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The job of grammar is to organize words into sentences, and there are many ways to do that. (Or we could say, Words can be organized into sentences in many different ways.) For this reason, describing how to put a sentence together isn't as easy as explaining how to bake a cake or assemble a model plane. There are no easy recipes, no step-by-step instructions. But that doesn't mean that crafting an effective sentence depends on magic or good luck.
Experienced writers know that the basic parts of a sentence can be combined and arranged in countless ways. So as we work to improve our writing, it's important to understand what these basic structures are and how to use them effectively.
We'll begin by introducing the traditional parts of speech and the most common sentence structures. For practice in shaping these words and structures into strong sentences, follow the links to the practice exercises, examples, and expanded discussions.
1. The Parts of Speech
One way to begin studying basic sentence structures is to consider the traditional parts of speech (also called word classes): nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Except for interjections ("ouch!"), which have a habit of standing by themselves, the parts of speech come in many varieties and may show up just about anywhere in a sentence. To know for sure what part of speech a word is, we have to look not only at the word itself but also at its meaning, position, and use in a sentence.
2. Subjects, Verbs, and Objects
The basic parts of a sentence are the subject, the verb, and (often, but not always) the object. The subject is usually a noun-a word that names a person, place, or thing. The verb (or predicate) usually follows the subject and identifies an action or a state of being. An object receives the action and usually follows the verb.
3. Adjectives and Adverbs
A common way of expanding the basic sentence is with modifiers-words that add to the meanings of other words. The simplest modifiers are adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives modify nouns, while adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
4. Prepositional Phrases
Like adjectives and adverbs, prepositional phrases add meaning to the nouns and verbs in sentences. A prepositional phrase has two basic parts: a preposition plus a noun or a pronoun that serves as the object of the preposition.
5. Four Basic Sentence Structures
There are four basic sentence structures in English:
- A simple sentence is a sentence with just one independent clause (also called a main clause): Judy laughed.
- A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses: Judy laughed and Jimmy cried.
- A complex sentence contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause: Jimmy cried when Judy laughed.
- A compound-complex sentence contains two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause: Judy laughed and Jimmy cried when the clowns ran past their seats.
A common way to connect related words, phrases, and even entire clauses is to coordinate them-that is, connect them with a basic coordinating conjunction such as "and" or "but."
7. Adjective Clauses
To show that one idea in a sentence is more important than another, we rely on subordination-that is, treating one word group as secondary (or subordinate) to another. One common form of subordination is the adjective clause-a word group that modifies a noun. The most common adjective clauses begin with one of these relative pronouns: who, which, and that.
An appositive is a word or group of words that identifies or renames another word in a sentence-most often a noun that immediately precedes it. Appositive constructions offer concise ways of describing or defining a person, place, or thing.
9. Adverb Clauses
Like an adjective clause, an adverb clause is always dependent on (or subordinate to) an independent clause. Like an ordinary adverb, an adverb clause usually modifies a verb, though it can also modify an adjective, an adverb, or even the rest of the sentence in which it appears. An adverb clause begins with a subordinating conjunction-an adverb that connects the subordinate clause to the main clause.
10. Participial Phrases
A participle is a verb form used as an adjective to modify nouns and pronouns. All present participles end in -ing. The past participles of all regular verbs end in -ed. Irregular verbs, however, have various past participle endings. Participles and participial phrases can add vigor to our writing as they add information to our sentences.
11. Absolute Phrases
Among the various kinds of modifiers, the absolute phrase may be the least common but one of the most useful. An absolute phrase, which consists of a noun plus at least one other word, adds details to an entire sentence-details that often describe one aspect of someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the sentence.
12. Four Functional Types of Sentences
There are four main types of sentences that can be distinguished by their function and purpose:
- A declarative sentence makes a statement: Babies cry.
- An interrogative sentence poses a question: Why do babies cry?
- An imperative sentence gives instructions or expresses a request or demand: Please be quiet.
- An exclamatory sentence expresses strong feelings by making an exclamation: Shut up!