Monthly Archives: December 2013

Week 9: Christmas Trees

Linguistics surely has its place in geek heaven.  It’s not just the intricacies of the subject, but also the challenge of how to include formulae and precise diagrams in word-processed documents.  So one of the things I’ve been doing this term is getting to grips with available tools that make presentation a bit easier for linguists, and allow us to focus on the content.

As it’s nearly Christmas, I thought I’d start by reporting on my experience with Treeform.  This is free software, developed by phonetician Donald Derrick, with the kind of drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface that is the norm for everyone but hardcore coders.  The software works on Windows, Mac and Linux and can be downloaded from the Sourceforge Treeform page. If you don’t already have Java installed on your computer, you will need that as well.

The interface is highly intuitive and simple to use, but it can handle high complexity.  Structures are built by dragging one of the side buttons onto the screen.  These allow you to automatically set up an XP structure, or a range of branches.  There are buttons for adding child and intermediate parent notes, as well as a parent node and an adjunct.  Text or symbols can be added under terminal nodes and triangles.  There are specific labels for cases, features and theta roles, together with the opportunity to link features and draw movement arrows.  All node labels can be edited, and individual nodes and lines can be given custom colours, fonts and highlighting. This looks like pretty much everything that you need to draw trees that fit with a variety of theoretical frameworks and assumptions.  There is also a short demonstration video, which will probably answer any questions that you have.

Once you’ve created your tree, you need to get it into a document.  The tree data is stored as an .xml file, but you can copy and paste diagrams directly into Word, or export create a .PDF file or .JPG or .PNG image with varying resolution.  The canvas you work on is big, but once you’ve finished, resizing the frame before you export reduces the amount of white space on your image.

I drew the the tree below in under 5 minutes: it’s my (current) favourite sample sentence, from Yehuda Falk’s 2001 book Lexical Functional Grammar: An Introduction to Parallel Constraint-Based Syntax.

The biggest disadvantage I’ve come across so far is with the final layout.  If you compare with the example below taken from the printed book, you’ll see that Treeform doesn’t guarantee every terminal node direct line-of-sight to the bottom of the diagram.  (Look at where will is placed in the two.) This means that sometimes it’s not quite so easy to read the sentence from the diagram. 

You can force the branches to spread apart in Treeform by using empty intermediate nodes to bring a terminal further down, but I’m not keen on the way that looks, and it still doesn’t give you a straight, unbroken line from the terminal to its parent.  But this snag is small beer compared to the ease of use in generating the tree.  

And that’s before you get to proof-reading.  According to the wikibook on LaTeX, I could have generated the above tree using two lines of LaTeX code:


\Tree [.IP [.DP [.D’ [.D the ] [.NP [.N’ [.N hamster ] ] ] ] ] [.I’ [.I will ] [.VP [.V’ [.V give ] [.DP [.D’ [.D a ] [.NP [.N’ [.N felafel ] ] ] ] ] [.PP [.P’ [.P to ] [.DP [.D’ [.D the ] [.NP [.N’ [.N dinosaur ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ]

But to write that second line just now, I needed to draw the tree anyway.  Add that to learning how to use LaTeX properly, limiting myself to LaTeX documents and, worst of all, the faff of proofreading (every bracket and every space is vital, before you even get to the content of the tree!), and you’ll understand the attractions of Treeform.

So I’ve been spending a bit of time getting used to the software and also trying to navigate the minefield of assumptions and claims that I’m making every time I add a node, or choose to connect a sub-tree at a particular point.

Is this the most appropriate way to represent a sentence topic?

And I’m not sure who the subject is here?  Is Gabriel an amplifying adjunct to the angel, or is he the head?  And if he’s the head, does that make the angel the specifier of his DP?


Not to mention working out how best to include direct speech.

(Yes, since you ask, I am enjoying myself!)

That was the term that was…

…it’s over, let it go. Time to reflect, sum up and move on.  The usual three questions, starting at the top.

What’s gone well?

I’ve enjoyed the core course.  I now have a much clearer idea of the areas of linguistics that I want to know more about, and of which areas I’m going to set aside for the time being.  Some of the content has been tough to get to grips with (set theory and various kinds of formal logic over five lectures, anyone?), but I haven’t been completely at sea.  And I’m looking forward to the remaining elements of the foundation programme next term – semantics, morphology, historical linguistics – alongside the specialised options.

