Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Spotlight on Linguistic Tools: phpSyntaxTree

If you ever find yourself in need of diagramming a sentence in a typed document, you may have noticed that not too many word processing programs have user-friendly ways of drawing and inserting trees. One way to work around that issue is to use the free online phpSyntaxTree program, which draws trees based on bracket notations. A few advantages to phpSyntaxTree are that the program is free, online (i.e., you don't have to download anything to use it), and provides an easy-to-work with picture file as its end product.

When you go to the web page, you will see something like this:

The text box on the website comes pre-programmed with this sentence already in bracket notation: [S [NP phpSyntaxTree][VP [V creates][NP nice syntax trees]]]. If you hit the "draw" button directly below the text box, you will go to a new screen that looks like this:

Once the tree is drawn, you can play with the settings across the top (e.g., take out the color, take out subscripts). When the tree looks like what you want, you can simply put your mouse over the diagram and click on it; it will download a copy of that diagram as a picture file (.PNG) to your computer, and you can then insert it into whatever document you're working on.

Once you've got the process down, it flows pretty nicely, and you can create diagrams of any kind (i.e., with any labels) to put into the text box on the website. The problem is that not all students are familiar or comfortable with using bracket notations.

For this program, the basic concept is what appears on the left inside the brackets is inserted in the mother node and what appears on the right is the daughter node. A space between the entries is interpreted as a branch or triangle. For instance, if you put [N dog] into the text box and hit the draw button, you will see a tree like this:

If you put [NP the dog] into the program, you will get a tree like this:

The first space after whatever entry you put at the left will be interpreted by the program as the separation between what is put on top (the mother node) and what is put on bottom (the daughter node). If more than one word appears in the daughter node, a triangle is used instead of a single branch (unless you turn off the triangle notation, in which case a single branch is inserted with several words below it).

Putting this concept to work in layers, you can put notations like [S [NP [Det the] [N dog]] [VP [V sleeps] [PP [Prep on] [NP [Det the] [N porch]]]]] and get results like this:

The program keeps track of your open and closed brackets; if the numbers are not equal, the program will not allow a tree to be drawn. If you break down the sentence in its bracket notation and compare it to its tree, you will see that the basic concept of "left side = mother node" is followed throughout: [NP [Det the] [N dog]] tells the program that NP should appear in the mother node, the mother node has two daughters (Det and N), and that those daughter nodes in turn have daughter nodes (the and dog).

Let's look at that sentence a little more closely. If you type [S the dog sleeps on the porch], you'll get a tree like this:

If you want to break that single node into two, you need to put words that go together in brackets: [S [the dog] [sleeps on the porch]]. Now you're telling the program to have two branches under S (branch 1: the dog; branch 2: sleeps on the porch). But if you hit "draw" right now, you'll be left with this:

Why did that happen? Because the program doesn't distinguish between words and labels unless you put them in their appropriate places. So the program read [the dog] as the is the mother node and its daughter is dog. The same applies to the other set of brackets. You can fix this by inserting labels for both of these: [S [NP the dog] [VP sleeps on the porch]].

From there, you can continue breaking it down until you get the tree with a complete break down. Just remember that what is on the left is inserted into the mother node, a space after that entry indicates a branch/triangle, and more than one branch from a single mother node is indicated by sets of brackets. For instance, [NP [Det] [Adj] [N]] will look like this:

Separating the entries into brackets told the program "don't interpret this as a single unit but rather as three separate daughter nodes."

Once you get the hang of using bracket notation, getting the tree structure you want becomes easier. I encourage you to play with the program to see what different structures look like in their bracket form and compare that form to its tree form. Playing with the program is the best way to learn it.

Next week I will showcase another way to get tree diagrams in typed form to insert into documents. In the meantime, I hope you will have some diagramming fun with phpSyntaxTree.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"To Pull a X"

I am fascinated by the construction "to pull a [insert name here]." As an example, Friends introduced the phrase "to pull a Monica" based on the character (named Monica) who was known in her family for regularly messing up in big situations. "Pulling a Monica" is defined by the Urban Dictionary as "any and all screwups by an individual."

Recently, Steven Slater made the news as the JetBlue flight attendant who, in no uncertain terms, went ballistic on a passenger, chewed said passenger out on the plane's intercom, grabbed a beer from the plane, and exited via the emergency slide. Inspired by this incident, reports:
Most of us will probably never pull a Steven Slater: curse out a customer, grab a drink and leave our place of employment in a blaze of glory. (article by Allison Linn)
I immediately found this interesting for two reasons: (1) less than a day after a singular incident, Steven Slater already has an "event" named after him; and (2) the event is well-known enough to be named a "Steven Slater" yet not well-known enough to be able to use the construction "pull a Steven Slater" without further identifying what that means.

Addressing (1) first, I would most likely not--in everyday usage--coin a phrase such as "to pull a Monica" after a single incident of Monica making a mistake. Oftentimes, this phrase requires a repeated behavior rather than a single incident. If Steven Slater had merely quit his job in a more typical fashion (e.g., a resignation letter), then no one would think of calling quitting a job "pulling a Steven Slater." However, if Steven went on to quit his next five jobs in a row, I might be tempted to call quitting a job "pulling a Steven Slater." I had never stopped to consider how "to pull a X" was applied until I read the article and realized that it takes an extraordinary situation to apply "to pull a X" after only one incident.

Furthermore, I wouldn't typically think of saying "You just pulled a Monica" to someone who has no idea who Monica is or what "pulling a Monica" might mean. Because of that, it seems a little unnatural to think of adding the addendum in natural speech: "You just pulled a Monica: screwing up." In fact, I would think that most typical uses wouldn't merit a clarification clause. Yet, "pulling a Steven Slater", while national news, is new enough that clarification is necessary.

To take consideration of the construction one step further, I find it interesting how we decide to apply the construction. Saturday Night Live dedicated a sketch to "pulling a Peyton Manning" (when you show lots of promise but don't deliver), but I don't often hear phrases with celebrities' names inserted into the construction. For instance, when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah's couch, instead of saying, "You just pulled a Tom Cruise," we adopted the phrase "You jumped the couch." As another example, when Fonzie jumped over the shark near the end of the Happy Days run, the phrase "to pull a Fonzie" never made it into the language; instead, "jump the shark" became a useful phrase for when something good goes terribly wrong. (The episode in which Fonzie jumps the shark roughly marked the end of the popularity for Happy Days.) Perhaps "pulling a Steven Slater" is only possible because he is not a celebrity but is rather an everyday guy who is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame for his antics.

So now the big question is whether the phrase will stick or not. Do you think you'll remember what "pulling a Steven Slater" is next year? Do you think you'll ever have reason to use the phrase in your own speech?

If any of you have a "to pull a X" example of your own, I'd love to hear about it.