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9.1: Syntax (Part 1)

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    Components of a Sentence

    A complete sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. The subject is the word or group of words that names the person, place, thing, or idea that the sentence is about, and the predicate consists of the verb and any words that are necessary to complete its meaning. Both subject and predicate are necessary for the sentence to express a complete thought. In a way, every sentence can be compared to a story. Like a story, a sentence must be about someone or something, and that person or thing must have something said about it. In grammatical terms, a complete sentence is an independent clause, which is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate and can stand on its own as a complete thought.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    I could not play in the basketball game.

    In this sentence the subject is I, and the rest of the sentence is the predicate. Now consider this clause:

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\):

    Because I sprained my ankle

    Here also the subject is I, and there is a predicate, sprained my ankle, but this clause is dependent (or subordinate), which means that in order to express its meaning completely it must be joined to an independent clause, as follows:

    Example \(\PageIndex{3}\):

    Because I sprained my ankle, I could not play in the basketball game.

    As this example illustrates, a dependent (or subordinate) clause cannot stand on its own. It must be joined to an independent clause to make its meaning clear. All complete sentences must contain at least one independent clause.

    Compound Subjects

    A sentence may have more than one person, place, thing, or idea as the subject. When this occurs, the sentence has a compound subject.

    Example \(\PageIndex{4}\):

    The students and teachers left the building when the fire alarm sounded.

    In this example, the phrase students and teachers is a compound subject.

    Prepositional Phrases

    A phrase is a group of words that cannot function as a clause because it lacks either a subject, a predicate, or both. A prepositional phrase is a modifying unit that indicates a relationship of some kind (often a relationship of space or time) between the object of the preposition and another word.

    Example \(\PageIndex{5}\):

    The book was found underneath the couch.

    In this example, underneath the couch is a prepositional phrase. The object of the preposition is couch, and the preposition underneath indicates the relationship between the subject of the sentence (book) and the couch.

    Common prepositions include in, on, of, under, near, by, with, and about.

    Participial Phrases

    Just as prepositional phrases are built on prepositions, participial phrases are built on either the past or present participle of a verb. They are used as modifiers and usually describe nouns. The participles commonly used in English are the present participle (the –ing form of verbs) and the past participle (the –ed form of regular verbs). Thus, walking and walked are the present and past participles of the verb to walk. A participial phrase consists of the verb participle and any modifiers that go with it.

    Example \(\PageIndex{6}\):

    walking over rocky ground.

    In this example, walking is the participle and over rocky ground (a prepositional phrase) completes the participial phrase.

    Since many participial phrases contain the participle of an action verb, students sometimes confuse a participial phrase with the main verb of a sentence. Look closely, though, and you will see that the action word in a participial phrase is never a complete verb. It is usually only a past or present participle that lacks the helping verb it would need to form a predicate.

    Example \(\PageIndex{7}\):

    A young man staring at his cell phone bumped into me.

    The subject of this sentence is A young man, and there may seem to be two predicates, staring at his cell phone and bumped into me. One of these, however, is only a participial phrase. How can you tell which one? If you remove the first of these two phrases, you get A young man bumped into me. This is clearly a complete sentence with a verb, bumped, in the past tense. However, if you remove the second phrase, you get A young man staring at his cell phone. Is this a complete sentence? Compare it with this:

    Example \(\PageIndex{8}\):

    A young man was staring at his cell phone.

    Only when we add was do we have a complete sentence. Why? Because staring cannot function as a verb without the helping verb was or is. So in our original sentence staring at his cell phone is a participial phrase used to describe the young man, and the predicate is bumped into me.

