Nominee for the Trent Reznor Prize

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Featured in a post by Laura Conaway ("Impossible sentence diagrammed twice", 4/13/2012), this virtuosic effort from Mississippi State Senator Hob Bryan:

What we have not done is to pass bill after bill after bill that was obviously unconstitutional just so we could all get on record one more time as casting another vote realizing that what was going to happen was someone would file suit the next day and the legislation would never take effect.

This sentence clearly deserves a nomination for the coveted Trent Reznor Prize — it's a tribute to the impressive neurological and cultural advancement of our species that ordinary rock stars and state legislators can accomplish such intellectual feats.

Laura Conaway offers a hand-drawn Reed-Kellogg diagram for this sentence, as well as a machine-made version contributed by Chris Fisher, who used the online Reed-Kellogg diagrammer.

I've used phpSyntaxTree to make a stab at a version in the more modern immediate-consituent style, though I'm not a syntactician and there are several points where neither the theory or the facts are clear to me. For example, what's the structure of "… bill after bill after bill that was obviously unconstitutional …"?  Does the relative clause modify a (preposition-mediated) conjunction of three bills, or just the last one, or just the first one? And should the adjunct "realizing … never take effect" be attached to the VP headed by "get on record", or should it go at the sentence level?

Anyhow, here's my attempt. For clarity, I've used some functionally-descriptive labels (like "Rel" for "Relative Clause", or "FRel" for "Fused Relative"), and I've omitted most of the within-clause structure.

(Large version here.)

Other suggestions are welcome.

FWIW, here's the input that I used:

[S [FRel What we have not done] is [Inf to pass [NP bill after bill after bill [Rel that was obviously unconstitutional] just so [S we could all get on record one more time as casting another vote] [Adjunct realizing that [S [FRel what was going to happen] was [S [S someone would file suit the next day] and [S the legislation would never take effect]]]]]]]

[Hat tip: Victor Steinbok]


  1. Missy said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    actually, this was a breeze to read and comprehend, although I wouldn't want to diagram it. do you linguists tie your comprehension to a tree?

    [(myl) From the linked post announcing the Trent Reznor Prize: "…the most tricky and yet correct and clear sentence…".

    This misunderstanding comes up every time there's a nomination. I guess I can't rely on people checking the links.]

  2. Philip Spaelti said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    I'm not a syntactician either, but here are my two comments on your structure:

    1. "(just) so" is presumably a subordinator (i.e., COMP) for the S "we could…" (labelled S2 in your tree)

    2. Both the "so we could…" and the "realizing…" adjunct should be attached to the "pass…" (labelled Inf in your diagram) and not the NP.

    [(myl) Right on both counts. I've fixed the attachment problem, but haven't added the extra structure, since I've left so much other structure out as well.]

  3. Philip Spaelti said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    I meant to say "should be attached *at least* to the "(to) pass…". Presumably they could even be attached at the top (as you mention in your explanation).

  4. Levi Montgomery said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    This is somewhat of a tangent, but as a student too many decades ago, I was one of those who enjoyed diagramming sentences. As a parent much more recently, I was appalled that this skill is no longer taught, and I saw to it that all six of my own children were reasonably proficient, since I firmly believe that some form of parsing sentences is an essential part of careful reading.

    After retirement, I turned to writing, and in the pursuit of my craft, began following blogs such as yours, where this new-fangled "immediate-consituent style" of diagramming is commonly featured. I don't think I like it as much (although I would like to point out that anything at all would be far far better than the nothing that is being taught now), but I know only what I have been able to piece together by examining samples meant for those who know the system, rather than to actually teach it.

    So… Where do I go from here? What's the system actually called? What references do I use? Who do I read?

    [(myl) There are a number of different "systems" for syntactic analysis of English sentences. One of them is documented at length in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. A somewhat different (in detail) approach is laid out in Beatrice Santorini's free online Syntax of Natural Language text (developed for an undergraduate syntax course).]

  5. Missy said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

    but… you're saying that the production, if not comprehension, of such (hard to diagram) correct and clear sentences is an intellectual feat, right?

    "it's a tribute to the impressive neurological and cultural advancement of our species that ordinary rock stars and state legislators can accomplish such intellectual feats"

    [(myl) Bipedal locomotion is an impressive feat of coordination, in the sense that it's hard for non-bipeds to do, and it's hard to design robots to do it reliably across erratic terrain, and so on; but we humans are generally pretty good at it. Similarly, creating and understanding sentences like the one featured in this post is an impressive intellectual feat, even if most of us do it without apparent effort.]

  6. Ellen K. said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    @Levi Montgomery

    What's nice about the newer version of diagramming, vs the Reed-Kellogg system, is first, it keeps the sentence in order so you can know what the sentence is that's being diagrammed without it needing to be listed separately. Secondly, it's easy to understand for those who haven't studied them. (That based on both my own experience and on attestations.)

  7. Stephen Nicholson said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    Actually found this sentence clearer than the one by Trent Reznor. Though the lack of flourish at the end makes less fun.

    I've never learned how to diagram a sentence, maybe I'll look that up some time.

