The process of IC analysis always ends when the smallest constituents are reached, which are often words although the analysis can also be extended into the words to acknowledge the manner in which words are structured. Most tree structures employed to represent the syntactic structure of sentences are products of some form of IC-analysis.

Advantages of IC Analysis

Identification of the layers of relationship in a construction

IC analysis helps to graphically display the layers or units in a sentence and how the units are hierarchically organised to form the sentence. It discovers the layers of relationship in a construction. English syntax is based on this ability of structures to function within larger structures, which are, in turn, serving other functions in still larger, more complex structures (sentences). Composing a more complex sentence such as The pretty girl put on her red and blue coat kissed her mother and left, demonstrates the nature of the relationship that must be negotiated if a hearer or a reader is to understand such a sentence. Actually, anyone who is capable of understanding the meaning of the sentence obviously has the mental capacity to keep all those relationships afloat as he hears or reads the sentence.

Fixity of word order

In IC analysis the word order is not disturbed in any way. This advantage is best demonstrated by sorting the relationship found in the following sentences which are composed of the same words but which are different in word order:

    1. The boy played marbles on his knees.
    2. The boy on his knees played marbles.
    3. On his knees, the boy played marbles.

These sentences may be said to be stylistically different. In the first, the prepositional phrase ‘on his knees’ modifies the verb phrase; in the second, it modifies the noun phrase; in the third, it modifies all the rest of the sentence. Yet in the word order within the structure ‘on his knees’ does not change.

To account for ambiguities and distinguish them

A famous example ‘old men and women’ can be paraphrased in two ways; it is either ‘old men and women of all ages’ or ‘old men and women’. The principle of expansion here allows us two interpretations. Either ‘old men’ is an expansion of a single morpheme (e.g. men or boy) or ‘men and women’ is an expansion of a single morpheme (e.g. people or men).

    1. old (men and women)
    2. (old men) and women

Limitations of IC Analysis

Presumptions about the grammatical status of the elements

Although IC analysis is supposed to precede any attempt to identify and classify the ICs as subjects, objects, noun phrase, it is based on the tacit assumptions about the grammatical status of the elements.

Eg: want to go

    1. want/to go
    2. want to/go.

If we compare it with ‘want food’ then clearly the first analysis would be ‘want to/go’. But the answer was given was in favour of ‘want/to go’ because the possibility of ‘to go’ is easy were obviously ‘to go’ is a constituent.

Here such identification is clearly grammatical because we accept an analysis which allows us to consider ‘to go’ as some kind of nominal element and favouring the comparison with ‘want food’, so that ‘to go’ is an expansion of ‘food’ because it is of the same grammatical type.


IC-analysis cannot assign a natural P- marker to sentences containing discontinuous constituents. That is, sometimes IC analysis cannot divide a construction into two because elements that belong together are separated in the sequence (i.e. discontinuous).

Eg: Is John coming?
Here ‘is’ is nearer to coming than to John. It is obvious that the ICs of this sentence is not ‘is’ and ‘John coming’, but rather ‘is…coming’ and ‘John’. There is no non-ad-hoc way of representing this diagrammatically.

Of course, we can always carry on the IC analysis by merely permitting discontinuity, but this does surely make less plausible the very assumption on which IC analysis is based – that language is essentially a one-dimensional linear string which can be chopped up into decreasing segments. It must be recalled that IC analysis depends on expansion, the substitution of sequences by single morphemes but discontinuous sentences are not sequences.

Lexical, constructional or derivational ambiguities

Lexical ambiguity arises from the same word having more than one meaning

Eg: bank

    1. bank of the river.
    2. institution where we deposit money.

Constructional ambiguity is due to the difference in layering.

Eg: The pen on the table that belongs to me.
Here the problem is that one gets confused whether it is the table or the pen that ‘belongs to me’.

Derivational ambiguity arises from the same constituents functioning differently.

Eg: the love of God.
It may mean God’s love for someone or someone’s love for God.

Constructional and derivational ambiguity can together be called structural homonymy. IC analysis can disambiguate certain constructions.

Eg: A Russian history teacher

    1. A Russian history/teacher – teacher who teaches Russian history
    2. A Russian/history teacher – the history teacher who is Russian

Syntactic ambiguity may be defined as follows: a sentence is syntactically ambiguous if it has two (or more) meanings which cannot be ascribed to the semantic structure of the words of which it is made up. It is sometimes referred to in the literature as constructional homonymy. IC Analysis cannot account for constructional homonymy.

Eg: John washed the car in the garage.
It may mean that (a) the car was washed by John in the garage or (b) the car in the garage was washed by John.

IC analysis is not below the words

In IC analysis it is assumed that there will be no division into pieces smaller than words (morphemes) until all the words have been divided. If we cut ‘criminal lawyer’ into ‘criminal/lawyer’, it does not sound tenable in actual practice because ‘criminal lawyer’ generally means a lawyer who deals with criminal cases. So unless we cut ‘criminal lawyer’ in the way like ‘criminal – lawyer’, the meaning does not come out clearly. But because IC analysis does not go below the level of words, we cannot analyze the phrase ‘criminal lawyer’ in a meaningful way.

Unbalanced bracketing

IC analysis does not refer to our grammatical knowledge, so it does not take us very far and without the help of labelled bracketing we cannot point out the sources of ambiguity in many sentences. The labelled bracketing can be used to differentiate the two possibilities is an example that is often against IC analysis.

Eg: What disturbed John was being disregarded by his friends.
The sentence has two possible interpretations:

    1. ((What (disturbed John)) (was ((being disregarded) (by (his friends.)))))
      which means John’s friends disregarded him, which disturbed him.
    2. ((What (disturbed John)) ((was (being disregarded)) (by (his friends.))))
      which means John’s friends were disregarding what disturbed him.

The problem of embedding

IC Analysis cannot account for sentences involving embedding.

Eg: The boy who won the prize is my cousin.

The problem of conjoining

IC Analysis cannot handle conjoining.

Eg: I will go and meet him.

The problem of unstated elements

IC analysis fails to show elements which are unstated in a sentence.

Eg: hit the ball
The element ‘you’ is missing here. There is no way of showing this in the IC analysis.

The problem of the relationship between sentence types

IC analysis fails to show the relationship between sentence types such as active and passive, affirmative and negative, statement and question.

Eg: Kapil hit a six. A six was hit by Kapil.
Here one is active and the other is passive, the relation which is not visible in IC analysis.

The problem of overlapping ICs

Many a time, overlapping ICs also cause a problem.

Eg: He has no interest in, or taste for, music.
The sentence means to convey that he has no interest in music, he has no taste for music. The word ‘no’ applies to both interest and taste. It is not possible to show this in the IC analysis.

The problem of structural similarity and different grammatical relations

There are some sentences that are structurally similar, but semantically different.

Eg: John is easy to please. John is eager to please.
Such sentences cannot be explained by IC analysis unless they are broken up into simple pairs of sentences. In this case, we may have the following groups.

    1. (It) is easy. Someone pleases John.
    2. John is eager. He wants to please.

The process and result of IC-analysis can, however, vary greatly based upon whether one chooses the constituency relation of phrase structure grammars (= constituency grammars) or the dependency relation of dependency grammars as the underlying principle that organizes constituents into hierarchical structures. An important aspect of IC-analysis in phrase structure grammars is that each individual word is a constituent by definition. The process is, however, much different in dependency grammars, since many individual words do not end up as constituents in dependency grammars.

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, H.H. The Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.