When you can’t see the sentence for the trees

Syntax is the greatest subfield of linguistics and I say this as a syntactician with absolutely zero bias (wink wink). The field of syntax cares about the ordering of words in a sentence, and the operations that took place to create the word order known as the derivation. The thing that I love about syntax is that is basically a series of math and logic problems. We can take a sentence and work backwards from it to learn how it was constructed. Now before everyone panics about the fact that I am trying to equate math and language lets all just take a deep breath and I will walk us through how a syntactic derivation works.

Photo by Brandon Montrone on Pexels.com

Before we start talking about full sentences though, we need to start a little bit smaller. We will start by talking about verbs. A verb, as you already know, is an action word that tells us what happened, what is happening, or what will happen depending on the tense used. Think of the verb in a sentence as the conceptual seed of a sentence. There are three major verb types that we will talk about today that are separated based on how many arguments they have. These verb types are transitive, intransitive, and ditransitive.

When you picture a basic sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object, you are likely picturing a transitive verb. Transitive verbs are verbs that have two obligatory arguments (the subject and the predicate). What this means is that the information contained in a sentence with a transitive verb includes: an action (the verb itself), the thing that is doing the action (the subject), and the thing that the action is happening to (the predicate). For instance, you can take the verb ‘discuss’ as a good example of a transitive verb. ‘Discuss’ needs at least two arguments (nouns in this case) in order to create a grammatical sentence. This means that you are no able to say something like “John discussed.” or “Discussed the contract.”, you would need to say “John discussed the contract” (Note that you can say “Discuss the contract!”. This is a null subject imperative though and we will talk about those another time).

So, to bring the math connection back around; one way that we can represent sentences like “John kicked the ball.” is by using parentheses. It would look something like this:

                [John [discussed [the contract]]]

Now I am simplifying things quite a bit from how it would actually be represented, but for the purposes of this article it’s good enough. Let’s break down the bracketing so you can see why it is organized like this. In the innermost layer, we have “the contract” which is the thing that is being discussed. This is why it is contained within the bracketing for the verb “discuss” because there is a connection between these two words. On the outermost layer, we have “John”, who is the one that is doing the discussing. “John” has the verb contained within his bracketing because he has the same sort of connection to the act of discussing that the action of discussing does to the contract. Again, this is simplifying things a bit, but I am just trying to explain why we have this embedded bracketing as opposed to something like [John][discussed][the contract] where there is no clear connection between any of the words.

Now, lets branch out to the other verb types. Intransitive verbs are verbs which only have one obligatory argument rather than two. Intransitive verbs are a little bit tricky because they are actually divided into two subtypes, unergatives and unaccusatives. Full disclosure; I constantly get tripped up on the difference between these two because it is subtle and a little unintuitive, but it is my hope that maybe teaching people about it on the internet will also help to clear it up in my head!

The biggest difference between these two verbs deal with whether their subject is semantically an agent or not. If you kick something or hit something, then YOU are a semantic agent in that case because (it is safe to assume) you are doing those things intentionally. Conversely, if you fall, it is not likely that you are doing this on purpose so we can say that you are not the agent in this case but rather that you are the experiencer; the one who experiences the fall.

Unergative intransitive verbs are single argument verbs that only have an obligatory subject (which is a semantic agent) and no obligatory object. I have used the word obligatory twice in this sentence to really drive home the fact that there is a difference between an object that needs to be there and one that does not. Take the sentence “John ate the cake” for example. This sentence has two arguments, “John” and “the cake”, but the fact that it has two arguments does not make it transitive. It is perfectly grammatical and acceptable to simply say “John ate” and leave “the cake” off of it. This is because “the cake” is an optional argument in this sentence, or what we call an ADJUNCT argument in syntax terms. Adjuncts are optional arguments that can be removed without making the sentence ungrammatical.

So we see that a verb like “eat” is a great example of an unergative verb because you only need to specify the thing that is doing the eating, and you are not required to specify the thing that is eaten. Other good examples are things like “run” or “walk” because they are things that require intent and agency to do, but there is no need to specify where you are running or walking to. You can simply just specify that movement is occurring and leave it at that.

An unaccusative intransitive verb is a verb whose subject is not a semantic agent. The best example of an unaccusative sentence would be something like “the tree fell” or “the window broke” because things like trees and windows do not have any agency and are certainly not falling or breaking on their own accord. It is also important to note that unaccusative verbs cannot have any type of object after the verb.

Both unergative and unaccusative verb sentences have simple bracket representations like this:
                [John [ran]]

                [The tree [fell]]

The third type of verb that we will talk about is the ditransitive verb. A ditransitive verb is a verb that requires three arguments (two nouns and a preposition usually) in order to be grammatical. Take the verb “put” for instance. You can’t use “put” as a transitive verb and simply say something like “John put the book”, you also need to specify where the book was put! This is why we would need to make it “John put the book on the table” instead. The labeled bracketing for these ditransitives gets a little more complicated:

                [John [put [the book][on the table]]]

Now keep in mind that these are just simple sentences, but you can imagine as they get bigger and more complex that the labeled bracketing will become very hard to read. Luckily, syntacticians have figured out a more visually pleasing way to represent these sentences that serves the same purpose. Allow me to introduce you to the sentence tree:

John put the book on the table

These trees are drawn with a program known as LaTeX, which is a typesetting used in many scientific and academic settings. If you haven’t worked with LaTeX before, it is hard to describe but it is essentially a halfway point between typing and programming. For example, for this sentence tree above I had to provide LaTeX with a command to draw the tree, and that command makes use of the bracketing that I have been talking about all along. Here is the command that I used:



\Tree [ John [ put [{the book} {on the table} ] ] ]


So essentially, this command is taking the same information that is contained in the bracketing and turning it into a visual representation that allows us to easily see how all of the parts connect without having to count all of the brackets by hand.

Now my biggest fear at this point is that my supervisor will somehow stumble across this post and think less of me for these trees. It is at this point I will remind you that there is SOOOOOOOO MUCH that I am glossing over. I am just trying to give a brief overview of the things that I do so that people like my mom will have a better understanding of some of the things that I do. There are entire four-month university courses dedicated to almost all of the subjects that I talk about on this blog so I can’t talk about them all in detail, but if people are interested, I will certainly keep writing more about it. I am a syntactician at heart and I could go on about this stuff until I pass out, but I don’t want to keep you here forever either.

This is a logical stopping point for this one, but I am sure that I will be returning to syntax again in the future so keep an eye out for that. Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


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