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Understanding Sentence Structure and Sentence Parts

Use these online sentence lessons for Grade 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, elementary, middle school, and high school students and teachers to learn and understand sentence structure and sentence parts and how they are used in English grammar.


Subject and Predicate
Positions of Subject and Predicate in a Sentence
Forms of the Subject
Forms of the Predicate
Phrases and Clauses
Sentence Classificiation by Clause Type
Sentence Modification
Sentence Errors
Sentence Errors - Sentence Fragments
Sentence Errors - Comma Fault
Sentence Errors - Fused Sentence

Subject and Predicate

The sentence has two parts. The topic of the sentence is the subject. What is said about the subject is the predicate. Usually but not always, the subject identifies the agent of the action; that is, it tells us who or what is doing something.

SUBJECT                             PREDICATE
The delegates                      arrived this morning.
San Juan                             is the capital of Puerto Rico.
Grambling                           has produced many outstanding
small black                          professional football players.
college                                in Louisiana,
The city                              was surrendered to Wallenstein.

[The subject of the sentence is the city, but the city didn't do anything. Something was done to the city by persons unspecified. The agent is not expressed in this sentence.]

Positions of Subject and Predicate in a Sentence

Nearly always, the subject of the sentence comes first. There are occasions, however, when the subject does not come first.

Occasional, for purposes of emphasis, the natural word order will be changed so that the predicate comes first.

          Pete Rose roared into third base. [no emphasis]

          Into third base roared Pete Rose. [emphasis on the predicate, which comes first]

In sentences that ask questions rather than make statements, the subject can come first, but the more usual order is to place the subject inside the verb.

          Your mother is coming today?

          Is your mother coming today?

In sentences that give commands, rather than make statements, again the subject can come first, but, nearly always, the subject and part of the verb are deleted.

          You will do as I tell you!

          Do as I tell you!

Sometimes, the subject can be moved out of its initial position, and a word that is lexically empty (that is, it has no meaning at all) takes its place.

          To see you is nice. [To see you is the subject of the sentence.]

          It is nice to see you. [To see you is still the subject of this sentence.]

Forms of the Subject

The subject of the sentence has several forms. The most frequent forms are nouns, proper nouns, and pronouns.

          We shall overcome.

          Who is on third base?

          Marcus Garvey was a charismatic leader.

          Those comments annoyed Jack.

Occasionally, larger structures, such as noun clauses, gerund phrases, and infinitive phrase, can function as the subject of a sentence. For convenience, nouns, pronouns, and these larger structures are called nominals .

          What she did annoyed Jack. [noun clause functioning as the subject]

          Playing chess amused Jack. [gerund phrase functioning as the subject]

          To collect every stamp issued by Mexico was Juan's ambition. [infinitive phrase functioning as the subject]

Simple and Complete Subjects. The noun or pronoun by itself is the simple subject. This subject is important to identify because it controls the form of the verb. The simple subject and the verb form it controls are in italic type in these examples:

          One of the ships is sinking.

          The mayor, as well as the councilmen, has been implicated.

The noun phrase -- that is, the noun and all its modifiers -- is the complete subject [one of the ships].

Sometimes more than one nominal can be used as the subject of the sentence. The combination of several nominals to express the topic of the sentence is called a compound subject.

          The drivers and the loaders have threatened to strike.

          Not only the price but also the quality of their products fluctuates wildly.

          What he did and what he said were not the same.

Forms of the Predicate

The predicate, what is being said about the topic of the sentence, always has a verb. The verb usually has a verb completion called an object or a complement. Like the noun or the pronoun, the verb often has modifiers. The predicate of the sentence is, in effect, made up of a verb, a verb competition, and some verb modifiers. The various forms of the predicate depend on the kind of verb involved and the kind of verb completion.

Predicate with a Transitive Verb. The most frequent form of the predicate is one in which the verb expresses some kind of action and is followed by a nominal. This nominal is called the object; the verb is called a transitive verb.

In the following sentences the verbs brought, tuned and said are transitive verbs. The nominals functioning as the objects of these verbs are italicized.

          They brought their guitars with them.

          Juanita turned the piano.

          After the party Jack said that they would have to clean the place.

Some transitive verbs can drop their objects and still make sense. They have been celebrating is as grammatical as They had been celebrating his birthday.

Some transitive verbs use two verb completions: a direct object and another structure called an indirect object or a complement, to refer to the object and complete the meaning of the verb.

Nouns, pronouns, and prepositional phrases starting with to or for can function as indirect objects.

          Eliseo gave twenty pesos to his brother.

          Eliseo gave his brother twenty pesos.

          he called her a taxi.

Nouns, pronouns, prepositional phrases, adjectives, and verbal phrases can function as complements.

He called her a star. [The complement star refers to the object her; they identify the same person. This can easily be confused with the two-object form above; He called her a taxi (You're a taxi is not what is meant here!) A lot of bad television jokes are based on this confusion.]

          He thought the whole thing a bad joke. [The noun joke and its modifiers function as the complement.]

