For a variety of reasons, you may need some extra practice when writing in standard, or formal, English. People remember what they use, and if you don't use standard English most of the time when you speak, it is likely it will not flow out naturally when you write. Many students who don't use standard English on a day-to-day basis (and even some who do) make similar kinds of errors. Even if you have been speaking English for a long time, you may not feel as confident in your written English skills as you do with your speaking skills. We will start out with the sentence core because everything builds from that.
Components of a Sentence
Every language has its own sentence structure and rules for what is included. The basic structure of sentences in English is S-V-O, or subject-verb-object. This means that, in most cases, the subject always appears before the verb.
Clearly written, complete sentences require key information: a subject, a verb and a complete idea. (Some verbs (transitive verbs) require and object (O) and some verbs (intransitive verbs) don't to make the complete idea. Most verbs are transitive. A sentence needs to make sense on its own. Sometimes, complete sentences are also called independent clauses. A clause is a group of words that may make up a sentence. An independent clause is a group of words that may stand alone as a complete, grammatically correct thought. The following sentence has three independent clauses (in brackets).
[We went to the store,] [we bought the ingredients on our list,] and then [we went home].
All complete sentences have at least one independent clause. You can identify an independent clause by reading it on its own and looking for the subject and the verb.
Identifying the Verb
Types of Verbs
It may be easiest to first identify the verb in a sentence even though it generally appears after a subject. A verb is often an action word that shows what the subject is doing. A verb can also link the subject to a describing word. There are three types of verbs that you can use in a sentence: action verbs, linking verbs, or helping verbs. A verbs that connects the subject to an action is called an action verb. An action verb answers the question what is the subject doing? In the following sentences, the bold words are action verbs.
The dog barked at the jogger.
He gave a short speech before we ate.
A verb can often connect the subject of the sentence to a describing word. This type of verb is called a linking verb because it links the subject to a describing word. In the following sentences, the bold words are linking verbs.
The coat was old and dirty.
The clock seemed broken.
If you have trouble telling the difference between action verbs and linking verbs, remember that an action verb shows that the subject is doing something, whereas a linking verb simply connects the subject to another word that describes or modifies the subject. A few verbs can be used as either action verbs or linking verbs.
Action verb: The boy looked for his glove.
Linking verb: The boy looked tired.
A third type of verb you may use as you write is a helping verb. Helping verbs are verbs that are used with the main verb to describe a mood or tense. Helping verbs are usually a form of be, do, or have. The word can is also used as a helping verb.
The restaurant is known for its variety of dishes.
We have seen that movie three times.
Copy each sentence onto your own sheet of paper and underline the verb(s) twice. Name the type of verb(s) used in the sentence in the space provided (LV, HV, or V).
- The cat sounds ready to come back inside. ________
- We have not eaten dinner yet. ________
- It took four people to move the broken-down car. ________
- The book was filled with notes from class. ________
- We walked from room to room, inspecting for damages. ________
- Harold was expecting a package in the mail. ________
- The clothes still felt damp even though they had been through the dryer twice. ________
- The teacher who runs the studio is often praised for his restoration work on old masterpieces. ________.
The Time Test
If you need to identify the verb in a subject, you can apply the time test, which is:
- Changing the tense of the sentences
- Observing which words change. The words that change are the verb.
Present tense: Dax, my German Shepherd, loves to run at the beach.
Past tense: Dax, my German Shepherd, loved to run at the beach.
We can see that "loves" changed to "loved," so "loves" is the verb in the original sentence.
In college classes, though, we tend to write more complicated sentences than this. There may be more than one subject and/or verb, the subject may be compound, or it may be embedded into a pronoun. Verbal phrases (which can easily be confused with verbs) may also add description in a sentence. How to tell what the verb is? Apply the time test!
- Present tense: Hauling a load of wood, the truck overturns and wood flies everywhere.
- Past tense: Hauling a load of wood, the truck overturned and wood flew everywhere.
- The verbs are "overturns" and "flies."
- Present (progressive) tense: I am hurrying around the house, trying to gather everything I need before I have to catch my plane.
- Past tense: I hurried around the house, trying to gather everything I needed before I had to catch my plane.
- The verbs are "am hurrying," "need," and "have."
- Past/past progressive: My friend, whom I have known for fifteen years, was very supportive during this time.
- Future/future progressive: My friend, whom I will have known for fifteen years, will be very supportive during this time.
- The verbs are "have known" and "was". Notice that, in this case, the subject and the verb are separated by an intervening descriptive clause with commas around it.