The course extras have been good too.  The working- and reading groups have been a chance to think about evidence and methods with colleagues, the seminars have opened my eyes to research questions I’d never dreamed of, and it is much more fun learning Korean in a class than on my own in front of a computer.

I’ve got to know some really excellent people: sharp, energetic, witty, relaxed, funny.  I’d forgotten how energising university can be, and I’ve enjoyed hearing different perspectives on the work and the subject.  I’ve also learned from seeing how other students are using their experience to tackle their own learning challenges.

Having been accountable for an organisation for the past seven years, I now have a chance to look at various other organisations – bits of the university – from a different position.  This has been fun, interesting and also a relief that it’s not my responsibility!  I’ve had lots of ideas which people within the organisations have been willing to listen to, and I feel like I’ve had space to experiment.

Outside the course, I’ve joined in (and started some) initiatives in the faculty, college and the wider university.  I’ve engaged with social media.  I’ve had a whole range of dance lessons.  I’ve been to a conference and workshops.  And I’ve rolled around on the floor pretending to be a snake trying to move quickly on sheet ice.  What’s not to like?

What’s not gone so well?

Overall, this has been a good term.  There isn’t a lot I could flag up as going badly.

The biggest challenge is getting feedback.  I’m not at all missing the health service performance management regime, but the foundation course is mostly about listening and thinking, and the feedback I’ve received relates to work submitted for classes.  I’m not looking for summative feedback, as the exams in 2015 will come soon enough, but I am looking forward to tutorials starting so that I can get more of a sense of what reasonable expectations are in terms of the breadth, depth and pace of my learning.

The other areas feel a bit nit-picky or hyper-critical (which was not the point of giving up work to study!), but I think they’re worth noting nonetheless.

Despite the best of intentions, I haven’t written every day.  To be fair, I started the term with almost no subject matter on linguistics, and there really is a limit to how much reflective writing I can do.  But this is still something I want to spend time on, and the discipline will be important later on.

A couple of times, I didn’t deliver on commitments because I had too much on.  I don’t like letting other people down, but the downside of my low boredom threshold and tolerance for “good stress” is that there isn’t a lot of margin when deadlines pile up.  It’s the usual answer: if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t make the kitchen so hot!

I made time for wider reading, but not as much as I would have liked.  And although keeping enthusiastic in the library is a bit easier than it was in 1987, it is by no means a cinch.  I wonder if this has something to do with that unforgettable Bodleian smell?

And I’m not very good at proofreading, particularly when the text is on screen.  The trouble is, this gets in the way of me (and the tutors) realising when I haven’t understood something properly, rather than just clumsy typing.

And so what to do differently?

A big challenge will be embedding what I’ve learned.  We’ve covered an enormous amount of ground in eight weeks, and it’s going to take some revision and practice to make sure that I really do have firm foundation for the rest of the course.  This isn’t just the theoretical frameworks and the evidence base, but also the tools of the trade.  So one of my tasks for the next six weeks is to spend some time playing with Praat, TreeForm, LaTeX, Python and the rest so that when I need to use them in earnest, I’m not back at square one with the manual.

The next biggie is prioritisation.  Alongside the course, I have a number of small elephants on the horizon between now and July, that are going to be bloody big elephants when I’m staring them in the face.  This means that I can’t realistically take on another commitment, and I’m also going to be sparing about evenings and weekends.  It’s helpful to have realised that now, the challenge will be to stick to it when the next enticing project shows up.

I’m going to tweak my routines a bit, to make time for more exercise, for writing every day, and for wider reading.

And I’m going to keep on with the 23 Things programme at my own pace, and keep on with the blog.

Adventures in academic life: the iCog conference

Saturday of eighth week. Where did the term go? This blog has been neglected but I’ll be catching up, and reflecting on why the blog got neglected, later this week.

In the meantime, I attended the inaugural conference organised by the iCog Network in Sheffield last weekend, and used the opportunity to have a go at Twitter reporting.  iCog describes itself as a network for postgraduates and early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary cognitive science, and their site is well worth a visit.

I’ve also pulled together a Storify on the conference. As ever, feedback and comments are welcome. I’d certainly try it again – what do you think?