Sentences express complete thoughts. Each sentence contains a subject and a predicate, expressed or implied. As we learn any language our sentences increase in complexity. Some people believe the more complex a sentence, the more impressive. Never confuse wordiness for eloquence.
In grammar, we classify sentences by their functions. There are four basic sentence types in English:
- Declarative / Narrative — Makes a statement or explains.
- Interrogative — Asks a question.
- Imperative — Gives a command.
- Exclamatory — Expresses a strong, sudden thought or emotion.
A declaration is a statement or observation. Narrative and descriptive passages are written using declarative sentences.
I did not kill him.
We declared our love in college.
To interrogate is to question; hence, questions are interrogatives. Grammarians like to use jargon, while telling writers to avoid it, so we have to deal with words like interrogative.
Did you interrogate the witnesses?
Imperatives are commands, important requests, or emergency pleas.
It is imperative that you leave today.
Please, open the door for me; the groceries are heavy.
Most exclamations stand alone, making for very short sentences. Sentences can be exclamations, if they contain a strong emotion or opinion.
Wow! What a great book.
Dialogue exists within special sentences known as containers. Containers are sentences containing sentences. Most containers represent spoken or unspoken dialogue.
“I will name him Fluffy,” she said, hugging her new kitten.
Six Basic Structures
In English, six basic structures form most sentences. These structures are:
|S-V-IO-DO||Subject-Verb-Indirect Object-Direct Object|
The subject of a sentence contains the “who?” or “what?” described by or acting in the sentence. The predicate makes a statement, asks a question, gives a command, or expresses a state of being. A complete sentence contains a subject and predicate.
A simple subject is a noun or pronoun. When there is more than one subject in a sentence, the group of subjects is known as the compound subject. We prefer simple subjects when possible, using collective nouns or pronouns instead of subjects joined by conjunctions.
Old grammar texts call the modified word the “headword” and the complete subject a “cluster.”
A complete subject is a simple subject and any modifiers of the simple subject. Most subject modifiers are adjectives. You should be able to identify the complete subject of a sentence easily since it normally precedes the verb.
A simple predicate is the predicate verb, being verb, or verb phrase associated with the sentence’s subject. A complete predicate is the simple predicate and any modifiers. Predicate modifiers may be adverbs, adjectives, and phrases.
A sentence complement is a word or phrase adding meaning to the subject or verb. A complement clarifies the sentence. Complements usually appear after the simple predicate verb in a sentence, forming the complete predicate. Simple remember that complements complete predicates. There are five “complements” in English sentence structures:
- Direct Object — Receives action directly.
- Indirect Object — Relates to the action, clarifying why the subject acted.
- Predicate Noun — Renames the subject.
- Predicate Pronoun — Identifies the subject as a generic pronoun.
- Predicate Adjective — Describes the subject.
Predicate Nouns and Pronouns
A predicate noun or pronoun names the subject of a sentence. Most sentences with a predicate noun or pronoun use a conjugation of “to be.” These sentences are not passive because no action is involved.
The author is John Smith.
“John Smith” names the author; the author is not doing anything in this sentence.
Predicate nouns and pronouns are sometimes called predicate nominatives. Nominatives are words typically used as objects within a phrase.
Predicate adjectives describe the subject of a sentence.
The breeze felt cold against her face.
The breeze is described as cold.
A direct object answers the question “who or what?” and is being acted upon by the subject of a sentence. Direct objects are said to receive actions.
The cat chased the mouse.
The mouse is the direct object of the cat’s actions.
An objective complement modifies a direct object. Objective complements are nouns, pronouns, or adjectives.
The critic considered the book a joke.
Sarah considers him a friend.
“Joke” is a noun describing the direct object “book.” In the complement position, a noun acts like an adjective. In the second sentence, “friend” describes the direct object “him.” (Thinking about a noun makes the noun an object of action — even if the action is abstract.)
An indirect object answers “to/for whom/what?” an action was conducted. The indirect object receives no action but is frequently confused for a direct object. A sentence can be rewritten to place the indirect object within a prepositional phrase. Indirect objects can conserve words and increase precision.
Direct: For catching the mouse, she gave a treat to the cat.
Indirect: She gave the cat a treat for catching the mouse.
She gave a treat; it was the treat being acted upon by the cat’s owner. The cat was not a direct object of an action, but in the second sentence it is the indirect object.
A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses connected by a conjunction or semicolon. There are simple compounds, coordination, and subordination. The simple compound sentences tend to use and to join basic independent clauses. These are the most familiar compound sentences.
Mary Adams wrote the column and Juan Gonzales was the editor.
The book was her favorite, since it was about a brave little girl.
You could hear snoring from the audience when the speaker talked about her cat.
The Russian winter is severe; many invading armies have been stopped by the conditions.
Coordination vs. Subordination
Subordination reduces one of the clauses to a dependent clause. Subordination is considered more emphatic than coordination. The subordinate clause can act as a noun, adjective, or adverb. You can identigfy the function of a subordinate clause by how it modifies the subject of the sentence. The clause can name (noun), describe (adjective), or explain a condition (adverb).
A sentence is in inverted order when the predicate precedes the subject. Sentences inverted do not require a comma after the introductory phrase. In the following examples, the first sentence is inverted and the second is not.
Among the weeds were a few wildflowers.
A few wildflowers were among the weeds.
The word there begins many inverted sentences. There is not the subject of the sentences. Some writers like “there” and use it to impress readers. We suggest using it sparingly.
There might be some truth in his words.
He might be telling the truth.
Some inverted sentences feature a split predicate. A split occurs when a portion of the complete predicate appears before the subject and the remainder of the predicate follows the subject.
Split predicates are common. Most effective writing uses split predicates to break monotony. Any phrase or clause appearing before the simple subject of a sentence, but which can be moved to the end, are part of a split.
In 2000, due to the Electoral College system, George W. Bush became President-Elect.
George W. Bush became President-Elect in 2000 due to the Electoral College system.
George W. Bush is the simple subject in the preceding sentences. The first sentence features a split predicate, as demonstrated by rearranging the sentence.
Knowing the sentence structures makes varying your sentence structures easier. Using compound sentences and inversion can add a great deal to any writing. Do not rely too havily on one “fancy” structure; some ideas are best expressed with simple sentences.
Creative Writing and Sentences
Beyond basic sentence structures, we suggest three principles for great sentences in creative writing:
Clarity is the first principle of good writing. Readers and audiences need to understand your writings. It seems obvious, but many writers get lost in “art” and forget people read words or watch actors to be entertained, educated, and then challenged.
Don’t misunderstand; we believe we write to educate people and challenge some social situations. However, we know that meaning can get lost in figurative language. Say what you mean as effectively as possible.
Concise writing is important for two reasons: it improves clarity and reduces the risk of reader frustration. Even better, concise sentences with obvious subjects and verbs reduce the number or grammar errors possible.
Keep modifiers next to their objects. Have pronouns close to their antecedents. Use precise terms when possible instead of vague adjectives and adverbs. If it helps, underline the subjects of sentences and circle the verbs or whatever pattern works for you. If more than four words separate the subject and primary verb, your sentence might not be concise. Concise is not synonymous with “brief.” Use as many words as needed to communicate and describe, but keep sentence structures as basic as possible.
In fiction, avoid passive voice sentence structures and linking verbs. Subjects of sentences should act, moving the reader along. Descriptions can be embedded using clauses, phrases, and appositives.
Nonfiction tends to require more sentences with linking verbs, but the passive voice structure can be avoided. The text, for example, uses many linking verbs, but few passive sentences.
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