Sentence Structure (Part 1) - Basic Clause Structure

The Building Blocks of English Sentences

These articles give you all the information you need about sentence structure in English writing. The following is important information about sentence patterns and the rules for proper sentence construction in English writing.

Enjoy your reading and start writing good effective sentences.

Getting into Sentences

Consider this question: Which one of the following is a good sentence ?
1) Birds fly.
2) Those beautiful small red-blue African birds, which we saw at the zoo last week, actually fly around the world every year looking for a mate.

Actually, from a pure grammatical perspective, these sentences are both valid as they contain the basic elements required by grammar. Still, when it comes to good writing, sentence (2) is by far much more interesting to the reader than the laconic short sentence (1). It is important to know the various sentence elements (subjects, predicates, phrases, clauses) that can make your writing accurate and grammatically correct but also more interesting and appealing to your readers.

What is a Sentence?

A sentence is basically a group of words which are tied together and convey an idea, event or description. The words in an English sentence have a certain order and rules regarding ways to either expand or shorten it. The boundaries of a sentence are easily recognized, as it begins with a capital letter and ends with a terminal punctuation mark (period, question mark or exclamation point). It is important for English writers to know the language of sentence grammar terms in order to be able to analyze and develop their writing.

The four main sections regarding English sentence structure are:

1. Basic Clause Structure
3. Clause Types
The 4 Sentence Types

Sentence Structure in English Writing

1. Basic Clause Structure

Right or Wrong ?
In the park a young boy yesterday a black snake bit.

Wrong !The reader of the above sentence may not understand who or what bit what or who. In order to make sure that it is a snake who bit a young boy, the words have to be placed in a certain order, which in English is usually fixed. In addition, phrases describing place and time, also adhere to a certain order. The correct sentence is therefore:
A black snake bit a young boy in the park yesterday.

If you want to know more, read the grammar rules for basic clause structure below.
If you are ready to read other sentence structure topics, click here for the index.
The Grammar Rules for Basic Clause Structure in English
Before we begin our review of the rules, you should know that sentences can be defined according to their purpose:

1) A declarative sentence
-can make a positive statement
Some birds fly south in winter.

-can make a negative statement
These birds do not fly south in winter.

2) An interrogative sentence asks a question
Do these birds fly south in winter ?

3) An imperative sentence gives a command
Fly south this winter !

4) An exclamatory sentence expresses a strong feeling
Oh ! I just love these cute birds !

5) A subjunctive sentence can convey a condition, wish, or preference which are contrary to fact or reality.
I wish these beautiful birds didn't fly south this winter (but in reality they will).

1. A basic sentence is composed of at least one independent clause. A clause is composed of a minimum of a subject and a predicate. Without one of these elements, the clause is ungrammatical.

2. A subject
of a clause is an entity such as a person, a place, an object, or an abstract concept, which acts, is described or is acted upon. The subject usually answers the question Who/What is the sentence about?
The subject in the "right or wrong" example is "a black snake."

The lion roared.
[The subjects acts]

The lion is beautiful.

[The subject is described]

The lion was hunted.

[The subject is acted upon]

3. A simple subject is the word or group of words acting as a subject. A complete subject is the simple subject and its modifiers. A compound subject consists of two or more nouns or pronouns, linked by either and or or. A complete compound subject includes the compound subject and its modifiers.
The lion roared.
[The lion = simple subject]

The big lion roared.
[The big lion = complete subject]

The lion and the lioness roared.
[The lion and the lioness = compound subject]

The big strong lion and the beautiful lioness roared.
[The big strong lion and the beautiful lioness = complete compound subject]

4. The subject usually precedes the predicate but not always.
The lions ran off.
[subject precedes predicate]

Off ran the lions.
[predicate precedes subject]

Under the tree lay a pride of lions.
[predicate precedes subject]

Why did the lions run ?
[predicate element precedes subject in questions]

5. A predicate of a clause gives information on the subject, either describing it or identifying the action it performs or that is performed upon it (its predicament). The predicate contains the verb in the sentence and objects that are affected by the subject's actions. It usually answers the question What happens/ is described?
The predicate in the "right or wrong" example is bit a young boy in the park yesterday,  the verb is bit, the (direct) object in the above example is a young boy.

The lion roared.
[The predicate tells what the subject does]

The lion is beautiful.

[The predicate describes the subject]

The lion was hunted.

