A Linguist’s Tree of Knowledge: An Introduction to the Tree Diagram

The tree diagram is a newer method for diagramming sentences that is most commonly used by linguists and other academic professionals. While the Reed Kellogg diagram was considered an effective tool for students to visualize sentence structure, it had many limitations. It dispensed with traditional word order and used a variety of occasionally confusing symbols, meaning the resulting diagram was difficult to understand for anyone unfamiliar with the method.

Reed and Kellogg did introduce two core grammatical concepts: Constituency, how a word relates to the larger structure of a sentence, and dependency, how a word is dependent upon each one that precedes it. The primary goal of a tree diagram is to illustrate these concepts in a way that is visibly apparent, even for those previously unfamiliar with sentence diagrams.

In a tree diagram, a sentence is divided into two parts: a subject and a predicate. They are made up of noun phrases or verb phrases. These are groups of words that include a noun or verb and any words that add as modifiers. The subject is a noun phrase while a predicate is usually a verb phrase. The noun phrase A big dog is comprised of the indefinite article ‘a’, the adjective ‘big’, and the noun ‘dog’. The verb phrase jumped over the fence consists of the verb ‘jumped’ and the prepositional phrase ‘over the fence’.

Unlike a Reed-Kellogg diagram, these components are not separated by slashes and other symbols. Instead, they descend from the subject and predicate in the form of lines acting as branches. This continues until each noun or verb phrase is broken down into its simplest parts. In the end, a sentence diagrammed in this style should look like a vast tree, with the subject and predicate acting as the trunk and the sentence modifiers standing in as the colorful and complex leaves that give it personality.

Now that you understand the basic premise of a Tree Diagram and how it breaks down a sentence, let’s take a look at an example.

Seen here, the sentence is broken down into a subject and predicate. The subject is a noun phrase that consists of the indeterminate article ‘the’ and the noun ‘dog’. The predicate is more complex, as it consists of both a verb and a noun phrase. Breaking down the predicate, the verb is ‘ate’ and the noun phrase is ‘the’ (indefinite article) and ‘bone’ (noun). As you can see, the tree diagram uses minimal symbols and little complex jargon, yet clearly illustrates how each of these words relate to and depend upon each other.

Here is another example of a tree diagram. As you can see, this one is a bit more intricate. Let’s take a look and break it down.

Once again, the sentence is divided into a subject and predicate. The subject is composed of a noun phrase: ‘the’ as an indefinite article and ‘teacher’ as a noun. The predicate is more complex than before. Its verb phrase consists of three parts: the verb ‘gave’; the noun ‘homework’; and the prepositional phrase ‘to his students’. Are you starting to get a better understanding of constituency and dependency now?

Unfortunately, tree diagrams do have some negative aspects. Like the Reed-Kellogg diagram, more complex tree diagrams can take up a great deal of space and become more difficult to decipher in the process. Additionally, as both a strength and weakness, they are more open to interpretation than the Reed-Kellogg diagram. It is possible for a sentence to have multiple, different, and equally valid tree diagrams depending upon which unit is focused on, especially with a sentence taken from classic literature.

As a whole, tree diagrams offer a clear and more nuanced look at sentence structure without sacrificing traditional word order. While they are primarily used by grammarians and other linguistic specialists, they are quickly becoming the standard method of sentence diagramming, as the result is easily comprehensible to everyone. If you are seeking to improve your writing, I recommend that you try diagramming at least one sentence a day using this method. In doing so, you will gain a greater understanding of how to compose grammatically correct, diverse, and impactful sentences.

Classroom Grammar: An Introduction to the Reed-Kellogg System

The Reed-Kellogg system is a method for diagramming sentences that was commonly taught in grammar classrooms in the past. The system was introduced in the 1870s by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg. Previous methods of diagramming focused solely on teaching proper word order to students. The Reed-Kellogg system offered an alternative: Foregoing traditional word order in order to highlight the function of each word in a sentence. These grammarians believed that it would be most beneficial for students to discover the logical order of words in a sentence, so they could understand how to write effectively.

This system’s primary purpose is to break a sentence down into easily identifiable parts. Because it is intended for students, the method is simple and uses a minimal amount of symbols or jargon. You do not have to know every single grammatical term in order to diagram a sentence using the Reed-Kellogg method, nor do you have to focus on retaining a sentence’s original word order. For those who have no background in grammar or who are learning English as a second language, the Reed-Kellogg diagram is a great way to jump into sentence diagramming.  To start things off, here is a sample sentence that is simple in structure, as represented by Reed-Kellogg.

In a Reed-Kellogg diagram, you always start by drawing a horizontal line. You then divide it with a short vertical line. The subject of the sentence is located on the left of the vertical dividing line. In this case, the subject is “the topic”. Any sentence modifiers, such as adjectives and articles, are placed on a diagonal line below the noun or verb it is modifying. As seen here, the indefinite article “the” is situated on a diagonal line below the noun “topic”.

