Diagramming: The bird in the tree sang happily


I diagrammed the sentence correctly; but according to the author there is a potential trip to watch out for in the sentence she gave.

She says:

You found the prepositional phrase. You asked, “What question does it answer?” and you said “Where,” didn’t you? What the prepositional phrase “in the tree” really tells is “which one.” It does this by telling “where.” Now think about that. We often tell “which one” about a noun in this way. “Which dress will you wear?” “The one on the bed.” NOT the one in the closet, or over the chair, or under the dresser.

This is an example of how you must always think about what words and word groups are really doing. In most cases, word order will be a clue as to what a prepositional phrase modifies.

End quote.

I have NO idea what she means. Can someone water down for me what she is trying to say?

  • It's the difference between Which bird? - the one in the tree, not a different one (of which there may be many), and Where did the bird sing? (where there may not even be any concept of "other birds"). Jul 20, 2015 at 19:54
  • Where is an adverbial question applied to the analysis of an adverbial prepositional phrase. Since the prepositional phrase modifies the noun bird, and more precisely the noun phrase the bird, the adjectival question which is preferable for analysis, but it makes a negligible difference for practical interpretation.
    – ScotM
    Jul 21, 2015 at 0:10
  • Does this time-consuming graphic really help you to understand the structure of the sentence? This method seems old-fashioned to me.
    – rogermue
    Jul 21, 2015 at 4:20

4 Answers 4


The prepositional phrase here is describing the type of bird by giving its location. If the sentence were to be phrased "The bird sang happily in the tree", it would be answering the question where as you said. It would then be supporting the verb sang. However, currently, the prepositional phrase is describing the bird, and the question "Where?" is an adverbial answer, and therefore cannot describe the noun bird.

  • 2
    Not really "the type of bird"; rather "identifying information for the bird".
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 20, 2015 at 19:52
  • Ok. The way I looked at the sentence when I first looked at it was there was a divider in the sentence (see the pipe symbol). So for example "The bird in the tree | sang happily.” So “the bird in the tree” is a declarative/descriptive statement, and “sang happily” is the adverb “happily” modifying the main verb “sang”. Am I on the right track…? Jul 20, 2015 at 19:57

The bird in the tree | sang | happily.

The bird in the tree: subject

sang: verb

happily: adverb

The noun group "the bird in the tree" has the main element bird and as subelements "the" and "in the tree". "in the tree" is a shortened relative clause: the bird (that is ) sitting in the tree.


Unfortunately, your diagram image is not rendering. Given the question posed by the author to whom you refer, I assume you connected the prepositional phrase, "in the tree," to the verb, "sang," rather than to the head of the subject, "the bird."

The way to analyze this, or any other, prepositional phrase is to ask, "What is the phrase telling me?" You are correct to suggest that the phrase tells us about a place; about where. By responding to her with the answer, "Where," I assume you also correctly meant the location of the bird, as opposed to the location of the singing. So, you are 90% of the way home.

The precise and subtle point the author made is that "in the tree" tells us which bird is the subject of the sentence. It does not tell us where a particular bird was.

By contrast, in the sentence, "The bird that was singing was in the tree," the prepositional phrase now tells us where the bird that is the subject of the sentence was.

In my example, the sentence is about a bird that was singing. "That was signing" tells us which bird. The sentence in your example is about a bird that was in a tree. "In a tree" tells us which bird.

It is that sort of contrast that the author is teaching through her question to you.


Can someone water down for me what she is trying to say?

I gather that the speaker is hinting that in the tree is a prepositional modifier that modifies the noun phrase "the bird".

You can also imply a hidden relative clause: The bird that is in the tree sang happily.

The question that would elicit the response is "Which bird sang happily?" The answer is "The bird in the tree sang happily."

{The bird in [that is] in the tree} is a noun phrase and the subject of the sentence.

The question "Where was the bird that sang happily?" would elicit the answer "The bird that sang happily was in the tree."

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