagrams always have it over Reed-Kellogg ones. For some sentences, neither kind has an advantage, and for some, Reed-Kellogg might even have an advantage. For example, Reed-Kellogg diagrams do a better job than tree diagrams of showing the unity of phrasal verbs such as throw away when they wrap around a direct object. For many sentences, though, especially the kind that syntacticians think about and traditional grammarians tend to overlook, tree diagrams are the way to go.

18 Responses to “Diagramming Interrogatives”

  1. Neal, your last sentence is waiting for a verb, isn’t it?

  2. Jonathon said

    Good explanation, Neal. The Reed-Kellogg diagram of the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence is mind-bogglingly complex and is pretty much impossible to follow. It took me a minute just to figure out where to begin. The tree diagram, by comparison, looks pretty tidy and straightforward.

  3. Glen said

    I see all of your arguments, yet something is still more appealing about Reed-Kellogg to me. I think it’s that Reed-Kellogg does a better job, for me, in clarifying certain grammar rules. For instance, in your sentences about Brynn and the cookies, the fact that three different sentences are diagrammed in the same way shows their essential unity. In all three sentences, Brynn is the subject, ‘will say’ is the verb, ‘who stole the cookies’ is the direct object. As a result, the form of the verbs and nouns will be the same. Now take the sentence ‘Brynn will say whom she gave the cookies.’ In a Reed-Kellogg diagram, it would be very clear why the sentence requires ‘whom’ instead of ‘who’: because ‘whom’ is the object of the verb ‘gave’. And that would be equally obvious for ‘Whom will Brynn say she gave the cookies?’, precisely because the diagram would be the same. Maybe a tree diagram could show that as well, but I don’t know how. Maybe the problem is that I still don’t really understand tree diagrams.

    • ‘Brynn will say whom she gave the cookies.’

      That’s grammatical for you? It isn’t for me. It needs a “to”, “Brynn will say whom she gave the cookies to.” (or “Brynn will say to whom she gave the cookies.”, which is awkward, but still better, for me, than without the “to”.).

      • Glen said

        It’s grammatical because ‘whom’ is an indirect object. “She gave him the cookies” does not require a ‘to’ before ‘him’, which is the indirect object. ‘Him’ and ‘whom’ occupy the same grammatical position.

      • Philip Whitman said

        I agree that it “does not require a to”, but a to is not forbidden either, and it just sounds better to me with a to in this particular instance.

      • Ellen K. said

        But, Glen, “whom” does NOT occupy the same grammatical position as “him” in that question… we can’t say “Him will Brynn say she gave the cookies?”… I don’t think anyone would find that grammatical.

        Furthermore, for me, whom is never okay where “who” is not. “Whom” is a variant of “who” available for use as an object.

        “She gave WHO the cookies?” would be grammatical for me, as well as “She gave WHOM the cookies?” (in spoken English, with the capitalized word stressed.) But when “who” or “whom” is fronted, “to” is required. For me. That is, for some of us. So I’m surprised to see it’s different for some people.

      • Glen said

        You wouldn’t say “Him will Brynn say she gave the cookies” because that would be using an interrogative ordering when a regular (indicative) ordering is called for. But with regard to the *case* of he/him, ‘him’ is absolutely appropriate, as becomes clear when you shift to the indicative ordering: “She gave him the cookies.”

        Note that in your example, ‘He’ would also be wrong: “He will Brynn say she gave the cookies.” This shows that it’s the word ordering that’s the real problem with your example, not the case. The fronting for purposes of making it a question doesn’t change the word’s grammatical position with regard to its case.

        (Also, very strictly speaking, “She gave WHO the cookies?” would *not* be grammatical for me, although it wouldn’t bother me too much. I recognize that the language is evolving and use of ‘whom’ is drifting out of fashion as the objective case — and drifting into fashion as a marker of formality.)

      • Glen said

        Also, I agree with my dad (Philip) that the ‘to’ is optional, not forbidden. That’s because an indirect object can be converted into the object of a preposition: “She gave him the cookies” means the same thing as “She gave the cookies to him.”

      • Ellen K. said

        @Glen. Your comments are really beside the point. They don’t address what I’ve been saying. I didn’t say anything about case. That’s your issue, not mine. I accept that it’s grammatical for you. It’s not for me. And, yes, word order makes a difference.

      • The Ridger said

        @Ellen: “whom is never okay where “who” is not.” I don’t think I know what that means. It sounds like “if who is not okay whom is never okay” which would mean “whom is okay wherever who is okay”, and I don’t think you mean that…

      • No, it doesn’t mean whom is okay wherever who is okay. It means who is okay wherever whom is okay. It doesn’t mean the reverse. Your logic is flawed.

        It sounds like “if who is not okay whom is never okay”


        which would mean “whom is okay wherever who is okay”,

        No, that doe not follow from the previous.

        and I don’t think you mean that…


        To put it differently: Whom is always optional. Who is always acceptable. Whom only occurs as an object, never as a subject. There aren’t any constructions where I’d have to do anything other than remove the M (or M sound) if replacing whom with who. And that can be done with any whom. But some uses of who cannot be replaced with whom.

        Or, another rewording: whom can always be replaced with who, but who cannot always be replaced with whom. If a sentence is not grammatical with “whom” changed to “who”, then it’s not grammatical.

        Again, that’s what’s grammatical for me. While I share it because I believe I’m far from alone in this, I don’t claim this is true for everyone.

  4. The Ridger said

    Note the GAP in the tree diagram. Its position will tell you what slot the WH- is filling in for, so what case it should be in. So the tree diagram meets that criteria.

    I learned to diagram back in junior high with R-K. Now I love trees.

    • Glen said

      You’re right, the GAP does that. But given that I find this mildly confusing now, I guarantee I would’ve found it wildly confusing as a middle schooler.

      • The Ridger said

        You might have. I might have – we did RK in junior high (before middle schools were invented, I think). But I also know that it used to bug me that indirect objects were handled like prepositional adverbials, and back then I didn’t even know what an adverbial was.

  5. […] Language Arts Classes | Add your site « Diagramming Interrogatives […]

  6. hari said

    make the tree diagrams for below sentence
    1.i think my keys have been stolen
    2.all the tickets for the concert were sold very quickly
    3.i know somebody who can help you
    please make the the tree diagrams and end it tome

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: