Educational conservatives sometimes say our problems would be over if we just taught kids to diagram sentences. Yet consider this simple sentence, which is found in that most basic of books, a children's primer: "See Spot run." How would you diagram this sentence? See is the predicate; Spot is the direct object; run is the … the what? Obviously it's a verb, but what function does it perform in the sentence? We're old enough to have done our share of sentence diagramming, but this one has us at a loss. Help us, Cecil, you are our only hope.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
No question, if we could all diagram sentences properly, this would be a better world. Unfortunately diagramming, or for that matter merely parsing sentences, is becoming a lost art. A survey of experts turned up the following creative theories:
Run is an abbreviated present participle, and the sentence should really read, “Do you see Spot running?” The genius who contributed this said it was “a shame” to put such a malformed sentence as “See Spot run” in a primer. A little late to be bringing this up now, bub. Anyway, I say it’s cheating when you eliminate the problem by rewriting the sentence.
Spot run is a “small clause,” a piquant term brought to us courtesy of transformational grammar, a field of linguistics we might think of as sentence diagramming for adults. A small clause consists of a noun phrase followed by some other kind of phrase. In “See Spot run,” Spot is the noun phrase and run is a verb phrase. Unfortunately your transformational grammarians do not trouble themselves with such details as what kind of verb phrase it is, leaving us pretty much back where we started.
Spot run is an “objective infinitive.” Now we’re getting somewhere. An infinitive is an uninflected verb form commonly beginning with to, as in to run. In an objective infinitive (and doesn’t that sound like something you could get Unitarians to pray to?), the noun is modified by the infinitive, and the two parts together — in this case Spot run — are the direct object of the predicate, see. One may object: How can run be an infinitive? There’s no to in front of it. My informant explained this by saying the to was “understood.” “See Spot [to] run”? I don’t think so.
Never fear. We pull out our trusty 1936 edition of A Writer’s Manual and Workbook by Paul Kies. Kies writes that to, though it’s the “sign of the infinitive,” is “frequently omitted, especially after such verbs as help, make, bid, feel, see, hear, dare, need;” e.g., I heard him sing, I see Spot run. He even provides a diagrammed infinitive, which looks like the Flying Wallendas playing jai alai. (See Slug’s masterful rendering.) This week sentence diagramming, next week world peace?
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.