Grammar and Trees

Reading audio

04 May 2023

Comparisons are a useful tool for learning new information. They help us make connections and increase our enjoyment of learning.

In this week's Everyday Grammar, we will use a comparison to teach you some important ideas about English grammar and words.

We will use trees – yes, those plants consisting of roots, a trunk, branches and leaves – as our point of comparison.

You will learn about how trees and English sentences have much in common. We will also compare trees to individual words.

Visualization, English sentences

Let's take a moment to do a visualization.

Imagine an image of a tree. It could be a small tree, a large tree, or a colorful tree.

Note the trunk, the branches, and leaves or flowers.

Now let's compare our tree to English sentences.

English sentences consist of a subject and a predicate. The subject is generally a noun phrase, and the predicate – the part of the sentence that says something about the subject - generally begins with some kind of verb phrase.

The subject and predicate are like the roots and trunk of the sentence. They provide stability and strength. They are the basis for the sentence.

Then we move out to branches, leaves, or flowers on the tree. These are like different kinds of modifiers – adjectives, adverbs, adverbial phrases, and so on.

Consider this sentence:

The students consider the class a challenge.

Let's start by identifying the subject and predicate of the sentence.

We start with the noun phrase, "the students." Then we have the predicate, which begins with the verb "consider."

Sentences can become more complex than our example. We have different kinds of sentences, structures, adjectives, and adverbial phrases. But the basic material of a sentence is the subject and predicate relationship – just as a tree is defined as having roots and a trunk.

In fact, English grammar books sometimes use special drawings to break apart sentences into their individual parts. These drawings, known as sentence diagrams, often look like trees that are turned on their sides.

When you get better at recognizing subject and predicate relationships, you will notice how English sentences fit into patterns. There are around ten very common sentence patterns that form the base of all kinds of sentences.

Learning to identify these sentence patterns is much like learning to identify different tree species.

Different species

Let's take an example.

At the beginning of this report, you heard the following line:

Imagine an image of a tree.

Note that the subject of this sentence does not appear. In imperative sentences such as this, we generally leave out the subject. The subject is suggested but not stated.

If we were to compare this kind of sentence to a tree, we might say that it is like a tree that has been cut down and placed somewhere for decoration. You might say that something important – such as the roots – are missing.

Roots at the level of words

Up until now, we have compared trees to English sentences. But we can also compare trees to individual words.

Language, much like a tree, is a result of growth and change over time. When we learn new words, we can look up the ancient beginnings, or roots of the words.

We can also study how words are connected to each other – just like the branches of a tree are connected to the trunk of a tree.

Many etymology – or word history – websites are available. These dictionaries explain the ancient roots of words. They sometimes also give examples of how words were used in different ways in the past.

When we look at words this way, it is much like exploring tree rings. Tree rings can show age and give information about the environment over time. In the same way, we can look deeply into the history of words. This activity helps us form connections and gives us rich information about language over time.

Closing thoughts

The aim of today's report was not to teach you about small details of English grammar. Rather, the goal was to make you consider language from a larger point of view.

Language learning can be like exploring unknown territory. But a few important skills – recognizing patterns and making connections - can help you on your path.

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express an idea but do not form a complete sentence

stability -- n. the quality or state of something that is not easily changed or likely to change; the quality or state of something that is not easily moved

basis -- n. something from which another thing develops or can develop

pattern – n. a system based on the relationship of individual parts

species -- n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants

imperative – n. the form that a verb or sentence has when it is expressing a command or directions

decoration -- n. something that is added to something else to make it more attractive