A Sequence of Words: Constructing a Sentence

Key Clause Patterns

Most people know a sentence when they see one.  Look at these sentences and underline the one you think is a proper sentence:

1. When see a they stop a cars flag red.

2. Flag they see a red all cars when stop.

3. Stop all cars when they see red a flag.

4. All cars stop when they see a red flag.

The above sentences contain the same amount of words, but only one of them makes real sense.  Sentence 4 is the real sentence, and having the ability to identify the natural flow of a sentence lies in your own knowledge and instinctive language skill.

Sentences With One Clause

Creating sentences without flaws requires a good basic knowledge of sentence building.  

Oftentimes you'll find more than one clause in a sentence, but we're just going to concentrate on one clause in a sentence.  

Simply put, a clause, a subject, plus a predicate.  Which means:

The subject of a clause can name something such as an object, person, place or idea.  The subject in the sentence is normally made up of nouns and pronouns, or a noun substitute.

The predicate usually makes a statement about the subject by revealing something about it.  The predicate will say one of two things about the subject.  It will tell if the subject is fulfilling a function, or the state of the subject.

Discovering Verbs in Clauses

The best way to deconstruct a clause is to focus on the predicate, and the main part of the predicate is the verb.

1. Visible and Invisible Action Verbs

Verbs are usually in the form of some kind of action, and this can be a visible action like he rides, or she kissed.  Or invisible actions like she forgot, and we determined.

If we go back to our original sentence, draw a line under the visible action or verb.

All cars stop when they see a red flag.

If you've recognised 'stop' as being the visible action then you'd be correct, the subject is stopping 

2. Linking Verbs

In sentences you have other words that don't show an action, but instead link a sentence together.  Linking verbs will show the subject to be in a certain state of being, this is done by linking a subject to a word in the predicate.

Examples:

He is a monster.

She looks stunning.

In both sentences the subject is not performing any kind of action, but they are in a state of being.  

Linking verbs come in many different tenses such as:

The verb to be:

  • am
  • are
  • was
  • were
  • will be
  • has been
  • have been
  • had been

The Part of Context in a Sentence

Verbs can be action or linking verbs depending on the context they're in.  

For example:

I smelled the friendly fragrance of flowers in the living room.

The verb smelled is identifying an action of the subject (flowers) which is smelled.  Let's take a look at the same verb which has a different meaning in the sentence below.

The mouldy cheese smelled awful.

In this sentence the cheese is not doing anything, but the verb is showing that the cheese is in a very bad condition.

Identifying Subjects in Clauses

Let's go back to our original sentence:

All cars stop when they see a red flag.

To discover the subject, question, 'What stops?' cars.  The keyword is cars, or the simple subject being used within the complete subject of the sentence.  All modifiers are attached to the simple subject.

Remember: A key word is what the predicate makes a statement about.  Within the present tense, it's the simple subject with which the verb must comply.

Spotting Elements that Complete the Verb

Nothing is required in the sentence 'All cars stop when they see a red flag', the other words used in the sentence help with the writer's meaning.  

Verbs can't stand alone with just a subject.  Take a look at these subject and verb combinations:

avoid eating

recommend visiting

hope to speak

all employees

In all cases the sentence needs more words to create a meaning.  In the predicate of a clause, words that are complements and objects fill in the gaps.

Let's take a look at their basic types.

Subject Complements

A subject complement usually comes in the form of a noun, pronoun, adverb or adjective, and will follow a linking verb.  

Take a look at these underlined subject complements:

Daniel Alexander is a brilliant maths teacher.

The subject complement is maths teacher.

Kathryn feels amazing.

The subject complement is amazing.

Direct and Indirect Objects

Alongside linking verbs are transitive verbs that also need completion.  A transitive verb transfers action from the subject before the verb, then to the object after the verb.

Direct objects are words used to complete the meaning of transitive verbs.  You'll find them following action verbs and answering questions like 'Whom?', or 'What?'.  

Example:

I like you.

You is the direct object of the verb like.

