What is a sentence?
A sentence is
a group of words that are used together to express or convey acomplete thought.
It may include any of the eight parts of speech; however, theparts
of speech that are used must be combined accurately to form a correctsentence. The
two essential elements of a sentence that are used to express
a complete thought are the subject and the predicate.
NOTE: Besides the
subject and predicate, sentences may also contain clausesand/or
phrases. A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and predicate and is used as a part of the sentence. The main clause expresses
a complete thought and can stand alone as a sentence. Subordinate
clauses do not express a complete thought and must
always be used in conjunctionwith a main clause. A phrase
is a group of words thatis used to a single partof speech.
It does not contain a verb and its subject is not complete in itself.A phrase cannot
The subject is a word or
a group of words about which something is beingsaid. It
is the subject of the discourse and names the person or thing aboutwhich the author of the sentence is writing. The subect maybe either
a single word (simple subject) or
several words (complete subject).
"Sailor is the simple subject in the first and
"chaplain" is the simple subject in the
"Command chaplian" is the complete subject in the second example.
The predicate is a word or a group of words that state something about
thesubject and includes everything in
the sentence that is not included in the complete subject.
This means that the complete predicate inculdes the simplepredicate with its modifiers
and the object with its modifiers.
The Command chaplain supervises the program for the
“Travel” is the simple predicate
in the first example and "supervises" in the simple predicate
in the second example. “Supervises the program for thecommanding officer” is the complete predicate
in the second example.
The root of many problems with grammar and punctuation is the failure to identify just what
it is that makes up a sentence. Obviously a sentence is made up of words, but they are of words of a particular kind and in
a particular order. Once again, structure is everything.
We can have a simple sentence with only a single word, but most of our sentences have more than one, and this
is when structure is important. [Single word sentences are usually used in conversation. We answer questions with a single
word. We also give commands with a single word. But most non-conversational uses of language demand more than single word
For the purposes of this explanation, a basic sentence contains either a subject [S] and a verb [V] or a subject
[S], verb [V], and object phrase [O]. We all are familiar with these basic sentences since we use them so often in speech
Here are some examples. The baby laughs. [S + V] The baby is walking.
[S + V] The baby walks down the hall. [S
+ V + O]
From these simple beginnings, we can create very long, complex, and often confusing sentences. But we should
always keep in mind that the basic sentence expresses this information: someone does something [The baby laughs, is walking,
walks down the hall, etc.]
Let's look at variety, making complexity out of the simple elements of the sentence.
The baby and her mom were laughing. [(S + S) + V]
The baby, her sister, and their mom were laughing. [(S + S + S) + V]
The baby was laughing and giggling. [S + (V + V)]
The baby was laughing, giggling, and crawling down the hall. [S + (V + V + V) + O]
[Notice that I added an object phrase, in this
case a prepositional phrase after the verbs.]
The baby crawled down the hall and into the kitchen. [S + V + (O + O)]
Multiple subjects and verbs:
The girl and the boy walked and laughed through the store. [(S + S) + (V + V) + O]
Let's look at even more variety.
Adding modifiers to the subject [We call these modifiers adjectives.]:
The little baby and proud mother were laughing. [(Adj./ S + Adj./ S) + V]
We can use phrases that act like adjectives.
The hard to please child and the proud but stern mother were not laughing. [(Adj./ S + Adj./ S) + V]
Adding modifiers to the verb [We call these modifiers adverbs.]:
The child and her mother rarely argued with each other. [(S + Adj. / S) + Adv. / V + O]
We can also use phrases that act like adverbs.
The spoke with the authority of a learned man. [S + V / Adv.} Note: The prepositional phrase, "with the authority
of a learned man," modifies the verb "spoke." It, therefore, acts like an adverb.
[Note: There are many more ways to add variety to sentences. These ways are just beginnings based upon combining
the simplest elements of a sentence: subject, verb, object phrase.]
What is not a sentence?
A Variety of Sentence Fragments
The sentence fragment is only a part of a sentence, usually one that lacks a subject or a verb. The sentence
fragment is usually an after thought, something tagged on to a sentence. Here is a typical example of a sentence fragment.
John is a friend of mine. My very best friend in the whole world. [Note: I'll use italics for fragments.]
To avoid the fragment, usually all that is needed is a comma. Here is the correction.