- Past tense: Daria and Oswaldo played hockey.
- Present tense: Daria and Oswaldo play hockey.
- The verb is "played."
Identifying the Subject
When you read a sentence, you may first look for the subject, or what the sentence is about. The subject usually appears at the beginning of a sentence as a noun or a pronoun. A noun is a word that identifies a person, place, thing, or idea. A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. Common pronouns are I, he, she, it, you, they, and we. In the following sentences, the subject is underlined once.
Malik is the project manager for this project. He will give us our assignments.
In these sentences, the subject is a person: Malik. The pronoun He replaces and refers back to Malik.
The computer lab is where we will work. It will be open twenty-four hours a day.
In the first sentence, the subject is a place: computer lab. In the second sentence, the pronoun It substitutes for computer lab as the subject.
The project will run for three weeks. It will have a quick turnaround.
In the first sentence, the subject is a thing: project. In the second sentence, the pronoun It stands in for the project.
Once you have identified the verb, you can then easily identify the subject by asking "who or what does the verb?" Sometimes the subject may be compound (more than one), and sometimes the subject may be separated from the verb.The following examples refer to the example sentences in the time test, above.
Who loves to run at the beach? Dax does. Dax is the subject of the sentence.
What was hauling a load of wood? What flew everywhere? The truck and wood are the subjects in the sentences.
Who was hurrying around the house? Who was gathering everything they needed? Who needed to catch a plane? The subject of each of these is "I," but notice there are three "I"s in the original sentence, so each of them would be a subject.
Who was very supportive? Who has known the friend? "My friend" and "I" are the subjects. This one is tricky because of the construction of the original sentence. There are actually two clauses (subject-verb units) in the sentence. We can separate them to make it easier to figure out the subjects. We can transform the original sentence into: "My friend was very supportive during this time" and "I have known her for fifteen years." Examining each of the sentences separately makes it easier to figure out.
Who played hockey? Daria and Oswaldo. There is one compound subject in this sentence.
Sometimes, a whole phrase will function as a subject. Consider the example below.
To write an award-winning novel is my ultimate goal. When applying the time test, we would discover that "is" is the verb. We would then ask ourselves, "what is my ultimate goal?". The answer is the subject: To write an award-winning novel.
On a separate piece of paper, write the following sentences and write "V" above the subject(s) and "S" above the subject(s).
1. The sun never completely disappears during the summer in the Arctic.
2. Following her final exam, Doreen picked up her sister from the airport.
3. She was feeling blue until her favorite song played on her phone.
4. Then she began dancing around the room; her day improved greatly after that.
5. Music can modify our mood greatly, and we can change our mood by listening to different kinds of music with different tempos and in varying keys.
Basic Sentence Structures
Subject + Verb
The most basic sentence structure in English is a subject plus a verb. A subject performs the action in the sentence, and the verb identifies the action. Keep in mind that in some languages, such as Spanish and Italian, an obvious subject does not always perform the action in a sentence; the subject is often implied by the verb. However, in English, this only happens in command (imperative) style sentences when the implied you tell and implied "you" (someone else) to do something. Otherwise, every sentence in English must have a subject and a verb to express a complete thought.
subject + verb
Not all sentences are as simple as a subject plus a verb. To form more complex sentences, writers build upon this basic structure. Adding a prepositional phrase to the basic sentence creates a more complex sentence. A preposition is a part of speech that shows a relation between a noun or a pronoun to another word in a sentence. Preposition also begin prepositional phrases. In this case, they must be followed by a noun or a noun phrase. If you can identify a preposition, you will be able to identify a prepositional phrase.
subject + verb + prepositional phrase
Samantha sleeps on the couch.
On is the preposition. On the couch is the prepositional phrase.
Tip: Be careful when using "on" as a preposition. It is overused when speaking and many times another preposition is the correct one to use. On basically means "on top of." Many times people mistakenly use "on" in place of "about" (i.e., We talked about something) or "of." For a listing of the meanings of each of the above prepositions, please check your favorite dictionary or dictionary app.
Copy the following sentences onto your own sheet of paper and underline the prepositional phrases.
- Linda and Javier danced under the stars.
- Each person has an opinion about the topic.
- The fans walked through the gates.
- Jamyra ran around the track.
- Maria celebrated her birthday in January.
- Collin finished his homework at the library on campus.
