Section 3: Applying Analytic Tests

One of the most important skills that you will develop while reading Analyzing Grammar in Context will be an ability to recognize both the form and function of a word, phrase, or clause in the context of a sentence. To exhibit this skill, you must be able to provide evidence that shows your reasoning. Most often, you can show your work by performing a variety of formal and functional tests. While we will discuss specific tests you can perform at the WORD, PHRASE, and CLAUSE level in Sections 4-6, tests that work in conjunction with Recognizing Key Markers, we want to offer a preview of the most common functional tests in order to highlight patterns common to English grammatical structure.

The two most common functional tests are FRAMES and SUBSTITUTIONS.

FRAMES use prototypical patterns of constituent placement in English grammar to determine if a sample structure can function in a particular way. FRAMES contain an empty slot, also defined as a function slot, because a word, phrase, or clause that can be placed in that slot can be said to "function" in that way if the sentence still makes sense.

For example, the FRAME for nominals uses a subject slot with an adjectival subject complement:

(The) ____________ seem(s) appropriate.

Keep in mind that a parenthetical indicates an optional choice, since all structures do not take an article or are singular, and you may have to use an alternative adjectival for the sentence to make sense.

The FRAMES for adjectivals and adverbials use similar patterns:

Adjectival frames use a pre-noun modifier slot or the adjectival subject complement slot. Prototypical adjectives can fit in either slot, but other structures may only make sense in one or the other. As long as it fits in one, you can argue that the structure could be adjectival.

The ___________ man is very ___________.

Adverbials use an end slot following a direct object that modifies the transitive verb for prototypical cases; however, the optional slot at the beginning of the FRAME indicates another common adverbial test: the adverbial can move around in the context of its sentence and still make sense.

(___________,) (T)he man told his story ___________.

(___________,) (T)he woman walked her dog ___________.

Finally, while there is a prototypical verbal FRAME, our preference is that you learn to recognize the Main Verb Phrase Formula described in Section 5.

SUBSTITUTIONS use prototypical words as a test to replace the structure under analysis. If the prototypical word can replace the structure under analysis, then we have another piece of evidence for how that word, phrase, or clause is functioning.

For example, to identify if a phrase is functioning adjectivally, you start by looking at the phrase in the context of the sentence. You first try to determine what the phrase is modifying. If the phrase appears to be modifying a nominal, then your initial thinking should be that it’s adjectival. You can then test the phrase using the adjectival frame. If it fits the frame, then you can do a substitution as further support for your hypothesis. The key is to isolate the phrase to see how it’s functioning in the context of that sentence. Remember, only analyze what you see. Don’t add. Don’t assume. Just what you see. 

But the tests are not infallible, and not the only legitimate arguments that you might make. Consider the following sentence:

The girl solving the equation is at the top of the class.

Even though "solving the equation" does not fit the adjectival frame nor be substituted seamlessly, this present participle phrase is clearly modifying a nominal - "the girl."

And this brings us to a final point: the English language is messy, and not always cut and dried, so your goal is to always make the best argument for your analysis. Some of the exercises that you will perform in Analyzing Grammar in Context will be prototypical and satisfy all of the tests that you perform. For those examples, the argument writes itself. Other exercises, however, will be peripheral cases, only satisfying one or two of the tests. It's important that you explore all of the possibilities so that you can make the best argument possible. It's also important that you explore all of the possibilities because intuition is not a good test (for all kinds of reasons).