          They made her taste the papaya. [infinitive phrase (to) taste the papaya as the complement]

          I made him sick. [adjective as the complement]

          they heard their father leaving the house. [participle phrase as the complement]

          He put the book on the table. [The prepositional phrase on the table functions as the complement.]

Predicate with Copulative Verb. When the When the verb expresses being, seeming, or becoming, the verb is called a copulative verb. These verbs are followed by a nominal, an adjective, or an adverbial. (An adverbial is anything that works like an adverb.)

Not many verbs function as copulatives, but those that do are common and are used frequently; be, seem, become, remain, appear, look, feel, sound, taste, smell, grow.

          Puerto Rico became a commonwealth in 1952. [noun as a complement]

          Her point was that Joe Louis was the greatest champion of all time. [noun clause as complement]

          Juanita will be at her music teachers house. [The prepositional phrase is the complement. It is an adverbial telling where.]

          The meat smelled bad. {the adjective is the complement. People sometimes use the adverb badly here. This is wrong.]

The careful use of adjectives after verbs marks one of the differences between standard and nonstandard usage.

Predicate with a Intrasitive Verb. Some words do not need an object to complete them. These verbs can stand by themselves, or they are completed by an adverbial that indicates location or direction. The adverbial is called the complement. The verb, with or without the complement, is called an intransitive verb.

          The situation deteriorated. [Nothing completes the verb.]

          The clouds vanished. [Nothing completes the verb.]

          He lay down. [The adverbial down completes the verb.]

          He sat on the desk. [The adverbial on the desk is the complement.]

Compound Predicate Verbs and Verb Completions. Sometimes more than one verb or verb completion can occur in the predicate of the sentence. These structures are called the compound verb, the compound object, or the compound complement.

          Their Puerto Rican heritage made Luis and Rosita proud. [two nouns functioning as the compound object]

          Jack fell down and broke his crown. [two verbs functioning as the compound verb]

          His stupid remark made her angry and dangerous. [two adjectives functioning as the compound complement]

Phrases and Clauses

As we have seen already, words work together in groups that can be moved around as single units.

          In the garden was a statue.

          A statue was in the garden.

These movable groups of words are called phrases and clauses. A brief listing of the word groups that are recognizable as particular kinds of phrases and clauses follows. Sometimes these word groups are recognizable because of their form, sometimes because of their function.

Phrases. Phrases are groups of words that do not have a subject and finite verb. Within them however, can be inserted other structures that do have subjects and verbs.

A prepositional phrase is a preposition followed by a nominal as its object. This phrase has too many functions to be of help in recognizing it.

          The speaker was a woman of extraordinary eloquence. [The prepositional phrase modifies the noun woman.]

A participial phrase starts with a present or past participle. It modifies a noun or pronoun that is implicitly involved in the action expressed by the participle.

          Holding the dog by its collar, the boy refused to let go. [The participle phrase modifies the boy, the person holding the dog.]

A gerund phrase is a participial phrase that functions as a nominal.

          Using profane language is not permitted here. [The gerund phrase is the subject of the verb is permitted.]

An infinitive phrase starts with an infinitive. Sometimes the to of the infinitive form is omitted. This phrase has too many functions to be of help in recognizing it.

          It was our desire to severe humanity. [The infinitive phrase functions as the subject of was.]

A noun phrase is a noun with its determiner and its modifiers. It is the noun phrase, not the noun, that is usually replaced by a pronoun.

          The furniture, which they had saved so hard for, had been slashed with a knife. There was no doubt that it had been irretrievably ruined. [The noun phrase is the noun, its determinant the, and the relative clause modifying furniture.]

A verb phrase is not easy to define, because grammarians cannot agree on what to recognize as a verb phrase. There are at least three different patterns currently in use. Her we describe the verb phrase as a main verb and its auxiliaries: She could have been watching him.

Clauses. Clauses are groups of words that have subjects and finite verbs. usually clauses are introduced by such relationship words as who, that, so that, where, but, and, however. Clauses can stand by themselves, or they can be dependent on other structures.

Independent Clauses. An independent clause can stand by itself. In this case, it starts with a capital letter and ends with a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. It is called a sentence.

          Hold tight! She's pretty. Who did it?

An independent clause can be joined to another independent clause by punctuation, coordinating conjunctions, or sentence connectors.

          Mrs. Butler spends lavishly; she has an independent income; unfortunately, she has no taste.

Dependent Clauses. Like phrases, dependent clauses function as nominals and as modifiers. A dependent clause can be sometimes recognized by its introductory relationship word or by its function in the sentence.

Noun clauses usually start with that, but they can start with relative pronouns like who or what, or they can start with subordinating conjunctions like ,if when, why, where, or how. Noun clauses function as nominals.

          How he escaped was stated in the report.

          Knowing who was cheating disturbed him greatly.

Adjectival clauses nearly always start with relative pronouns, although these pronouns are sometimes deleted. Adjective clauses modify nouns and pronouns and follow them as closely as possible.

          A man I know grows tomato plants that never bear fruit. [The adjective clauses modify man and plants. As these clauses identify which man and which plants are being talked about, they are restrictive clauses and are left unpunctually.]

