I'm still learning grammar. I'm trying to figure out the steps to break down a sentence. My process now is to look at the sentence as a whole first. Then I classify it as either simple, compound, complex, etc. Then I classify it again as either declarative, imperative, etc. Then I work out the subject and predicate and label them by clause type; main, subordinate, adjectival, noun. Then I break the clauses into structures like subject+verb, subject+transverb+direct, etc, etc.

Now I'm trying to identify all the phrases and I'm getting stuck. So I'm moving to a bottom-up approach by looking at words on their own to see if they are nouns, verbs. phrases, whatever. So that I might make phrases out of them. But I'm getting stuck at this point.

Anyway, my question is what is the best way to break down a sentence into all its levels, from the words/parts of speech all the way up to the clauses and sentence?

Should you start with the sentence and begin chopping it into smaller and smaller chunks (clauses, phrases, etc), as I've been trying to do, or should you identify the word types first and then build them up (bottom-up approach)? Is there a formula I can follow like a recipe to accomplish this?

  • 1
    Draw a tree diagram: start at the top by identifying the 'immediate constituents', i.e. the subject and predicate. Then break those constituents down into their constituents, usually phrases, but may also be subordinate clauses containing their own phrases. Continue downwards until you reach the individual words, called the ultimate constituents. At each node in the tree you should identify and label both function (e.g. subject, complement, modifier, etc.) and phrasal category/part of speech (e.g. noun phrase, adjective phrase / noun, adjective etc. of the constituent.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 11:33
  • You can normally start by identifying the basic, high-level structure. But it's not a simple procedure that can be done by rote: you can try and work your way down, but may have to revise your high-level division when you consider smaller components. It's an iterative procedure, and takes practice.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 12:29
  • Here's one I did earlier!! link
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 13:38
  • Here's a takeaway from a syntax course on how to figure out a sentence. Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 15:18
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    @JohnLawler, thanks, those notes are great. I am using them to practice. Commented Aug 21, 2021 at 3:22

1 Answer 1


You can use a Parse Tree:

or nested brackets

I'm trying to figure out the steps to break down a sentence.

(S (NP I) (VP am (VP trying(S(VP to (VP figure(Adv. out)(NP the steps)(S (AdvP to (VP break (PRT down)(NP a sentence)))))))))

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