  8. Chris Waters said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

    I used to love diagramming sentences, though I haven't done it in decades. It really gave me a better handle on the structure of language. IIRC, we always did it word-by-word, which allowed you to double-check every detail of how a sentence fit together, but often resulted in a hard-to-read result. (The thought of trying to build a word-by-word diagram of this sentence does make me cringe slightly.) :)

    In this case, I didn't have any problems building a mental tree until I got to "realizing", where I had to backtrack and scan to see where it should attach. (I got the same result as MYL, but had to spend some time contemplating the same question he did.) "Bill after bill after bill" didn't faze me, but that may simply be because I spent more time doing drills on this, back in the day. (Just a guess.)

    [(myl) That overall structure seems to correspond to the natural interpretation, but when you try to work out the structure in more detail, it's not so clear what's right. It might be:

    or maybe:

    That would be something like "the dog in the park in the city that chased the cat", which works, I think — but in the case of "bill after bill after bill that was obviously unconstitutional", does the relative clause modify the first bill, or the last bill, or all of them? Also, notice that "bill after bill (after bill)" works without an article — "we passed bill after bill" — compared to "*we passed bill". So there's something going on here that I don't understand yet.]

    I agree with the nomination, but I suspect it's not the strongest candidate we'll see this year.

  9. Joe said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

    Don't have any suggestions about the parsing, but Jackendoff talks about the NPN construction in Construction After Construction and its Theoretical Challenges, freely available version located here:

    [(myl) Thanks! I should have known about Ray's paper — I apparently slept through that issue of Language…]

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

    I don't understand the tree, but it look to me like it's saying the "just so" clause and the "realizing" clause are part of the NP headed by (some part of) "bill after bill after bill". If so, I disagree. I think they go a level higher. If I may expose my ignorance still further—in the terminology I learned in elementary school, I'd say those clauses modify "pass".

    [(myl) You're absolutely right on both counts. I believe that your analysis is what I meant to implement in the constituent structure, but I screwed up the placement of the square brackets in the input to the widget, and failed to notice the fault in the output. Anyhow, it's fixed now. The indicated structure is pretty sparse, but the attachment of "just so" etc. was obviously wrong.]

    Does it make any difference that those clauses need somewhere to attach even if the NP isn't there, that is, if "pass bill after bill after bill that was obviously unconstitutional" is replaced by something like "legistate"?

    Or am I only agreeing with MYL?

    Not on the level of grammar, but "one more time" contradicts "bill after bill after bill" for me. I'd need something like "again and again and again" or "time after time after time".

    [(myl) I think you're right about this as well, though I wouldn't go as far as "contradicts". After all, you could say something like "he placed bet after bet after bet, in the hopes of winning a big pot one more time".]

  11. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    If nothing else, this example does demonstrate the weaknesses in the Reed-Kellogg system (which I also learned in school, probably fourth or fifth grade, long after it had gone out of fashion elsewhere).

  12. The Ridger said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    Yeah, RK is really only good for straightforward sentences, which makes sense as that's what it was used for: teaching kids about straightforward syntax.

  13. Rubrick said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 4:39 am

    I think "that was obviously unconstitutional" modifies not any one of the "bill"s, nor the three as a unit, but each one individually: "bill that was obviously unconstitutional after bill that was bill that was obviously unconstitutional after bill that was obviously unconstitutional."

    But I don't know whether these diagramming techniques have notation for such a construction, or for that matter whether it's admissable in current syntax theory.

    [(myl) That kind of distributed interpretation is obviously one of the options with conjunctions: "Kim and Sam and Leslie, who were each too weak to lift the box, were easily able to do it together." These NPN constructions are something like conjunctions, rather than like the usual sort of postnominal PP modification.]

  14. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

    The closest paraphrase that I can come up with for "bill after bill after bill that was…" is "countless bills that were…" You can toss PP after NP after PP at this syntactic structure, but you will make little progress at unlocking the overall construction's semantic use as a quantifier. (And if someone contends that "countless " is not a quantifier, but an adjective, I might counter that it may be both according to whether we are looking at the syntax or the semantics.)

  15. Joyce Melton said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

    Does the reason "we passed bill after bill" work when "we passed bill" does not work without an article involve an implied plural? Reading Glenn B.'s comment makes me think that it is so.

  16. The Stupidest “Could You Repeat That Please?” Political Comment of the Day | said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    […] via This entry was posted in stupid politicians and tagged rhetoric. Bookmark the permalink. ← The Stupidest Ad/Article Placement, Decidedly Unfortutious […]

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    Apologies to Philip Spaelti for not noticing that he had already said the same thing I said.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

    By the way, you can do this with lots of prepositions beside those Jackendoff mentions (rank beyond rank, peak above peak, stratum below stratum…) as well as prepositional phrases or whatever they're called (man next to man, insult on top of insult), participles (helm touching helm, day following day), and maybe even finite verbs, at least in translation (Deep calls unto deep). No doubt, in the dog-eat-dog world of linguistics, someone has criticized Jackendoff on this point.

    Not that I know enough to get much else out of the paper.

  19. » Stumbling over objects said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    […] Mark Liberman of Language Log is pleased to nominate Bryan's effort for the semi-coveted Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding. […]

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