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Concourse 2

Constituent analysis

telescope

I spotted the man with a telescope

This guide concerns how we unravel what is meant by that sentence.
We cannot be sure whether this means:
    I used a telescope to spot the man
or
    I spotted the man who had a telescope

If you have not yet followed the guide to phrases on this site, now's a good time to do that (new tab).  If, however, you are comfortable with identifying Noun phrases, Adverb phrases, Verb phrases and Prepositional phrases, read on.


constituents

What makes a constituent?

The issue here is often one of ambiguity.  Take, for example, an apparently simple sentence such as:

shout

The teacher shouted at the boy in room 13

think Task:
A moment's thought will reveal that there are two possible ways to understand this sentence.
Click here when you have figured out what they are.

We can only understand which interpretation is the correct one by identifying the constituent parts of each clause, like this:

Interpretation 1: the object of the shouting is the boy in room 13

Constituent 1 Constituent 2 Constituent 3
The teacher shouted at the boy in room 13
noun phrase verb phrase modified noun phrase

Interpretation 2: the shouting happened in room 13

Constituent 1 Constituent 2 Constituent 3 Constituent 4
The teacher shouted at the boy in room 13
noun phrase verb phrase noun phrase prepositional phrase

The trick is to decide, in this case, whether the prepositional phrase, in room 13, is a constituent in its own right, in which case Interpretation 2 applies, or whether it forms a part of the constituent noun phrase, the boy in room 13, in which case Interpretation 1 applies.

If you prefer a diagram, it looks like this.  The subject noun phrase is in green, the verb phrase and accompanying adverbial in blue and the object noun phrase in red.  The question to answer is
Does the prepositional phrase tell us about the verb (in which case it is an independent constituent) or does it modify the noun (in which case it forms part of the constituent noun phrase)?
constituents

If you yearn for a neat technical term for this kind of phenomenon, it's called syntactic ambiguity.


ambiguity

Levels of ambiguity

There are many times, of course, when no, or very little, ambiguity exists and in these cases we can normally rely on our intuition to decide what qualifies as an independent constituent.  For many learners, intuition alone is not always enough so we need to be clear in our presentation.
At other times, various levels of ambiguity exist.  For example:

It is not only noun and prepositional phrases which need to be disambiguated.  The same phenomenon of trying to decide what belongs where can occur with verb phrases:  For example, the sentence:
    The people who came quickly got lunch
has two interpretations:

  1. The verb phrase is came, with the modifying adjunct, quickly, in which case we have:
    1
  2. The verb phrase is got, pre-modified by the adverbial, quickly, in which case we have:
    2

The only way that can properly be disambiguated is by pausing in speech after quickly (and signalling sense 1.) or after came (and signalling sense 2.).
In writing, only rephrasing the sentences will completely remove the ambiguity although inserting commas (after quickly and came respectively) may help.  Moving the adverb settles the matter but for many, quickly came sounds clumsy.  We might rephrase, then, as:

  1. The people who were quick to arrive got lunch
  2. The people who came got lunch quickly.

As you can see, the situation is not at all obvious so we need to have some tests to determine which phrases in a clause actually form independent constituents.


testing

Testing for constituents

There are a number of tests we can apply to see if our intuitions about what is really an independent constituent and what is a phrase forming part of a constituent are correct.
Authorities vary on how many of these tests there are and whether they are all valid but we will content ourselves with six well known ones and a seventh which is based on grammatical analysis.

links

Test 1: joining another constituent (the coordination test)

Depending on the function of the phrase, we have to use a different sort of language if we want to add to the phrase in question.  For our example:

In the first case, we have to add another noun phrase (all his friends) to perform the same function and in the second case we have to add another prepositional phrase (in the corridor) to perform the same function.

We can do this, too, with some of the examples above and extend a sentence such as:
    He read his book on the island
to
    He read his book on the island and its people
where it becomes obvious that the subject of the book is in question, not where he read it so the object noun phrase is his book on the island and its people.

Extending other constituents is also revealing, so
    He read his book on the island and on the way home
makes it clear where the reading took place so on the island can only be interpreted as a prepositional phrase which is a constituent in its own right.
It is also possible to have:
    He cut up the tree in the corner and the old shed
so we know that what he cut up was the tree in the corner and the old shed and that in the corner does not refer necessarily to where the cutting took place.  But,
    He cut up the tree in the corner near the garage
makes it clearer that we are talking about position.

However, this test will not work with one of the examples above because:
    They provided more accurate figures
can be extended as
    They provided more accurate figures and lots of other information
but we still do not know whether more is an adverb modifying accurate or a determiner relating to accurate figures.

passive

Test 2: making a passive

When we make a passive, we keep constituents together.  For our main example, two passive sentences are possible and they reveal which interpretation is the right one:

Again, we can apply this test to the sentences we used above and disambiguate the meaning by converting:
    He read his book on the island
to
    His book on the island was read

which refers to the subject of the book, or
    His book was read on the island
which refers to where it was read.
It is also possible to convert:
    He cut up the tree in the corner
to
    The tree in the corner was cut up
and
    The tree was cut up in the corner

so we know that what he cut up was the tree in the corner in the first and where it was cut up in the second.

