Exploring Sentence Structure - New Learner


Exploring Sentence Structure - New Learner




Art Lightstone

Mastering the use of one‟s own language, both

written and verbal, is probably the single most

effective thing one can do to ensure their

academic, professional, and personal success.

Sentence parts include:

• subject

• predicate

• clause (main, subordinate, relative, noun)

• phrase

• object

Sentence structures include:

• simple

• compound

• complex

• compound-complex

Sentence types include:

• declarative

• interrogative

• imperative

• exclamatory

Sentence Types

• A declarative sentence is used to make a statement.

• An interrogative sentence is used to pose a question.

• An imperative sentence is used to give a command or to

implore or entreat.

• An exclamatory sentence is used to express astonishment or

extreme emotion.

Most of the sentences we speak or write are declarative sentences.

Declarative Sentences

• It's lunch time.

• We are going to the game on Friday.

• My car is out of gasoline.

• My parents keep telling me that I should make good grades so I

can get a job or go to college.

• We frequently ask questions, perhaps not as frequently as we


Interrogative sentences

• What time does the movie start?

• How many people from your graduating class went to college?

• Is there a reason why these dirty clothes are in the middle of the


• What are they serving in the cafeteria today?

Imperative sentences

People who have authority use imperative sentences. Sometimes,

people who don't have authority use imperative sentences. The

results may differ.

• Wash the car.

• Clean up your room.

• Martin, report to the counsellor.

• Please donate to the community charity fund.

We say that sentences must have a subject and a verb. Note that

some of the above sentences do not seem to have a subject. The

subject is implied, and the implied subject is you. You wash the car.

You clean up your room. “You” is a second person pronoun. It isn't

possible to make a command statement in first person or third



Exclamatory Sentences

Exclamatory sentences are rarely used in expository writing. Spoken

exclamations are often a single word or an incomplete sentence.

Grammarians indicate that formal exclamatory sentences begin with

the word what or with the word how. Most of the exclamations we

encounter are informal.

• What a beautiful night!

• How happy we were when the dawn came and our flag was still


• What did you do to your hair?! (exclamation formed as a


• I just won 500 dollars! (exclamation formed as a declarative


Before we continue, it is important to distinguish between the “parts

of speech” and the “parts of a sentence.”

In examining parts of speech we focus on words and phrases and

their relationships to each other.

In examining parts of a sentence we focus on words and phrases

and their relationships to the thought, or thoughts, being expressed

in the sentence.

Parts of a sentence include the subject, predicate, object, clause,

and phrase.

A sentence can be defined as a group of words containing a

subject and a predicate and expressing a complete thought.

Parts of a Sentence

Subject: The subject or of a sentence is the noun, pronoun or noun

phrase that precedes and governs the main verb. The subject is

what (or whom) the sentence is about. (The party who performs the

action, or being described.)

Predicate: Tells something about the subject. It is the verb and any

complement of the verb, which can include the object, adverbial, etc.

(The action or description.)

Object: Part of the predicate, the object is the person or thing that is

created, affected or altered by the action of a verb, or appreciated or

sensed by the subject of the verb. (The party that is acted upon.)

Clause: A group of words containing a subject and verb. If the

clause completes a thought, then it is an independent clause (aka

main or principle). If a clause does not complete a thought, then it is

a dependent clause (aka subordinate).

Phrase: A phrase is a group of words acting together as a single

part of speech. A phrase does not contain both a subject and a verb.

Independent Clause

An independent clause includes a subject and a verb.

An independent clause is a clause that is not introduced by a

subordinating term.

An independent clause is the main idea of the sentence and is not

dependent on another clause for meaning and context. It does not

modify anything, and it can stand alone as a complete sentence.

Independent clauses are sometimes called principal or main


Example: The hungry boy whispered to his sister because his

throat hurt.

The underlined portion of the above sentence is an independent


Subordinate Clause

A subordinate clause is usually introduced by a subordinating

element such as a subordinating conjunction or relative pronoun. It

depends on the rest of the sentence for its meaning. It does not

express a complete thought, so it does not stand alone. It must

always be attached to a main clause that completes the meaning.

Subordinate clauses normally act as single part of speech. They can

be either noun clauses, adjective clauses, or adverb clauses.

They are sometimes called dependent clauses because they

"depend" on a main clause to give them meaning.

The italicised clauses above are subordinate clauses. The first one is

an adjective clause because it describes a noun (the word clause).

The second one is an adverb clause which describes a verb (the

word called).