Let's look at some sentences with only action verbs, because action verbs are the type that take indirect objects.  We'll underline the direct object.

The doctor wrote the prescription.

The direct object answers the question, "The doctor wrote what?".

Something to remember: A way to investigate if a word is a direct object is to try using it as the subject of a passive version of the same sentence.  A direct object will work as the subject. 

Example:

The doctor wrote the prescription.

Becomes

The prescription was written by the doctor.

If a linking verb and subject complement are used then you won't be able to convert it from an active into a passive, because this transformation only works with sentences containing direct objects.

Indirect Objects, on occasion the predicate of a clause, may also contain a word that is indirectly affected by the verb, and it usually comes before the direct object.  To whom or for whom an action is done is the job of the indirect object.

Frankie sent Edward the bag.

Frankie sent what? The bag?.  For whom? For Edward.

Verbs commonly followed by indirect and direct objects can be found in the form of bring, send, sell, offer, lend, give, buy.  

Object Complements

Object complements complete some direct objects, because they clarify the meaning of the verb in a sentence, or make the meaning of the word richer.  Object complements are always followed by a direct object; this helps to complete a direct object by modifying or identifying it.

You can find object complements in clauses with a verb like elect, appoint, choose, consider, make, name, or think.  All of these words mean the same thing to make or consider.

Harry called his mother a saint.

The above sentence is very much like 'Harry considered his mother a saint.'

Similar to subject complements, object complements can be nouns or adjectives.  Clauses don't occur as often as the other types of clauses we've looked at.

A Closer Inspection of  Subjects

Let's examine more closely what the subject of the clause does within a sentence.  Key words or simple subjects are usually pronouns, nouns, or noun substitutes.  A single noun, a single pronoun , or both combined might be a key word.

What Are Nouns

Nouns are usually people, places, things, or ideas, which means the word thing is a more solid noun, something you can touch or experience.  Idea is an abstract noun, which makes it intangible.

Nouns are organised in their own groups:

Persons

  • soldier
  • cousin
  • lawyer

Places

  • house
  • London
  • Factory
  • Shelter

Things (Objects, Animals or Ideas)

  • table (object)
  • London Bridge (object)
  • confusion (ideas)
  • kindness (ideas)
  • faith (ideas)
  • aardvark (animal)
  • rat (animal)

Noun Marker-Test

The above listed nouns, except those in capitals, can go after the words a, an or the.  Since they 'mark' the appearance of a noun.  

Examples:

  • a soldier
  • the table
  • a success

But it doesn't work if you said 'a beautiful' or 'the scary', it's incomplete because they're both adjectives, and not nouns.

Subject Check for Nouns

You can check to see if a word is a noun by using it as the subject of the sentence.  If it does then the word is either a noun or pronoun.

You can test this by testing it out:

Example:

The light lit up the room.

The decorate lit up the room.

In this quick check we can see that light is a noun and decorate is not.

Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun.  

Example:

Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.

Instead of saying the noun phrase 'a girl' again 'she' replaces it.

Pronouns have other jobs in sentences.  Let's take a look at three groups of pronouns that can be used as subjects independent of clauses.

Personal

  • I
  • You
  • he

Demonstrative

  • this
  • that
  • these

Indefinite

  • anybody
  • anyone
  • anything

Important note: Pronouns can be the subjects of sentences.

Noun Substitutes

There are many other constructions, alongside nouns and pronouns, that can  work as subjects.  Things like, words, phrases, or clauses that can perform the same job. 

Let's take a look at the main types of noun substitutes.

Clauses

Common constructions such as verb phrases, gerund phrases, and prepositional phrases are all common formations that can do the same job as a noun.  Which means they can be the subjects of clauses, and also the objects of verbs.  

Example:

What really bothers me is mouldy cheese on an expensive cheese board.

Do you see how similar the subject in this sentence is to the noun or phrase My complaint?

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositions are usually a direction or relationship word such as inside, toward, or behind.  Prepositional phrases are usually a preposition plus a noun or pronoun, and can also work as subjects:

Before dinner is a good time for a walk.

