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I'm trying to do some language analysis on the opening paragraph of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, specifically looking at phrasal constituents. The first sentence is as follows:

"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975."

I've got a pretty good idea of what the phrasal constituents are, but I'm a bit unsure as to how to draw the tree, as it seems like the tree should be split into two distinct branches, splitting at the comma after twelve. I've uploaded an image of my tree, but I'm not sure if it's correct or not. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks in advance :)

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Here is an example to illustrate what I said about how to tell whether a tree structure is correct: find the PSG, evaluate other sentences generated by this PSG.

Shorter version of your example:

"I became what I am today."

PSG that generates the top part of the tree you gave: (the format for a rule is [mother list-of-daughters])

[S NP VP]
[NP N]
[N I]
[VP V NP]
[V became]
[NP N NP]
[N what]
[NP N VP]
[V am]
[N today]

These rules also generate other trees, an infinite number of them, and here is a sampling of the sentences corresponding to these trees.

"Today am what"
"What I am today am I"
"What what what I what today became today"
...

You will notice that many, many of these additional predicted sentences are actually not acceptable. So, by this test, your tree is incorrect.

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To tell whether your tree is correct, you need to find some way to connect the tree to facts of language, and then to actually look at those relevant facts. So far, it seems, you don't have a clue about how to do that. I can help, by telling you a way to do that. It's not a way you will perhaps agree with, or that any other linguist in this wide world agrees with, but it may give you a starting point in figuring out how to do grammatical analysis.

By facts of language, I mean the actual occurrence of an expression in speech or writing, or a judgement from a native speaker about whether an expression is acceptable in his language, or about what it means.

So here is what you do. It's some trouble, but conceptually it is very straightforward. I'll be more specific below, but in outline, you (1) find a context free phrase structure grammar (PSG) that generates your tree, (2) determine what other trees this PSG generates, (3) find out whether the expressions these other trees describe are acceptable.

It there are no other expressions to evaluate, your theory is trivial, and it doesn't really matter whether it's correct. If the other expressions are acceptable in English, you've got a correct tree. If the other expressions are unacceptable, your tree is wrong.

Specifically, to generate a tree, a PSG has a rule for each mother node in the tree that has certain daughter nodes, where the rule permits that mother to have those daughters. That's it. There are few simpler theories. (There have to be a finite number of different rules, different mothers, and different daughters.)

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  • I think I understand what you mean. I've only ever drawn trees for very simple sentences so I think i got ahead of myself and forgot about the clauses in the sentence. So for example, "what" should be shown as a complement clause? And also, the prepositional phrase starting at "on a frigid overcast…" should be linked to the verb phrase starting with "became…"? Could you draw a tree and explain how to show these structures? Many thanks :)
    – James
    Mar 31 '16 at 10:35
  • No, I don't think you do understand what I mean. I've added another answer to illustrate how to work out what a tree predicts about other sentences. You have to have a way to get at language facts and get beyond vague intuitions.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 31 '16 at 12:44
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Your main error (as Greg Lee tried to point out) is with the relative clause "what I am", which you identified using [NP N VP] {a noun phrase can consist of a clause! - that is wrong}. A relative pronoun needs its own syntax (it is closer to being a conjunction than a pronoun). The meaning is something like "I became [the thing] that (I am [trace: the thing]).

You then have several adverbial phrases, but are they adverbial to the main verb 'became' or to the subordinate verb 'am'? The comma is too weak of a punctuation to disambiguate the nesting. As given, the sentence could be saying that the author was twelve when he wrote about what happened in 1975 (which would be before his birth if he was published in a timely manner!) I think the comma should be after 'today'.

Notice that 'today' is a temporal [pro]noun, which allows it to be adverbial whereas other nouns (like 'kite') would not be. Your parser will need a finer breakdown of syntax (such as pronoun, proper noun, class noun instead of just noun). {This is still context free parsing}

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