Example: The hungry boy whispered to his sister because his throat hurt.

The Relative Clause

A relative clause (aka adjective or adjectival clause) is a type of subordinate

clause that has three characteristics:

1. It will contain a subject and verb.

2. It will begin with a relative pronoun [who, whom, whose, that, or which]

or a relative adverb [when, where, or why].

3. It will function as an adjective, answering the questions What kind? How

many? or Which one?

The relative clause will follow one of these two patterns:

relative pronoun or adverb + subject + verb

relative pronoun as subject + verb (Some grammarians

argue that this structure produces an incomplete thought.)

The underlined portion of the above sentence is a dependent clause.


Examples of Relative Clauses

… which Francine did not accept.

which = relative pronoun; Francine = subject; did not accept = verb [not,

an adverb, is not officially part of the verb].

…where George found Amazing Spider-Man #96 in fair condition.

where = relative adverb; George = subject; found = verb.

…that dangled from the one clean bathroom towel.

that = relative pronoun functioning as subject; dangled = verb.

…who continued to play video games until his eyes were blurry with


who = relative pronoun functioning as subject; played = verb.

Avoid Creating a Sentence Fragment.

A relative clause does not express a complete thought, so it cannot stand

alone as a sentence. To avoid writing a fragment, you must connect each

relative clause to a main clause.

Read the examples below. Notice that the relative clause follows the word

that it describes.

To calm his angry girlfriend, Joey offered an apology which Francine

did not accept.

We tried our luck at the same flea market where George found Amazing

Spider-Man #96 in fair condition.

Michelle screamed when she saw the spider that dangled from the one

clean bathroom towel.

Brian said goodnight to his roommate Justin, who continued to play

video games until his eyes were blurry with fatigue.

Punctuating Relative Clauses: Restrictive or Non-Restrictive?

Punctuating relative clauses can be tricky. For each sentence, you will have

to decide if the relative clause is essential or nonessential and then use

commas accordingly.

Restrictive (aka essential) clauses do not require commas. A relative

clause is restrictive when you need the information it provides.

Consider this example:

The children who skateboard in the street are especially noisy in the

early evening.

Children is non-specific. To know which ones we are talking about, we must

have the information in the relative clause. Thus, the relative clause is

restrictive and requires no commas.

If, however, we eliminate children and choose more specific nouns instead,

the relative clause becomes nonessential and does require commas to

separate it from the rest of the sentence. Read this revision:

Matthew and his sister Loretta, who skateboard in the street, are

especially noisy in the early evening.

Noun Clauses

Any clause (grouping of subject and verb) that functions as a

noun in the larger sentence becomes a noun clause.

Consider this example:

You really do not want to know the ingredients in Aunt

Nancy's stew.

“ingredients” = noun.

If we replace the noun ingredients with a clause, we have a noun


You really do not want to know what Aunt Nancy adds to her


“what Aunt Nancy adds to her stew” = noun clause.

Sidebar Beginning a Sentence with Because

The notion that one should not begin a sentence with because retains a

mysterious grip on people's sense of writing proprieties. This might come

about because a sentence that begins with because could well end up a

fragment if one is not careful to follow up the subordinate clause with an

independent clause.

Because is a subordinating conjunction - used to introduce a subordinating

clause. A subordinating conjunction can begin a sentence by introducing a

subordinate clause. As long as the thought is then completed by an

independent clause, the sentence will be grammatically correct.

Because the students studied grammar.

Because the students studied grammar, their writing improved.

Although it is true that beginning a sentence with because might produce a

dependent clause fragment, similar taboos have never been associated

with other subordinating conjunctions such as Although, If, When, While,

and Since. It is unclear why the word because has been singled out for this

dubious distinction.

Differentiating Subjects from Objects

A subject acts, and an object is acted upon.

Subject and Object Pronouns:

In English, we have different pronouns to signify the distinction

between those grammatical categories. In other words, "I" is a

subject while "me" is an object while "my" shows possession; "we" is

a subject while "us" is an object and "our" shows possession.


Clause: “cows eat grass”

Differentiating Clauses from Phrases

This example is a clause because it contains the subject "cows"

and the verb "eat grass."

Phrase: “cows eating grass”

This example is a phrase because it does not contain a subject

and a verb. In this case, “eating grass” serves as an adjective

phrase that is part of a larger noun phrase. The reader is left

wondering, “What about the „cows eating grass‟?” While this

noun phrase could be a subject, it has no verb attached to it.

