The UVic Writer's Guide

The Sentence

The sentence is the basic unit of expression in written English. At its most simple, it comprises two parts: the subject and the predicate the actor and the action which combine to create a complete predication.

3a Mary studied.

"Mary," a noun , is the subject of this little sentence; "studied" is the verb or predicate. This basic sentence is open to a variety of transformations, for we can negate the statement or turn it into a question or even a negative question if we choose to do so. And we can ring quite a number of changes on the tense of the verb, thus:

3b Mary didn't study.

3c Did Mary study?

3d Didn't Mary study?

3e Mary did study.

3f Mary was studying.

3g Mary used to study.

3h Mary has studied.

Furthermore, either of its basic components can be expanded to a greater or lesser extent. "Mary" can be described by modifiers that tell us about Mary, adjectives like "young" or "clever." "Studied" can be modified by adverbs like "hard" or "nightly" and it can be completed by a noun object such as "Latin" or "Anthropology."

3i Clever Mary used to study Latin nightly, didn't she?

A closer examination of these variations on the theme of Mary's studying can reveal some interesting things about the nature of English, things we don't usually have to think about because they are second nature to us. For example, word order is strictly controlled and vitally important to meaning, as sentences 3c and 3e above or the sentences below clearly show.

3j John studied Mary.

3k Mary studied John.

Another feature of English is our tendency to use synthetic verb forms, verbs made of smaller parts, to indicate different kinds of pastness or completeness or habitualness, not to mention interrogation and negation. We use auxiliary or helping verbs like "do" and "have" in combination with forms of verbs known as verbal infinitives like "to eat," present participles like "eating" or past participles like "eaten."

Non-native speakers seldom completely master the complicated tense structures of English, but even for educated native speakers they can pose real difficulties. In this connection, consider the following clause in the Victoria Real Estate Board's standard contract form for house purchases:

4This house has been has not been insulated with urea formaldehyde foam insulation.

If your home was but no longer is so insulated, how would you fill the boxes provided? "Has been" implies that the house still has its foam, while "has not been" may be thought to indicate that the house never had it. The alternatives, which intend to cover all possibilities, in fact quite fail to do so.

But we are moving away from the simplicities of our base sentence. By putting together nouns and verbs, as well as adjectives and adverbs (not to mention the articles "the" and "a" or "an") we can assemble sentences of the complexity of example 3i:

3i Clever Mary used to study Latin nightly, didn't she?

To build larger structures we will need to add three more parts of speech: prepositions (function words that introduce adjectival or adverbial phrases and conjunctions (a related class of function words that join words or groups of words including clauses together), and pronouns (which have many functions, among them the introduction of some kinds of clauses).

The UVic Writer's Guide includes a section on writing clear sentences that you will find helpful.

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated Sept 24, 1995