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The Sentence Rules, Part 1

A  favorite client asked me for a cheat sheet of sentence structure, and as he’s been generous enough to host my blog and my Web site, I’d like to try to do it as my first anniversary blog. That’s right, folks. You’ve been wading through this stuff for a whole year and 84 episodes (not counting this one).

 

A sentence consists of three basic parts: a subject, a verb, and a predicate.

The subject of a sentence remains the subject no matter where it appears in the sentence. The subject of the sentence is that word or phrase upon which the verb acts. Both of these sentences have the same subject (Fred, in this instance):

            Fred lost his hat in the wind.

            In the wind, Fred lost his hat

 

The subject of a sentence can include more than just a noun, but it’s always all about the noun or pronoun (Fred is a pronoun—it’s someone’s name), and there’s never a verb as part of the phrase.

            The purple hat was lost in the wind.

            The French poodle’s leash got tangled.

 

You can easily figure out the subject of the sentence by dropping out the other nouns and their modifiers in the sentence and seeing if you’ve got meaning with that noun and the verb alone. (A noun is a person, place, or thing.)

           Fred lost his hat in the wind.

            Fred lost his hat.

 

It’s true that “Fred lost” is not a brilliant sentence, but it is the essence of the longer sentence. So Fred’s your subject. If you try to leave the other nouns in with their neighboring verb (those that have verbs, that is) as the subject, you’ve got:

           Fred lost his hat in the wind.

Fred lost his hat in the wind.

Fred lost his hat in the wind.

 

None of those noun phrases has enough information to provide meaning even with the extra words, so they’re clearly not the subjects of the sentences. Also, the subject is the word on which the verb acts, and that’s a clue, too. “Lost his hat” doesn’t work because it begs the question “who did?” and implies “I” or “he” or some other subject-y word. And “lost in the wind” begs the question “lost what?” You can’t answer those questions without adding another noun. “He lost his hat” and “It (the hat) was lost in the wind.”

 

“Fred lost” works because although we’ve got “what did Fred lose?” as a begged question, both the noun/pronoun (Fred) and the verb (lose/lost) appear together and the verb modifies the pronoun, so we’ve got enough to go by. What did Fred do? He lost. This might make more sense with a simpler verb and sentence. Substitute “Fred” and “lost” for the nouns and verbs in these sentences, and you’ll see what I mean.

           He choked.

            You cried.

           I ran.

Next, the verb is the easy part to figure out; it’s the part of the sentence that provides the action and the tense (time of the action). Verbs include words like write, code, walk, lost, am, were, shook, and clicked. A very simple sentence can consist only of a noun or noun phrase and a verb. A super simple sentence—a command—can consist of only a verb.

 

           Click OK.

            His nose dripped.

           Go.

 

Sometimes, there’s more than one verb in the sentence. It’s desirable to have more than one verb if you’re modifying one with the other or if you’re trying to move the subject around for passive voice.

The playing dog knocked over the table.

 

“Playing” and “knocked” are both verbs. “Playing” is an adjectival form (the “ing” ending is a clue) and modifies “dog” (you could leave it out and still have a grammatical sentence). “Knocked” provides the action in the sentence. It’s past tense, as you can tell by the “ed” ending, so you know that the action already happened.

 

Here’s a passive voice version of the Fred’s hat sentence. It still means the same thing as before, but now “the hat” is the subject. The subject has moved because of the addition of the preposition (by) and the “to be” conjugation (was). “Lost” is still the verb that provides the action, but now it’s distant from any noun so it’s not the important verb. As before, you could end the sentence after the verb but now Fred has taken a back seat to the hat.

The hat was lost in the wind by Fred.

 

The sentence could easily be:

           The hat was lost.

 

In this form, the subject is “the hat” and the verb is “was.” In this case, “lost” is a participle form and functions like an adjective, describing what happened (in the verb) to the hat—how the hat “was.” That’s one way you can tell that it’s passive voice. In the passive voice version, there are two possible subjects—the hat and Fred—and two verb forms—“was,” the past tense of “to be,” and “lost,” the past participle form of “to lose.”

 

The sentence could also easily be “The hat was lost in the wind.” Again, there are two verbs (“was” and “lost”) and again there are two nouns as potential subjects (“hat” and “wind”). Wind is not the subject because it is part of a prepositional phrase (“in” is a preposition); prepositional phrases are never ever the subject of a sentence.

 

Now let’s get on to predicates. These can be simple, like in the examples you’ve already seen, where everything except the subject of the sentence is the predicate. Or they can be complex, like this:

           The man lost his hat and flailed helplessly in the howling wind.

The conjunction (and) tells you that there are two sentences here. They both have “the man” as their subject. When you have a conjunction (and, or, neither, nor, either, but, because, with, etc.), the subject of both halves is the same, so you have this for a sentence structure:

            Noun + verb + predicate + conjunction + predicate.

 

The predicate in both halves should be roughly parallel—both use the same tense and the verbs act on the same subject.

           The man lost his hat (and)

            (The man) flailed helplessly in the howling wind.

 

You could just leave the second half at “flailed helplessly” without the wind information, but in this particular instance, why he’s flailing helplessly is not obvious. When you add the prepositional phrase “in the howling wind,” you now have enough information to know that the man lost his hat to the wind and he flailed as a result.

 

Here’s another somewhat complex predicate.

The conjunction tells you that there are two sentences here.

 

This time, we’ve got two verbs, “tells” and “are.” That’s a clue that in this case, “that” functions as a conjunction because the two halves of the sentence are:

           The conjunction tells you (that)

            There are two sentences here.

 

Here’s another that uses punctuation to make a conjunction AND uses an actual conjunction in the third “half.”

           The predicate in both halves should be roughly parallel—both use the same tense and the verbs act on the same subject.

 

This breaks down like:

            The predicate in both halves should be roughly parallel (—)

Both (halves) use the same tense (and)

The verbs (in both halves) act on the same subject.

 

The subject is a noun phrase in the first sentence chunk (“the predicate in both halves”), there are two verbs (“should” and “be”) and then there’s an adverb (“roughly”) and an adjective (“parallel”) for the focus of the predicate. The important part of the noun phrase is “both halves,” because it’s right next to the verb. That’s how you know it’s the subject rather than “the predicate,” which is also a noun.

 

The second chunk has a noun phrase/adjective subject (“both halves” or “both”), one simple present tense verb (use) and a noun phrase as focus for the predicate (“the same tense”).

 

The third chunk is a noun phrase (“the verbs”) or prepositional phrase (“in both halves"), a simple present tense verb (“act”), and a prepositional phrase for the focus of the predicate (“on the same subject”).

 

See? It’s really just the same structure repeated three times in a single sentence. Let’s look at a less obvious one.

 

           In the earlier version, there are two possible subjects and two verb forms.

 

This one starts with a prepositional phrase. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the subject just because it’s first! The prepositional phrase (“in the earlier version”) could easily be plopped onto the back end of the sentence and the meaning is unchanged. There are two clues: the phrase has no verb before the comma separates off the rest of the sentence, and there’s a preposition so that phrase can’t be the subject. Here’s the sentence with the prepositional phrase at the end.

 

There are two possible subjects and two verb forms in the earlier version.

 

Admittedly, it’s not quite as clear whether the two possible subjects are in the earlier version or not, but now it looks pretty much like that third version in the previous example (with the prepositional phrase at the end). It’s got a conjunction in it and the subject is repeated (an implied “there are”).

 

That should do it. I think you’ve probably got a good sense of the three basic parts of a sentence and some of the flavors of clauses that you can play with. In the next blog, I’ll talk about finesse.