December 19, 2004

Diagram this

Take a look at the complexity of this sentence from an article in The New Yorker (11/22/04, p. 62 of the print edition):

"We are world champions at lawmaking," Christine Ockrent, who has anchored the evening news on two channels, run the weekly L'Express, and, as she says, "seen everything," told me a few days after the law was signed.

That's a preposed direct quote ("We are world champions at lawmaking") followed by the rest of a clause headed by the verb tell (Christine Ockrent told me ___). The clause has an additional adjunct at the end a few days after the law was signed): a preposition phrase headed by after, containing a pre-head measure adjunct noun phrase (a few days) and a post-head passive clause complement (the law was signed). Attached to the subject of the tell clause (Christine Ockrent) is a supplementary relative clause (beginning who has...), and the predicate in that clause is a three-part coordination of past-participialverb phrases, the three head verbs being anchored, run, and seen. Within the third of the coordinate verb phrases is another supplement (supplements used to be called ‘parentheticals’), an as-phrase with clause complement (as she says). And the third of the three coordinate verb phrases is itself a direct quote, semantically within the scope of the verb say.

Just 37 words (counting L'Express as one, since this is English), but enough complexity to keep a syntactician busy for a quiet hour or two. I'm not entirely sure I could justify a complete structure for this sentence at all; it would certainly take half an hour to explain all the details. It is a mystery to me how we are able to read such sentences and understand them. Yet I doubt that any other reader of The New Yorker (other than perhaps Chris Potts) even noticed the sentence.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 19, 2004 02:27 PM