John is a friend of mine, my very best friend in the whole world.
Here is another kind of sentence fragment. This one has a complete subject and verb; however, it is a dependent
clause, depending on the main clause (or sentence) for it to be grammatically correct.
My best friend is John. Who is really my very best friend in the whole world.
Here is the corrected version.
My best friend is John, who is really my very best friend in the whole world.
Sometimes fragments appear before a sentence that it could connect to. Here is an example.
My best friend in all of the world. John never lets me down.
Correct this fragment, again, with a comma.
My best friend in all of the world, John never lets me down.
(From ACC's Writers' Web Lessons: http://webs.ashlandctc.org/jnapora/WritersWeb/lessons.htm)
Some English sentences are very basic:
- Shakespeare was a writer.
- Einstein said something.
- The Inuit are a people.
You could write an entire essay using only simple sentences like these:
- William Shakespeare was a writer. He wrote plays. It was the Elizabethan age. One play was Hamlet.
It was a tragedy. Hamlet died. The court died too.
It is not likely, however, that your essay would receive a passing grade. This chapter helps you learn to
recognise different types of sentences and to use them effectively in your own writing.
Although ordinary conversation, personal letters, and even some types of professional writing (such as newspaper
stories) consist almost entirely of simple sentences, your university or college instructors will expect you to be able to use all types of sentences in your formal academic writing. Writers who use only simple sentences are like a truck drivers who do not know
how to shift out of first gear: they would be able to drive a load from Montréal to Calgary (eventually), but they would have
a great deal of trouble getting there.
If you use phrases and clauses carefully, your sentences will become much more interesting and your ideas, much clearer. This complex sentence develops a major, central idea and provides structured background information:
- Since it involves the death not only of the title character but of the entire royal court, Hamlet
is the most extreme of the tragedies written by the Elizabethan playwrite William Shakespeare.
Just as a good driver uses different gears, a good writer uses different types of sentences in different situations:
- a long complex sentence will show what information depends on what other information;
- a compound sentence will emphasise balance and parallelism;
- a short simple sentence will grab a reader's attention;
- a loose sentence will tell the reader in advance how to interpret your information;
- a periodic sentence will leave the reader in suspense until the very end;
- a declarative sentence will avoid any special emotional impact;
- an exclamatory sentence, used sparingly, will jolt the reader;
- an interrogative sentence will force the reader to think about what you are writing; and
- an imperative sentence will make it clear that you want the reader to act right away.
Remember that every clause is, in a sense, a miniature sentence. A simple sentences contains only a single clause, while a compound sentence, a complex sentence, or a compound-complex
sentence contains at least two clauses.
The most basic type of sentence is the simple sentence, which contains only one clause. A simple sentence can be as short as one word:
Usually, however, the sentence has a subject as well as a predicate and both the subject and the predicate may have modifiers. All of the following are simple sentences, because each contains only one clause:
- Ice melts.
- The ice melts quickly.
- The ice on the river melts quickly under the warm March sun.
- Lying exposed without its blanket of snow, the ice on the river melts quickly under the warm March
As you can see, a simple sentence can be quite long -- it is a mistake to think that you can tell a simple
sentence from a compound sentence or a complex sentence simply by its length.
The most natural sentence structure is the simple sentence: it is the first kind which children learn to speak,
and it remains by far the most common sentence in the spoken language of people of all ages. In written work, simple sentences
can be very effective for grabbing a reader's attention or for summing up an argument, but you have to use them with care:
too many simple sentences can make your writing seem childish.
When you do use simple sentences, you should add transitional phrases to connect them to the surrounding sentences.
A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses (or simple sentences) joined by co-ordinating conjunctions like "and," "but," and "or":
- Canada is a rich country.
- Still, it has many poor people.
- Canada is a rich country, but still it has many poor people.
Compound sentences are very natural for English speakers -- small children learn to use them early on to connect
their ideas and to avoid pausing (and allowing an adult to interrupt):
- Today at school Mr. Moore brought in his pet rabbit, and he showed it to the class, and I got to pet it,
and Kate held it, and we coloured pictures of it, and it ate part of my carrot at lunch, and ...
Of course, this is an extreme example, but if you over-use compound sentences in written work, your writing
might seem immature.
A compound sentence is most effective when you use it to create a sense of balance or contrast between two
(or more) equally-important pieces of information:
- Montéal has better clubs, but Toronto has better cinemas.