[The predicate tells what was done to the subject]

6. A simple predicate consists of only the verb. A complete predicate consists of the verb and its modifiers. A compound predicate consists of two or more verbs with or without objects, or a verb with one object or more, linked by either and or or. A complete compound subject includes the compound predicate and its modifiers.
The lion roared.
[roared = simple predicate]

The lion roared loudly.
[roared loudly = complete predicate]

The lion roared and growled at the foxes.
[roared and growled at the foxes = compound subject]

The lion roared and growled at the small foxes loudly.
[roared and growled at the small foxes loudly = complete compound subject]

7. A direct object is a noun, pronoun or group of words acting as a noun that receives the action of a transitive verb without a linking preposition. A direct object answers the question whom? Or what?
The teacher read the story.
[the story = direct object]

8. An indirect object is a noun, pronoun or a group of words acting as a noun that answers the question to whom/what ? or for whom/what ? the action expressed by a transitive verb was done.
The teacher read the story to the students.
[the story = direct object, to the students = indirect object]

9. In sentences where the indirect object follows the word to or for, always put the direct object before the indirect object. If the indirect object does not follow to or for, put the indirect object before the direct object.
Yes: The teacher gave an assignment to the students.
No: The teacher gave to the students an assignment.
Yes: The teacher gave the students an assignment.

[the verb give can be used without to]

10. When a pronoun is used as an indirect object, some verbs require to or for before the pronoun, while others do not. Consult a dictionary if you are unsure (the best place to look this up is in the example sentences within the entry of the verb in the dictionary).
The teacher explained the grammar rule to the students.
No: The teacher explained them the grammar rule.
Yes: The teacher explained the grammar rule to them.
[the verb explain follows only one pattern, with to]

The teacher gave an assignment to the students.
Yes: The teacher gave an assignment to them.
Yes: The teacher gave them an assignment.
[The verb give follows both patterns, with and without to]

12. When both the direct object and the indirect object are pronouns, put the direct object before the indirect object and use to or for with the indirect object.
The teacher gave an assignment to the students.
No: The teacher gave them it.
Yes: The teacher gave it to them.
Yes: The teacher gave them an assignment.
[the verb give can also be used without to before indirect object]

13. A typical word order for an English one-clause-sentence would therefore be:
Subject-Verb-Direct Object-Indirect Object
The teacher gave an assignment to the students.

14. To expand the basic one-clause-sentence, you can add manner (how?), place (where?) and time (when?how often?) modifiers. These usually appear in the above mentioned order. An easy formula to help you remember the basic word order for a basic English sentence is:
Subject-Verb-Object-Manner-Place-Time, or conversely the acronym SVOMPT (pronounced like swamp). You usually do not have to include all six parts, but if you do, this order is recommended.

The teacher gave an assignment to the students quickly in class yesterday.
[subject] [verb] [direct object] [indirect object] [manner] [place] [time]

15. A complement is an element appearing in the predicate that renames or describes a subject or an object. A subject complememt is a noun, pronoun, or adjective that follows a linking verb (e.g. b e, look, appear). An object complement follows a direct object and either renames or describes it.
This student is a 12th-grader.
[ is = linking verb, a student = subject complement]

This student refers to himself as "Professor X."
[ refers = verb, himself = direct object, Professor X = object complement]

A modifier is a word or group of words that describes or limits other words. Modifiers can appear in both the subject and the predicate of the sentence. Modifiers may be single words, phrases or whole clauses.
The best student got an A on the biology test.
[the adjective best modifies the noun student, the noun biology modifies the noun test]

The students in class were very excited when the teacher read the story funnily.
[ the preopositional phrase in class modifies students, the adverb very modifies the adjective excited, the adverb funnily modifies the verb read]

Consequently, the teacher continued reading the story. He did not finish it because the lesson ended.
[the adverb consequently modifies the independent clause the teacher continued reading the story,
the dependent clause because the lesson ended modifies the independent clause he did not finish it]

17. An appositive is a word or group of words that renames the noun or pronoun preceding it. When an appositive is not essential to identifying what it renames (when it is non-restrictive), use a comma to separate it from the rest of the sentence.
Berlin, the capital of Germany, is developing rapidly.
[the appositive the capital of Germany renames Berlin]

The student talked to Mr. Smith, his counselor.
[the appositive his counselor renames Mr. Smith]

Sentence Structure: Summing it up

As our brief article shows, sentence structure rules are the basic building blocks of English writing. If you know the basics, you will be able to make your writing more complex as you advance your writing skills.

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