          My brother, who is not very sentimental, did visit the Moravian village where we were born. [The first adjective clause is set off by commas to indicate that it is nonrestrictive; that is, it gives additional information rather than restricting the meaning of the noun.]

Adverbial clauses start with a variety of subordinating conjunctions that usually indicate such means as time, place, reason, manner, condition. Adverb clauses function as modifiers of verbs, other modifiers, and sentences.

          He was bitter that she had deserted him.

          We should answer when she calls.

Sentence Classificiation by Clause Type

For easy reference, a sentence can be classified according to the distribution of independent and dependent clauses.

A simple sentence is an independent clause (Facts are stubborn things.)

A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses (There the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary be at rest.)

A complex sentence has an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses (When she got there, the cupboard was bare.)

A compound-complex sentence has two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses (Jack fell down, and Jill came tumbling after because she was too busy watching Jack.)

Sentence Modification

As has been shown in previous sections, subjects, objects, complements, and finite verbs are the basic elements that work together to make up the sentence. Modifiers, on the other hand, depend on other structures for their existence in the sentence. In the first example below, the adjective old is the complement of the verb. In the second example, the meaning of old stays the same, but its function has changed. The adjective old now acts as modifier to the noun man.

          The man is old.

          The old man is tired.

Modifiers of Verbs. Verb modifiers (or adverbials, as they are sometimes called) identify the distinctive features of the action of state of being expressed by the verb. These are adverbs, nouns, prepositional phrases, infinitive phrases, and adverbial clauses.

          When he spoke, they fell silent. [adverbial clause modifying fell]

          They went to Carnigie Hall to hear Marian Anderson sing. [infinitive phrase modifying went]

Verb modifiers frequently occur after the verb [adverb of frequency and prepositional phrase modifying occur]

          Delighted because she had arrived early, he opened the champagne. [adverbial clause modifying the verbal delighted]

          They arrived this morning. [noun of time modifying arrived]

Position of Verb Modifiers. Most verb modifiers can move around the sentence without changing their function or meaning: He raised his hand slowly; Slowly he raied his hand; He slowly raised his hand.

Adjectivals. Adjectivals are noun modifiers that identify a large number of distinctive features in the nouns they modify. Short adjectivals, with the exception of adverbs, sit between the determiner and the noun. Determiner and noun are given in italics in the following examples

          the wounded marine sergeant

          a tall, dark distinguished gentleman

Modifiers of Adjective and Adverbs. Adjective and adverbs are often modified by adverbs that indicate the comparative intensity of the quality involved. A man can be slightly tired, somewhat tired or very tired. These adverbs are called intensifiers.

          She spoke quite firmly to him. [adverb somewhat intensified]

          He was rather quiet when she spoke. [adjective somewhat intensified]

          She was extremely happy to see him. [adjective very intensified]

          As a result, they sang much more loudly. [adverb very intensified]


Sentence Errors - Sentence Fragments

When modifiers or nominals are length, careless writers sometimes allow them to break off from their sentences to stand by themselves. the modifier or nominal left standing alone is called a sentence fragment.

In the following example, an adverbial clause is left standing by itself. Because he was serving his residency at the overcrowded city hospital.~*~~ the reader is left in suspense, asking, "well, what about it?" The writer may add a new sentence: He had little leisure time, but this is not a good repair job. The fragment still stands.

Sentence fragments can be correct in two ways:

1. by properly relating the large modifier to its noun or verb or relating the large nominal to its verb.

2. by starting all over again and converting the modifier or nominal into a sentence that can stand by itself.

Sentence Errors - Comma Fault

When the writer uses a comma between two sentences, rather than relating them with a semicolon or a relationship word or separating them with a period, space, and capital letter, the result is called a comma fault or comma splice and can sometimes be confusing.

          Classes will begin on September 19, the year 1984 should be a good one for all of us at Northern State.

The comma fault is easily repaired by making two sentences out of the spliced sentences. Classes will begin on September 19. The year 1984 should be a good one for all of us at Northern State. If this solution seems too abrupt, then one of the methods of coordinating two sentences should be employed.

          We had taken the wrong turning, and we found we were heading south instead of west. [coordinating conjunction and punctuated with a comma]

          We had taken the wrong turning; we found we were heading south instead of west. [semicolon relating two sentences with similar content]

          We had taken the wrong turning; thus we found we were heading south instead of west. [sentence connector thus punctuated with a semicolon]

Sentence Errors - Fused Sentence

The fused sentence is two or more sentence run together with no punctuation or spacing to separate them. As a result, the reader, misled and confused, must reread the sentence and, even then, may not always catch the writer's intent.

          With gladness, we see the Christmas season approach Mrs. Dunkeld and I share our joy with you.

The quick cure for the fused sentence is to make two distinct sentences out of it.

          With gladness, we see the Christmas season approach. Mrs. Dunkeld and I share our you with you.

If the two sentences sound awkward, then the use of relationship words, such as coordinating conjunctions and sentence connector, may be in order.

With gladness we see the Christmas season approach. Mrs. Dunkeld and I, therefore, share our joy with you.


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