Under the bridge was a good place to be.

Gerund Phrases

Gerunds are words ending in -ing and works as a noun.  Gerund phrase is a gerund plus other words attached to it.

Example:

Eating blackberries quickly will make you ill.

Infinitive Verb Phrases

Infinitive word phrases are usually preceded by the word to.

Example:

  • to walk
  • to sing
  • to dream

Let's look at this sentence:

To decide is to take a risk.

In this sentence the verb phrase acts like a noun, and is just like the subject of the sentence.

You can write something similar by using a conventional noun as the subject of the sentence:

Example:

A decision is always a risk.

A Closer Inspection of Predicates

The predicate is the part of the sentence that tells what the subject does or is.  

Verbs

We talked earlier about verbs either being visible or invisible, or the condition of the subject.  Verbs that show the condition of the subject do so by linking the subject to a complement that follows the verb.

Something else to think about is that verbs change in form to communicate changes in time, these are called verb tenses. Often forming a verb tense will include nothing more than the addition of an ending.  This can be done by adding -d, or -ed, forming the past tense of a regular verb.  On other occasions it means adding a helping verb which is a verb that helps another verb form a particular tense or mood.  

Examples of helping verbs:

  • to be
  • as is
  • are
  • was
  • were
  • will be

Also can include forms of the word to have:

  • to have
  • has
  • have
  • had

Then there are other helping verbs called modal auxiliaries:

  • can
  • could
  • amy
  • might
  • shall
  • should
  • must
  • will
  • would

Helping verbs that give extra importance to the predicate:

  • do
  • does
  • did

The moment a verb joins up with a helping verb it creates a verb phrase.

Example:

  • is living
  • will be reviewed
  • has answered
  • could remember
  • might sing
  • did pay

There are verb phrases with more than one helper:

Example:

  • will have been dedicated
  • should be invited
  • may have promised


The Modifiers

We're going to move our attention to the core of a sentence, the parts that would modify or describe.  These words are normally quite elaborate, but still form an essential part of the clause.  They also help to flesh out the sentence.  Often these modifiers are themselves part of the core and serve as completing elements after verbs.

Let's take a look at four different types of modifiers.

Adjectives

Words used to describe nouns and pronouns are adjectives, and they usually precede the words they describe.

Example:

This is a fractious team.

She has a marvellous attitude.

It is a striking sculpture.

Adjectives can also come behind words they describe if they are used as complements.

Example:

This team is fractious.

Her attitude is marvellous.

The sculpture is striking.

Adverbs

Adverbs don't have to end in -ly, some do but it's not always the case, they can also describe other modifiers, which are adjectives and adverbs.  We're going to look at the basic sentence construction, and how adverbs modify verbs.

Example:

He went to London yesterday.

The fog swirled around everywhere.

The children sucked their thumbs loudly.

Some actions tell how an action is done, or an action happens. 

Appositives

Appositives are noun phrases that follow and describe other nouns, and are known as another kind of modifier.  They can sometimes appear after any noun, but we're going to look at how often they follow the simple subject of a clause.  They're usually offset with commas.

Example:


Dexter, my dog, will chew your shoes if you leave them there.

Lee, my Army mate, caught a whelk while fishing for bass.

Dr. Pat, the creator of the turnip brew, sold 10 barrels on the first day.

You can observe how each appositive is a noun phrase that follows and describes another noun.  

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases are a group of words that consist of a preposition, the object of the proposition and any modifiers.

Simple Examples of Prepositional Phrases

The prepositional phrase is bold, and the phrase is underlined.

A singer with passion.

A town near London.

Keep in time.

Words that are thought of as direction or relationship words are prepositions.  Nouns and pronouns that follow a preposition are usually called the object of the preposition.  

about the introduction

above his head

after recess

around our city

below the ice

down the path

except you

in the spirit

into the grocery store

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Read more:

Why is Grammar So Important

How to Polish Your Punctuation

How to Construct a Really Good Sentence

What You Need to Know About Grammar

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