However, again, this test will not work with one of the examples above, because, although:
    They provided more accurate figures
can be rendered as
    More accurate figures were provided (by them)
we still do not know whether more is an adverb modifying accurate or a determiner relating to accurate figures.

cleft

Test 3: making a cleft

There are a number of ways to make a cleft sentence (there's a guide on this site, linked below in the list of related guides at the end) but one example will do to show how the results differ depending on the nature of the phrase.  This is called an it-cleft, incidentally.

This will also work as a test for some of the other examples so, for example:
    He cut up the tree in the corner
can be rendered as:
    It was the tree in the corner that he cut up
or
    It was in the corner that he cut up the tree
and in the first case we know the object noun phrase is the tree in the corner but in the second it is simply the tree and in the corner refers to where the cutting took place.

We can also render
    He read his book on the island
as
    It was on the island that he read his book
and as
    It was his book on the island that he read
which succeeds in disambiguating the sentence.

Other wh-cleft forms can be used so we can also disambiguate with, e.g.:
    Where he read his book was on the island
    What he read on the island was his book
    Where he cut up the tree was in the corner
    What he cut up was the tree in the corner

Making a cleft also disentangles the ambiguity caused by catenating verbs and our example above:
    She promised to talk to the boss today
can be clarified by making either:
    It was today that she promised to talk to the boss
or
    What she promised today was to talk to the boss

Unfortunately, this test will also not work again with:
    They provided more accurate figures
because
    It was more accurate figures that they provided
can have exactly the same dual meaning.

question

Test 4: questions

We can, of course, form questions from our first example sentence but, depending on the nature of the constituents, the questions and answers will differ:

This test will work to disambiguate:
    He read his book on the island
because the two questions are
    What did he read? → His book on the island
    Where did he read his book? → On the island

And
    He cut up the tree in the corner
also generates two questions:
    What did he cut up? → The tree in the corner
    Where did he cut it up? → In the corner

This test will not necessarily disambiguate issues caused by catenative verbs so from:
    She promised to talk to the boss today
we can make two questions
    When did she promise to talk to the boss?
or
    What did she promise?
and both arrive at the same answer with the ambiguity still present because the wh-question word can apply to either verb.

This is the first test that will partially disambiguate:
    They provided more accurate figures
because there are two possible questions:
    What did they provide? → More accurate figures
    What sort of figures did they provide? → More accurate ones

but we still do not know in the first answer whether more is an adverb modifying accurate or a determiner relating to accurate figures so disambiguation is not fool proof.

pronoun

Test 5: pro forms

Pro-forms include many pronouns but the one we select will depend on how we have understood the constituent parts of the sentence.  We can have, therefore:

This will also work as a test for some of the other examples so, for example:
    He cut up the tree in the corner
can be rendered as:
    He cut it up in the corner
or
    He cut the tree up there
and in the first case we know the object noun phrase is it (the tree in the corner) but in the second it is simply the tree and there refers to where the cutting took place.

We can also render
    He read his book on the island
as
    He read his book there
and as
    He read it on the island
which succeeds in disambiguating the sentence.

Fortunately, this test will also work with:
    They provided more accurate figures
because, although
    They provided them
can have exactly the same dual meaning,
    They provided more
and
    They provided more accurate ones
does partially disambiguate because in the first more is obviously a pronoun.  This is only partially disambiguated, however, because we still do not know the grammatical role of more in the last example.

front

Test 6: fronting

Certain types of phrases allow fronting (i.e., moving to the start of the sentence).  We can have, therefore:

We can apply this test to the sentences we used above and disambiguate:
    He read his book on the island
by moving the prepositional phrase:
    On the island he read his book
which can only refer to where it was read.

It is also possible to have:
    In the corner he cut the tree up
so we know that what he cut up was the tree and the prepositional phrase provides the location.

However, again, this test will not work with:
    They provided more accurate figures
because we cannot move any constituent to the front unless we make a cleft or a passive (see above) which do not disambiguate, as we saw.

front

Test 7: Grammatical gradience

A problem we have identified so far lies with the example of
    They provided more accurate figures
which is ambiguous because of the indeterminate function of the word more:

We have also seen that none of the tests we apply wholly successfully disambiguates the sentence.
We can, however, apply a special test in this case and recognise that the word more itself is the root of the problem, not the constituents of the phrase in which it resides, because it slips between word-class categories (in this case, adverb to determiner but we also saw that it can be a pronoun).  The indeterminate nature of some words regarding their word class is an example of gradience.

The simple way is to use an alternative and render the sentence as
    They provided additional accurate figures
which can only be interpreted as their providing accurate figures in addition to the existing accurate ones.