Subject + Verb + Compliment
A compliment to a verb can be a noun or an adjective. In both cases, the comliment follows a linking verb. Here are some examples with the linking verb italicized and the complement bolded:
Computers are tools. (Noun compliment)
Computers are expensive. (Adjective compliment)
Subject + Verb + Adverb
In this case, an adverb (which describes how something was done) follows the main verb.
Compuers calculate quickly (adverb)
Subject + Verb + Direct Object
Another sentence structure that is important to understand is subject + verb + object. There are two types of objects: direct objects and indirect objects.
A direct object receives the action of the verb.
subject + verb + direct object
Janice writes a letter.
The letter directly receives the action of the verb writes.
A quick way to find the direct object is to ask what? or who?
Sentence: Maurice kicked the ball.
What did Maurice kick? The direct object, ball.
Sentence: Maurice kicked Tom by accident.
Who did Maurice kick? The direct object (receiving the kick) ,Tom.
Subject + Verb + Indirect Object
An indirect object does not receive the action of the verb
subject + verb + indirect object
Janice writes me a letter
The action (writes) is performed for or to the indirect object (me).
Even though the indirect object is not found after a preposition in English, it an be discovered by asking to whom? or for whom? after the verb.
Sentence: Dad baked the children some cookies.
For whom did Dad bake the cookies? The indirect object, children.
On a separate sheet of paper, identify the subject (S), verb (V), direct object (DO), and indirect object (IO) in the following sentences using the abbreviations here in the list.
1. Captain Kirk told the crew a story.
2. Jermaine gave his girlfriend a dozen yellow tulips.
3. That hospital offers nurses better pay.
4. Dad brought Grandma her glasses.
5. Mom bought herself a new car.
Use what you have learned so far to bring variety in your writing. Use your own sheet of paper to write six sentences that practice each basic sentence pattern. When you have finished, label each part of the sentence (S, V, LV, N, Adj, Adv, DO, IO).
On a separate sheet of paper, rewrite the sentences in the correct order. If the sentence is correct as it is, write OK.
1. The pizza Jeannine burnt.
2. To the Mexican restaurant we had to go for dinner.
3. Jeannine loved the food.
4. So full were we during the walk home.
5. I will make the pizza next time.
Writing at Work
Using the six basic sentence structures, write one of the following:
- A work e-mail to a coworker about a presentation.
- A business letter to a potential employer.
- A status report about your current project.
- A job description for your résumé.
Note: See the end-of-chapter exercises for more complicated sentence structure sentence rewrites.
Placement of Adjectives
An adjective is a kind of descriptive word that describes a noun or a pronoun. It tells which one, what kind, and how many. Adjectives make your writing more lively and interesting. Keep in mind that a common error is misplacing the adjectives in a sentence. It is important to know where to place the adjective in a sentence so that readers are not confused.
If you are using more than one adjective to describe a noun, place the adjectives in the following order before the noun and place a comma between the adjectives:
- Opinion: an interesting book, a boring movie, a fun ride
- Size: a large box, a tiny turtle, a tall woman
- Shape: a round ball, a long hose, a square field
- Age: a new day, an old horse, a modern building
- Color: an orange sunset, a green jacket, a red bug
- Ethnicity: Italian cheese, French wine, Chinese tea
- Material: silk shirt, wool socks, a cotton dress:
Example: The intriguing, long movie held my interest even though it lasted almost three hours.
Adjectives can also be placed at the end of a sentence if they describe the subject of a sentence and appear after the verb. (This is also called a noun compliment.)
Example: My biology class is interesting.
On a separate piece of paper, place the following sets of adjectives in the correct order before the noun. The first one has been done for you.
1. book: old, small, Spanish
A small, old, Spanish book (age, size, ethnicity/language)
2. photograph: new strange
3. suit: wool, green funny
4. opinion: refreshing, new
5. dress: fashionable, purple
On a separate piece of paper, place the following sets of adjectives in the correct order before the noun.
1. eyes: black, mesmerizing
2. jacket: vintage, orange, suede
3. pineapple: ripe, yellow, sweet
4. vacation: fun, skiing
5. movie: hilarious, independent
Contributors and Attributions
CC LICENSED CONTENT, SHARED PREVIOUSLY
- Adapted from College ESL Writers: Applied Grammar and Composing Strategies for Success. Authored by: Barbara Hall and Elizabeth Wallace. Provided by: Galileo. License: CC BY: Attribution
- Adapted from Writing for Success. Provided by: The Saylor Foundation. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED CONTENT
- English Sentence Structure. Authored by: Oxford Online English. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
The page was most recently updated on June 8, 2020.