There are two special types of compound sentences which you might want to note. First, rather than joining
two simple sentences together, a co-ordinating conjunction sometimes joins two complex sentences, or one simple sentence and
one complex sentence. In this case, the sentence is called a compound-complex sentence:
- The package arrived in the morning, but the courier left before I could check the contents.
The second special case involves punctuation. It is possible to join two originally separate sentences into a compound sentence using a semicolon instead of a co-ordinating conjunction:
- Sir John A. Macdonald had a serious drinking problem; when sober, however, he could be a formidable
foe in the House of Commons.
Usually, a conjunctive adverb like "however" or "consequently" will appear near the beginning of the second part, but it is not required:
- The sun rises in the east; it sets in the west.
A complex sentence contains one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. Unlike a compound sentence, however, a complex sentence contains clauses which are not equal. Consider
the following examples:
- My friend invited me to a party. I do not want to go.
- My friend invited me to a party, but I do not want to go.
- Although my friend invited me to a party, I do not want to go.
In the first example, there are two separate simple sentences: "My friend invited me to a party" and "I do
not want to go." The second example joins them together into a single sentence with the co-ordinating conjunction "but," but
both parts could still stand as independent sentences -- they are entirely equal, and the reader cannot tell which is most
important. In the third example, however, the sentence has changed quite a bit: the first clause, "Although my friend invited
me to a party," has become incomplete, or a dependent clause.
A complex sentence is very different from a simple sentence or a compound sentence because it makes clear
which ideas are most important. When you write
- My friend invited me to a party. I do not want to go.
- My friend invited me to a party, but I do not want to go.
The reader will have trouble knowing which piece of information is most important to you. When you write the
subordinating conjunction "although" at the beginning of the first clause, however, you make it clear that the fact that your friend invited
you is less important than, or subordinate, to the fact that you do not want to go.
Not all sentences make a single point -- compound sentences, especially, may present several equally-important pieces of information -- but most of the time, when you write
a sentence, there is a single argument, statement, question, or command which you wish to get across.
When you are writing your sentences, do not bury your main point in the middle; instead, use one of the positions of emphasis at the beginning or end of the sentence.
If you put your main point at the beginning of a long sentence, you are writing a loose sentence:
- I am willing to pay slightly higher taxes for the privilege of living in Canada, considering the free
health care, the cheap tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs, and the wonderful winters.
The main point of this sentence is that the writer prefers to live in Canada, and the writer makes the point
at the very beginning: everything which follows is simply extra information. When the readers read about the free health care,
the cheap tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs, and the wonderful winters, they will already
know that these are reasons for living in Canada, and as a result, they will be more likely to understand the sentence on
a first reading.
Loose sentences are the most natural for English speakers, who almost always talk in loose sentences: even
the most sophisticated English writers tend to use loose sentences much more often than periodic sentences. While a periodic
sentence can be useful for making an important point or for a special dramatic effect, it is also much more difficult to read,
and often requires readers to go back and reread the sentence once they understand the main point.
Finally, it is important to remember that you have to structure a loose sentence as carefully as you would
structure a periodic sentence: it is very easy to lose control of a loose sentence so that by the end the reader has forgotten
what your main point was.
If your main point is at the end of a long sentence, you are writing a periodic sentence:
- Considering the free health care, the cheap tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs,
and the wonderful winters, I am willing to pay slightly higher taxes for the privilege of living in Canada.
The main point of this sentence is that the writer prefers to live in Canada. At the beginning of this sentence,
the reader does not know what point the writer is going to make: what about the free health care, cheap tuition fees, low
crime rate, comprehensive social programs, and wonderful winters? The reader has to read all of this information without
knowing what the conclusion will be.
The periodic sentence has become much rarer in formal English writing over the past hundred years, and it
has never been common in informal spoken English (outside of bad political speeches). Still, it is a powerful rhetorical tool.
An occasional periodic sentence is not only dramatic but persuasive: even if the readers do not agree with your conclusion,
they will read your evidence first with open minds. If you use a loose sentence with hostile readers, the readers will probably
close their minds before considering any of your evidence.
Finally, it is important to remember that periodic sentences are like exclamatory sentences: used once or twice in a piece of writing, they can be very effective; used any more than that, they can make
you sound dull and pompous.