    Exercise 1

    Read the following sentences. Underline the subjects, and circle the prepositional phrases:

    1. The gym is open until nine o’clock tonight.
    2. We went to the store to get some ice.
    3. The student with the most extra credit will win a homework pass.
    4. Maya and Tia found an abandoned cat by the side of the road.
    5. The driver of that pickup truck skidded on the ice.
    6. Anita won the race with time to spare.
    7. The people who work for that company were surprised about the merger.
    8. Working in haste means that you are more likely to make mistakes.
    9. The soundtrack has over sixty songs in languages from around the world.
    10. His latest invention does not work, but it has inspired the rest of us.

    Sentence Patterns

    Most English sentences, no matter how long or complicated, make use of the following five basic sentence patterns:


    Example \(\PageIndex{9}\):

    The hammer fell.

    The verb [fell] in this type of sentence is intransitive, meaning that it does not require a direct object, as the transitive verbs do in patterns 4 and 5. Also, not being a linking verb (see patterns 2 and 3), it does not require a complement. It is possible, then, for a sentence using this pattern to be comprised of only a subject and a verb, as in this example. However, modifiers can always be added, making the sentence longer. Consider this example:

    Example \(\PageIndex{10}\):

    The hammer fell with great force.

    In this example with great force is a prepositional phrase added to describe (or modify) how the hammer fell. But because this prepositional phrase is extra material that is not essential to the sentence’s structure (the sentence is grammatically complete without it), this longer version is still an example of the basic Subject-Verb sentence pattern.

    Subject–Linking Verb–Noun

    Example \(\PageIndex{11}\):

    The professor is an economist.

    This pattern is distinguished by its use of a linking verb. The most common linking verb in English is to be, which is conjugated as is in this example. In this pattern, the linking verb is used to re-name the subject by linking it to another noun, as in this example where the professor is said to be an economist. This re-naming noun is known as the complement of the linking verb.

    Subject–Linking Verb–Adjective

    Example \(\PageIndex{12}\):

    The athlete is tall.

    As in pattern 2, this pattern uses a linking verb (is) to connect the subject with a complement, but here the complement is an adjective (tall) that describes the subject.

    Subject–Verb–Direct Object

    Example \(\PageIndex{13}\):

    The pitcher threw the ball.

    The verb in this pattern is transitive: it requires that the action be performed on something or someone. In other words, something or someone receives the action of the verb (threw, in this example), and that thing or person is the direct object (the ball, in this example).

    Subject–Verb–Indirect Object–Direct Object

    Example \(\PageIndex{14}\):

    The lobbyists gave the Congressmen money.

    In this pattern, the transitive verb takes both a direct object and an indirect object. In this example, the direct object is money (because money is the thing that was given) and the indirect object is Congressmen. The indirect object identifies to whom (or which) or for whom (or which) the action is done. The indirect object is usually a noun or pronoun, and in this pattern it comes before the direct object. Usually a sentence using this pattern can be re-written in a form that places the indirect object in a prepositional phrase that comes after the direct object, thus: The lobbyists gave money to the Congressmen. Here the indirect object, the Congressmen, becomes the object of the preposition to.

    Compound Sentences: Joining Clauses with Coordination

    A compound sentence consists of two independent clauses joined by coordination. Coordination connects the two clauses in a way that emphasizes both clauses equally. Consider these two sentences:

    Original sentences: I spent my entire paycheck last week. I am staying home this weekend.

    In their current form, these sentences contain two separate ideas that may or may not be related. Am I staying home this week because I spent my paycheck, or is there another reason for my lack of enthusiasm to leave the house? To indicate a relationship between the two ideas, we can use the coordinating conjunction so:

    Revised sentence: I spent my entire paycheck last week, so I am staying home this weekend.

    The revised sentence illustrates that the two ideas are connected. Notice that the sentence retains two independent clauses (I spent my entire paycheck; I am staying home this weekend) because each can stand alone as a complete idea.

    Coordinating Conjunctions

    A coordinating conjunction is a word that joins two independent clauses. The most common coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Note that a comma precedes the coordinating conjunction when it joins two independent clauses.

