Sentences – how to use them correctly

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Sentences – definition

sentences A sentence is a group of words which is usually a grammatically complete statement.

redbtn It is often the expression of a thought.

redbtn In writing, sentences should begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop.

Command Keep left.
Question Is James joining us for breakfast?
Statement Smoking can damage your health.

redbtn A normal sentence in English usually contains at least three elements: a subject, a verb, and an object.

Subject Verb Object
The cat ate the goldfish
My friend wants your address
Some sheep have black fleece


redbtn The sentence is a unit of meaning in both speech and writing.

redbtn We speak in sentences automatically from the time we first acquire language.

redbtn A sentence is defined as a grammatically complete unit, but it might need other sentences around it to make its meaning clear.

redbtn Constructing written sentences may be difficult. This is a skill which has to be learned.

redbtn Written sentences may be very short [‘Jesus wept’] or very long, but their underlying structure must follow grammatical conventions.

redbtn NB! Short sentences help to create clear expression. Keep them short. Keep them simple.

redbtn There are various kinds of sentences – simple, complex, and compound.

redbtn A simple sentence is one which contains phrases rather than clauses. A simple sentence contains one subject and one object or predicate. For example:

Subject Verb Predicate
I am the head of this department.
We won last Saturday’s match.
Jean is in the house.

redbtn In all the examples above, when the subject is removed we are left with a phrase – an utterance which has no finite verb.

redbtn The expressions ‘in the house’, ‘last Saturday’s match’, and ‘the head of this department’, are all phrases not clauses.

redbtn A complex sentence contains one or more subordinate clauses. In the examples which follow, the subordinate clause is emphasised.

The suspect denied that he had been in the neighbourhood.

You won’t persuade me to stay no matter how hard you try.

Despite the fact that I had ordered the meal, I left the restaurant when I saw him arrive.

I went out shopping, although it was raining, and bought a basket of fruit.

redbtn In all these examples, the removal of the main clause leaves another clause (an utterance with a finite verb) and not a phrase.

redbtn A compound sentence is one in which contains two or more co-ordinating parts.

It’s starting to rain // and I have left my deck-chair outside.

The film we saw last night // was interesting and enjoyable.

We have no red towels // but we have plenty of green ones.

redbtn The following terms can be used to classify types of sentences by their function.

redbtn A statement – grammatically defined by the position of the subject immediately before the verb:

The pen is mightier than the sword.

redbtn A question – grammatically defined by the initial element being ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, or ‘why’:

How many spoons are in that box?

redbtn A command – grammatically defined by the initial positioning of the verb:

Go to the bus stop and wait for your father.

redbtn An exclamation – grammatically defined by an initial ‘what’, ‘how’, and the rest of the utterance being in statement form:

What a pity it’s raining for our picnic!

redbtn It is possible to have meaningful sentences which do not have all three normal elements:

[Subject – Verb – Object]

redbtn In such cases, any missing part is usually implied –

‘[I] thankyou’.

redbtn Many people lose grammatical control of their sentences because they use:

  • features from speech
  • conversational style
  • badly linked phrases
  • vague punctuation
  • faulty syntax

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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