The predicate of the sentence is located on the right side of the dividing line. Here, the predicate is the verb phrase “was sentence diagramming”. The verb “was” is situated in the middle of the diagram as a linking verb, which simply connects the subject “the topic” to the predicate “sentence diagramming”. This is reflected by a slanting line between “was” and the rest of the predicate. Since “diagramming” is a modifier of the noun “sentence”, it is given on a diagonal line below what it modifies.

Now, let’s move onto a more complex Reed-Kellogg diagram. This one will show you how to diagram a sentence that contains a transitive action verb and a single direct object.

As you can see, this diagram is slightly different from the previous example. As the extremely simple subject of the sentence, “Joe” is on the left of the dividing vertical line. The predicate is where the meat of the sentence is. Since the verb is transitive, the line between the verb “kicked” and the direct object “ball” is straight rather than slanted. This indicates that Joe is performing an action with the ball. “High” and “in the air” are, respectively, an adverb and prepositional phrase that modify the verb “kicked” so they are given on diagonal lines below.

Although a Reed-Kellogg diagram has many positive aspects, it does have some drawbacks. Some sentences can be especially long and complex, especially if they’re taken from a piece of classical literature. Diagramming these sentences using this method can be intimidating and time-consuming. Unfortunately, the end result can be difficult to comprehend for anyone who is unfamiliar with the Reed-Kellogg system.

Additionally, while it is effective in illustrating general function within a sentence, it is not nuanced enough to show how each word in a sentence is connected to and dependent on the words around it. For example, look at the phrase “a beautiful woman”. A Reed-Kellogg diagram would list both “a” and “beautiful” as words that modify the noun “woman”. However, each of these words have different functions in the sentence. While “beautiful” modifies only the word “woman” as an adjective, “a” modifies both “beautiful” and “woman” as an indefinite article.

I hope that this post has given you a good idea of just what a Reed-Kellogg diagram is and how it is an effective (albeit traditional and therefore limited) tool for diagramming sentences. Although it is not commonly used or taught in classrooms today, I would strongly advise that any aspiring author try diagramming at least one or two sentences in this style. I’m willing to bet that it will give you a greater understanding of grammar and improve your writing in the process.

 

10 Tips to Help You Combat Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is incredibly frustrating and common, especially during the first few weeks back in class after a break. I frequently find myself staring at an open Word document and having absolutely no idea what to write. There is no simple fix, but here are some tips that may help you combat writer’s block:

Courtesy of: http://suzannevince.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Writers-Block.png
Courtesy of: http://suzannevince.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Writers-Block.png

**(Be sure to save your document before you leave it unattended)**

  1. Brainstorm. Put your computer away and pull out a few pieces of paper or a stack of post-it notes. Think about your topic and try to write down all of your thoughts – even the really random ones. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, word count, or even whether your writing makes sense (Consider this your pre-rough-draft-draft). Come back to your notes in an hour or so and begin to organize your thoughts into cohesive paragraphs.
  1. Don’t overanalyze it.Overanalysis paralysis” happens when you think too much about a project and become figuratively paralyzed and unable to take action. Don’t overthink your paper! Take a step back and look at the objective for your project; don’t fret about the little details. As Bruce Lee once said, “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”
  1. Breathe. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Count to five while you inhale, and do the same when you exhale. Repeat the process a few times.
  1. Move around. Often, getting out of my chair and walking around helps clear my mind. Take a short walk outside, do laps around your house, or have a dance break in your dorm room. Let your mind relax while your body works.
  1. Find a new writing place. Sometimes sitting at the same desk or table hour after hour can contribute to writer’s block. Pick up your laptop and books and find a new place to work! Possible places on UNG’s campus include the library, Starbucks, or even the benches surrounding UNG’s Drill Field.
  1. Take breaks! I know when you have a paper due the next day, it’s tempting to sit and work for 6 hours straight. Taking a short break every hour keeps your mind fresh and your ideas flowing.
  1. Music. Turn on your favorite music, listen to a relaxing Pandora station, or even visit rainymood.com to soothe your stress. Some people find they study and write best when listening to non-lyrical music, like soundtracks or instrumentals. Personally, my favorite writing playlist is full of Hans Zimmer’s scores. Listening to his compositions make me feel like I can conquer anything, even writer’s block!
  1. Eat well. While chowing down on snacks when powering through a paper seems like the most time-efficient option, it’s best to get a solid meal with protein and veggies. Your brain needs good fuel to produce!
  1. Hug a puppy. Turn on your puppy/kitten radar and find a little furball to pet. Georgia State University has reported that spending time with an animal can reduce anxiety by up to 60%! Go volunteer at the TLC Humane Society toget some good one-on-one cuddles!
  2. Don’t panic. In a few years, you probably won’t even remember this paper. You’ll make it through this!