The adjective phrase "eating grass" show which cows the writer

is referring to, but there is nothing here to show why the writer is

mentioning cows in the first place.

Parenthetical Clauses and Phrases

A parenthetical clause or phrase provides additional information for

the reader, but it is information that could be left out of the sentence

without altering its basic message.

Example: The practice of teaching grammar, originally pursued by

only a few English teachers, has now become standard practice in

all Grade 12 courses.

Example: The teachers in the Bjork board, although understaffed

and under funded, manage to maintain orderly and effective

learning environments.

In each of the above examples, the words between the commas

could be left out without changing the core meaning of the sentence.

Including a parenthetical clause allows the writer to add ancillary

information without writing a separate sentence. After all, if separate

but related concepts were always separated out into their own

sentences, one‟s writing would become extremely choppy and


Restrictive versus Non-restrictive Clauses

Restrictive clauses: A restrictive clause will limit the possible

meaning of a preceding subject.

Example: The suspect who has red hair committed the crime.

Note how the subject "suspect" in this sentence is restricted, or

clearly identified, by the restrictive clause. It is not just any suspect

who committed the crime, it is the suspect with red hair.

Non-Restrictive Clauses: While non-restrictive clauses will tell us

additional information about a preceding subject, they do not limit or

specifically identify that subject.

Example: The suspect in the lineup, who owns a red car,

committed the crime.

Note how the subject "suspect" in this sentence is not restricted or

identified. Rather, we just learn additional information about the

suspect: apparently, he owns a red car.

More Examples of Restrictive Clauses

• Students who cheat only harm themselves.

• The baby wearing a yellow jumpsuit is my niece.

• The candidate who had the least money lost the election.

More Examples of Non-restrictive Clauses

• Fred, who often cheats, is just harming himself.

• My niece, wearing a yellow jumpsuit, is playing in the living room.

• The Green party candidate, who had the least money, lost the



Punctuating Restrictive versus Non-restrictive Clauses

Restrictive clauses are dependent clauses that begin with relative

pronouns (who, whom, that, whoever, whomever, whichever) and

are not surrounded by commas.

The elephant that trampled the village was drunk on fermented


Non-restrictive clauses are dependent clauses that begin with

relative pronouns (who, whom, which, whoever, whomever,

whichever) and are surrounded by commas.

Andy, who always admired John Lennon, was very sad to hear he

was killed.

Appositives are punctuated in a similar manner to parenthetical

phrases or clauses. However, an appositive serves specifically as a

noun or pronoun – often with modifiers. Appositives are placed

beside another noun or pronoun in order to explain or identify it.

Essentially, appositives serve to rename or restate another noun in

the sentence.

Example: The law teacher, a grammar enthusiast, emphasized the

need to learn sentence structure and the parts of speech.

Punctuation: If the sentence would be clear and complete without

the appositive, then commas are necessary. In these cases, we

would place one comma before and one comma after the appositive.

In some cases, however, the noun being explained would be too

general to be understood without the appositive. If the appositive is

essential to the meaning of the sentence, then we do not place

commas around the appositive.

Example: The popular English prime minister Winston Churchill

was well known for his eloquent and inspirational speeches.


Differentiating Sentence Types

Simple: A simple sentence contains one independent clause.

Example: We have only one week to study for the test.

Compound: A compound sentence contains more than one

independent clause.

Example: We were frightened, but the mandatory English proficiency test

was not nearly as hard as we imagined.

Complex: A complex sentence contains one independent clause and

at least one dependent clause.

Example: Although he is a law teacher, Mr. Lightstone insists on teaching


Compound-complex: A compound-complex sentence contains more

than one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

Example: If he is the nominee for the Democratic Party, Barack Obama will run

against John McCain, but it won't be an easy contest to win.

Differentiating Sentence Types

Hints on differentiating between sentence types:

i) Focus on spotting subordinating conjunctions. They tell you right

away whether a sentence is complex or not. They can, however, be

hidden within the middle of a sentence. For example: “I didn't to go to

work today because I was feeling sick.” There are actually two

clauses within this sentence: "I didn't to go to work today" and

"because I was feeling sick." Thus, this is a complex sentence. It

would be much easier to spot if the subordinating clause came

before the main clause. For example: “Because I was feeling sick, I

didn't to go to work today.”

ii) Remember that the smallest sentence possible consists of a noun

and a verb. For example, “Jill fell,” “I ran,” “She hid,” etc. Why do I

mention this? I point this out because we must always be aware that

just two little words can at times produce a main clause within a

larger compound or a compound-complex sentence.


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