4.1 Basic Sentence Structure

Preview

This section of Ch. 4 will cover the following topics:

  • subjects, verbs, and objects
  • phrases and clauses
  • fragments

Trying to write correctly without understanding basic is sort of like trying to play baseball if you don’t understand bases, pitches, or hits. You can’t score if you don’t understand how to get to home plate.

Writing is basically a system of structures, beginning with words that connect to form , and, eventually, sentences. Ch. 2 and Ch. 3 focused on words. This chapter looks at how we put words together into sentences.

Sentence Structure

A is a group of words that has a and a verb and express a complete thought. Some sentences are brief and others are complex, but those three criteria are the basic building blocks of a sentence.

subject + verb + complete thought = sentence

The subject of the sentence is always either a noun or a pronoun. It is who or what performs the action. The verb tells what happened to the subject or what state the subject is in. For example:

Samantha sleeps. (“Samantha” is performing the action so she is the subject of the sentence, and “sleeps” is the verb, the action she is performing.)

To find the subject of a sentence, find all the nouns and pronouns. Then ask yourself which noun or pronoun is performing the action. For example:

Samantha often sleeps on the sofa. (The nouns in that sentence are “Samantha” and “sofa.” But which noun is performing the action? “Samantha” is sleeping, so “Samantha” is the subject.)

The subject is often at the beginning of the sentence, but sometimes it isn’t. For example:

After dinner, Alice served cake. (“Alice” is the subject and “served” is the verb; “After dinner” is a prepositional phrase that tells us when the action happened.)

Sometimes sentences have two subjects. For example:

Alice and Juan walked to school. (“Alice” and “Juan” are the subjects; they both did the action. The word “and” isn’t part of the subject; it is a conjunction that joins the two subjects.)

Sentences can also have more than one verb. For example:

Samantha studies at her desk, sleeps on the couch, and drives to school. (Samantha does three things: “studies,” “sleeps,” and “drives.” All three of those words are verbs.)

Phrases and Clauses

Groups of words are called “phrases” or “clauses.” (In Ch. 3, we studied one type of phrase: a .)

A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a sentence subject or verb. For example:

  • in the kitchen
  • the long and winding road

A clause is a group of words that does contain a subject and verb. For example:

Tip

An independent clause is also known as “a sentence.”  It has a subject and a verb, and it expresses a complete thought.

  • Luisa cooked lasagna.
  • the journey includes

There are two types of clauses:

  • Dependent clauses need further information to make a complete sentence. For example: “the journey includes” has a subject and a verb but it does not express a complete thought. It is a dependent clause.
  • Independent clauses do not need additional information to stand on their own. For example, “Luisa cooked lasagna” has a subject and a verb, and it expresses a complete thought. It is an independent clause.

Exercise 1

Type the sentences below.

  1. I have strong feelings about bullying.
  2. Rachel and Jack dance competitively.
  3. The patient was quickly admitted to the hospital.
  4. Kim checked the condition of the track.
  5. In August, Lily celebrated her birthday.

Find all the nouns and pronouns. Then, figure out which noun or pronoun is the sentence subject. (Remember that a sentence can have more than one subject.) Underline subjects once.

What is the subject doing? That is the verb. Underline verbs twice. (Remember that a sentence can also have more than one verb.)

For example:

Martie and Mitch spend time in the garden every weekend.

(It is easy to insert underlines and double underlines in Word.  If you don’t know how to do this, contact the computer tutor at the college.)

Hint: Subjects and verbs never appear in prepositional phrases, so another way to do this exercise would be to identify the prepositional phrases first. That makes it much easier to find subjects and verbs.

Building Longer Sentences

Obviously, most sentences are not as simple as a noun plus a verb: “Eugenio helped.” But writers build on this basic structure.

One way sentences grow is by adding an “object.”

subject + verb + object

The object of a sentence is the noun or pronoun affected by the action of the verb. In other words, the subject is the person or thing doing something; the object is having something done to it. For example:

Alice baked a cake. (“Alice” is the subject; she is doing the action of baking. “baked” is the action being done by Alice; it is the verb. “cake” received the action of the verb; it is the object in this sentence.)

Adding is another way to build more complex sentences. For example:

Samantha is a good student who studies from 6 to 9 p.m. every day and often she will fall asleep on the sofa with a book in her lap.

“from 6 to 9 p.m.,” “on the sofa,” “with a book” and “in her lap” are all prepositional phrases; they add information about where and when to the sentence.

Experienced writers often write complex sentences, but a sentence is not effective just because it is long. It is important not to overload your sentences. For example:

The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth-century wall, near the schoolyard where children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.

If a sentence is cluttered, divide it into two shorter sentences:

The treasure lay buried under the old oak tree, behind the crumbling fifteenth-century wall. In the nearby schoolyard, children played merrily during their lunch hour, unaware of the riches that remained hidden beneath their feet.

Dissecting a sentence is like dissecting a frog in science class. We are opening it up and looking at the parts, giving each part a name and figuring out how the parts work together, with the goal of understanding how the frog works. For some people, digging into the anatomy of language is as interesting as when other people dig into the anatomy of a political movement, or a car engine, or a piece of music.

Avoiding Fragments

One of the benefits to understanding sentence structure is the ability to identify fragments. It is easier to avoid fragments if you know how a sentence is built.

Remember: A complete sentence requires three things: a subject, a verb, and a complete thought. Our example above, “Samantha sleeps,” fulfills those requirements. It has a subject “Samantha,” a verb “sleeps,” and it expresses a complete thought. Even though it is short, it is a complete sentence.

A fragment is an incomplete sentence.

It may be missing a subject. For example:

Went to the movies last weekend. (Who went to the movies? The subject is missing.)

Or a fragment may be missing a verb. For example:

The statue damaged during the riots. (“damaged” is not a verb; it’s an adjective that describes the noun “statue.” Without a verb, this is a fragment.)

Or a fragment may have both a subject and a verb, but not express a complete thought. For example:

If she feels like going. (This has a subject “she” and a verb “feels.” But the point is unfinished.)

To fix fragments, you have to add what is missing. For example:

  • “Went to the movies last weekend” + subject = Massimo went to the movies last weekend.
  • “The statue damaged during the riots” + verb = The statue damaged during the riots was a symbol of racism.
  • “If she feels like going” + complete thought = If she feels like going, let her.

Exercise 2

Type the sentences below, adding missing information to any fragments so the sentence is complete. If a sentence is complete already, write “Complete.”

Don’t guess. Look for subjects and verbs, then make sure the sentence expresses a complete thought.

  1. The band arrived in a limo with their guitars in the trunk.
  2. Entered the office and took off his coat.
  3. A kite shaped like a raven.
  4. In the park, I saw a homeless family.
  5. My password for the library website.
  6. Bentley, the next door neighbor, likes.
  7. Blew down in the high wind, but the maple tree was unharmed.

Takeaways

  • A sentence is a group of words with a subject and a verb and a complete thought.
  • Groups of words are called phrases or clauses.
  • There are two types of clauses: dependent and independent.
  • Adding prepositional phrases and objects makes a sentence more complex.
  • Understanding how a sentence is constructed will help you avoid errors such as fragments.

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