Labels like NP, VP, etc, tell us the structural form of a constituent. Form alone, however, does not tell us everything about how a constituent works in the sentence. We must also consider its function.

(7) Her dog chases rabbits.

For example, her dog and rabbits in (7) are both noun phrases, but they have different functions in the sentence. Although we haven't yet specified these functional roles, we can already see that each noun phrase has a different role in the sentence. The dog is doing the chasing, and the rabbits are being chased. The role of her dog is probably already familiar to you: it serves as the subject of this sentence. Rabbits plays a role known as the direct object, which we will study in the next chapter.

The constituent that we will see most is the phrase. A phrase consists of a single main word, called the head of the phrase, and other words that modify or give grammatical information about the head. These other words in the phrase are called the phrase's attributes. Informally, we might say that the head word is the main idea of the phrase.

(2) Russia's proposal at the conference

The phrase in example (2) is talking about a kind of proposal. Russia's and at the conference tell us what specific proposal we're talking about. Proposal, therefore is the head word.[1]

If we look at the components of a sentence, we can say that a sentence consists of a string of words. But if we look more closely, it's easy to see that the words aren't all equal. Instead, they occur in groups. Consider the famous opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina:

(1) All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It's not very helpful to think of the individual words in isolation. What, for example, is the relationship between each and resemble? In fact, they don't have a direct relationship. They are more closely related to other words in the sentence than they are to each other. We can appreciate some of this structure by dividing the sentence into some of its component parts.

24 Aug 2006

To properly split an infinitive

Submitted by Karl Hagen
As many of you probably know, the prohibition against the split infinitive is one of the most notorious non-rules of English grammar. I say non-rule because even incredibly conservative books Like Fowler's essentially dismiss it as necessary for good writing. And yet some people are still afraid to insert an adverb between the infinitive marker to and the verb. Hence we find sentences like the following, from a legal memo just posted on Groklaw (emphasis added):
22 Aug 2006

Before You Go Prescriptive

Submitted by Karl Hagen
We've all been there: you read a piece in a newspaper, book, blog, etc., and something about the writer's use of language annoys you. Perhaps you find a pronoun in the wrong case ("I found Alice and he waiting at the bar."). Perhaps you run across some strange word choice ("Mark consistently flaunted his parents' authority, returning well after his curfew."). In short, the writer has committed unspeakable barbarities upon the English language, and you are provoked. But before you unload your scorn on this poor, benighted soul who has assaulted your sensibilities, pause a moment to reflect.
20 Aug 2006

An Old Grammar Joke

Submitted by Karl Hagen
[The protagonist of this joke doesn't need to be a Texan, but that's how the joke was originally told to me.] A Texan is visiting a friend at Harvard, and they agree to meet at the library. He's a bit lost, so he stops a passing student. Texan: "'Scuse me, could you tell me where the library's at?" Student: "Around here, we don't end our sentences with prepositions." Texan: "All right, could you tell me where the library's at, asshole?"
Diagrams of the Principal Parts of Simple, Compound, and Complex Sentences.


d36aIntransitive—having one Subject, one Predicate.
d36bTransitive—having one Subject, one Predicate, one Object.

At the end of Harvey's Revised English Grammar (1878) is a system which looks similar to R-K diagrams, but which is greatly simplified, in what appears to be unfortunate ways. Visually, note the absence of R-K's slanting lines for modifiers. Also, notice that the various modifiers are, in many cases, not clearly separated.

Sample diagrams for complex sentences, showing content clauses, infinitives, etc. (pp. 268-269)

The last page of this volume contains a plug for another book of diagrams by the same publisher: Irish's Grammar and Analysis Made Easy and Attractive by Diagrams. Given the nature of the diagrams in Harvey's Grammar, I suspect that this diagram system was cribbed from Reed and Kellogg, with enough changes to avoid copyright problems.


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