    Independent Clause Coordinating Conjunction Independent Clause Revised Sentence
    I will not be attending the dance. for (indicates a reason or cause) I have no one to go with. I will not be attending the dance, for I have no one to go with.
    Posters announcing the dance are everywhere. and (joins two ideas) Teachers have talked about it in class. Posters announcing the dance are everywhere, and teachers have talked about it in class.
    Jessie isn’t going to be at the dance. nor (indicates a negative) Tom won’t be there either. Jessie isn’t going to be at the dance, nor will Tom be there.
    The fundraisers are hoping for a record-breaking attendance. but, yet (both words indicate a contrast; but is more commonly used) I don’t think many people are going. The fundraisers are hoping for a record-breaking attendance, but I don’t think many people are going. OR The fundraisers are hoping for a record-breaking attendance, yet I don’t think many people are going.
    I might go to the next fundraising event. or (offers an alternative) I might donate some money to the cause. I might go to the next fundraising event, or I might donate some money to the cause.
    Buying a new dress is expensive. so (indicates a result) By staying home I will save money. Buying a new dress is expensive, so by staying home I will save money.

    To help you remember the seven coordinating conjunctions, think of the acronym FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Remember that when you use a coordinating conjunction to connect independent clauses, a comma should precede the conjunction. (Exception: the comma is sometimes left out when the clauses are short and closely related. Example: John drove and I gave directions.)

    Conjunctive Adverbs

    Another method of joining two independent clauses with related and equal ideas is to use a conjunctive adverb and a semicolon. Like coordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs can join independent clauses and indicate a particular relationship between them, but conjunctive adverbs create a stronger break between the clauses than coordinating conjunction do. Read the following sentences:

    Original sentences: Bridget wants to take part in the next Olympics. She trains every day.

    Since these sentences contain two equal and related ideas, they may be joined using a conjunctive adverb. Now, read the revised sentence:

    Revised sentence: Bridget wants to take part in the next Olympics; therefore, she trains every day.

    The revised sentence explains the relationship between Bridget’s desire to take part in the next Olympics and her daily training. Notice that the conjunctive adverb comes after a semicolon that separates the two clauses and is followed by a comma.

    The table below lists common conjunctive adverbs and demonstrates their function.

    Function Conjunctive Adverb Example
    Addition also, furthermore, moreover, besides Alicia was late for class and stuck in traffic; furthermore, her shoe heel had broken and she had forgotten her lunch.
    Comparison similarly, likewise Recycling aluminum cans is beneficial to the environment; similarly, reusing plastic bags and switching off lights reduces waste.
    Contrast instead, however, conversely Most people do not walk to work; instead, they drive or take the train.
    Emphasis namely, certainly, indeed The Siberian tiger is a rare creature; indeed, there are fewer than five hundred left in the wild.
    Cause and Effect accordingly, consequently, hence, thus I missed my train this morning; consequently, I was late for my meeting.
    Time finally, next, subsequently, then Tim crossed the barrier, jumped over the wall, and pushed through the hole in the fence; finally, he made it to the station.
    Exercise 2

    Combine each sentence pair into a single sentence using either a coordinating conjunction or a conjunctive adverb:

    1. Pets are not allowed in Mr. Taylor’s building. He owns several cats and a parrot.
    2. New legislation prevents drivers from sending or reading text messages while driving. Many people continue to use their phones illegally.
    3. The coroner concluded that the young man had taken a lethal concoction of drugs. By the time his relatives found him, nothing could be done.
    4. . Amphibians are vertebrates that live on land and in the water. Flatworms are invertebrates that live only in water.
    5. Ashley carefully fed and watered her tomato plants all summer. The tomatoes grew juicy and ripe.
    6. When he lost his car key, Simon attempted to open the door with a wire hanger, a credit card, and a paper clip. He called the manufacturer for advice.

    This page titled 9.1: Syntax (Part 1) is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kathryn Crowther, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, Tracienne Ravita, and Kirk Swenson (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.