By the same token, we can rephrase the sentence using the adjective predicatively as:
    The figures they provided were more accurate
which can only mean that more is being used as an adverb to modify the adjective and that the existing figures were less accurate.
We can also note that we can substitute the determiner more in a predicative form as:
    The (accurate) figures they provided were additional

The word less suffers from the same categorical indeterminacy so
    I want less expensive work done
can be interpreted as:
    I want less work which is expensive done
or
    I want cheaper work done
Rephrasing is the only option available successfully to disambiguate the sense.  That can be achieved by the use of a relative pronoun clause, like this:
    They provided figures that were more accurate
or
    I want work which is less expensive done
or
    I want less work which is expensive done


limitation

Limitations and problems

Limitations

Not all of the first six tests can always be applied because English resists certain types of structure.  For example, using who in cleft sentences is not normally allowed (*Who the teacher shouted at was the boy in room 13).
However, if we can apply two or more of these tests and come up with grammatically acceptable forms, then we have, almost certainly, successfully identified the real constituent phrases.

Problems

Constituent analysis works very neatly when the constituents know their places and keep to them.  For our main example sentence, we can draw two tree diagrams to show the interpretations we can put on the clause.  Like this:

interpretation 1 interpretation 2

On the left, you'll note, the Object noun phrase is a single constituent and on the right, it is made up of two independent constituents.  So, Interpretation 1 is that the object of the verb is the boy in room 13 and Interpretation 2 is that the object of the verb is the boy with additional adverbial information concerning where the event took place.
We can refine the analysis by going down a step and analysing the Verb phrase as Verb + Past marker + Prepositional particle and analysing the object noun phrases more carefully as Determiner + Noun etc. but for our purposes here, we won't.
Unfortunately, constituents don't always know their places and move around as discrete units.  Take for example:

  1. Did the teacher shout at the boy in room 13?
  2. The teacher woke the boy in room 13 up
  3. The teacher woke the boy up in room 13

In these case, the verb phrases have become separated by the noun phrases and the tree diagrams now look very messy if we try to draw them so we are reduced to having something like:

constituents

because traditional branching tree diagrams just won't work.

For more concerning this and other objections to constituent analysis, see the guide to Chomsky and transformational functional grammar, linked below.


rhythm

Rhythm

In spoken English, constituents can often be identified by the fact that speakers tend, unless they are speaking very quickly, to insert a slight pause between phrases they perceive as constituents and to create a nuclear stress on each sense or tone unit.
We can compare our two original interpretations of The teacher shouted at the boy in room 13 and split the clause in two possible ways:

  1. || The teacher | shouted at | the boy in room 13 ||
    and
  2. || The teacher | shouted at | the boy | in room 13 ||

In a., a speaker will tend to keep the rhythm of the sentence intact with the voice tone falling towards the end.
In this case, the sentence forms a single tone unit with the nucleus on boy and an unstressed tail, in room 13.
In b., by contrast, most speakers will insert a very slight pause between the boy and in room 13 and add an additional stress on 13.
In this case there are two tone units, the first with a nucleus on boy and the second with a nucleus on 13.
This is by no means easy for learners to hear without a good deal of practice (and is not consistent across all speakers) but it can be illustrated with something like:

a.  1
b.  2

In the case of b., there is a stress on 13 but that is absent in case a.
For more, see the guide to sentence stress, linked below.


teaching

Teaching implications

The first thing to note is that languages will have different ways of ordering the constituents of sentences and will even have different tests for identifying constituents so it's not the case that learners can simply transfer their intuitions from their first languages to English.  That's one reason we get errors such as:
    *In the room with energy worked the people
    *The working in the factory people
    *I like reading and play tennis
    *He looked the children after

The ability to recognise what is and is not a constituent phrase allows learners to develop a sense for what can qualify as the subjects, verbs and objects in sentences and set up mental templates for how acceptable sentences are constructed.  This may help them avoid, e.g.:

Perversely (to some), one simple way of doing this and getting your learners to recognise what the constituents of a clause actually are is to use precisely the sorts of messy diagrams we saw above.  For example, using:
example constituents
can alert people visually to the fact that the verb-phrase constituent comes in two parts and the object noun-phrase constituent is not just the boy but the boy in room 13.
Contrasting that diagram with:
example constituents
can alert people to the fact that now the prepositional phrase is an independent constituent which has a separate meaning and can be moved around to give
    In room 13, the teacher woke the boy up
.
The obvious follow-up exercise is to get your learners to draw their own block diagrams to show which bits of the clause do what.  How complex and interesting these are is dependent on the level of the learners, of course, but a few suitable candidates are:

The sentence stress and intonation issue mentioned above is probably not something with which you will wish to trouble learners at lower levels but with more advanced learners, the ability to hear the slight pause gives valuable information concerning the speaker's understanding of what is and is not a constituent of the clause.
For more, see the guide to sentence stress.

The final important issue is that doing a little constituent analysis on the target language we have in mind to teach will often pay dividends and prevent us from falling into some obvious traps and actually inducing errors.



Related guides
ambiguity this is a general guide which includes but is not limited to clause constituents
cleft sentences explaining how we get from, e.g., She liked the hotel to What she liked was the hotel
sentence stress for more on how constituents are stressed and tone units
phrases for a general guide to phrase structures
intonation this guide considers how intonation may be used to disambiguate the constituents of clauses
gradience for a guide to the issues posed by more and less above concerning categorical indeterminacy
Chomsky for some consideration of objections to this kind of analysis