Subject and predicate
Now we have looked at the fundamental building blocks of words, I want to have a think about the fundamental building blocks of a sentence. One way to define a sentence is a group of words which begin with a capital letter, and end with a full stop, question mark, or exclamation point – and that stand alone to have meaning.
Considering this definition, for a series of words to be a sentence they need two things:
1) A subject: The thing which is being spoken about in the sentence.
2) A predicate: What is being said about the subject.
Let’s look at an example:
The cat sat on the mat.
In this sentence the subject (the thing being talked about) is ‘the cat’ and the predicate (the thing being said about the subject) is ‘sat on the mat’. Note that you cannot have a sentence if one of these two doesn’t exist. If you like, you could try and experiment with this yourself; see if you can come up with any sentences that don’t have both a subject and a predicate. Let’s take ‘The cat sat on the mat.’ If the sentence was just the subject it would be ‘The cat.’ This wouldn’t have any meaning: ‘The cat’ what? Similarly, if the sentence was just ‘Sat on the mat.’ this doesn’t make much sense either; what ‘sat on the mat’?
This seemingly simple idea is actually very profound. Without it we would struggle to communicate anything of any depth to each other. If there was a progression, during our evolutionary process, from just naming subjects around us, to linking them together with predicates, this would surely have been one of the most crucial progressions in making us into the complex beings we became.
Let’s take another subject: ‘Chris’. Again, that doesn’t have much meaning alone. Moreover, the predicate ‘Swims’ also doesn’t have meaning when standing alone. But if we combine these two words we get the sentence:
which stands alone to tell us something.
I keep mentioning the idea of standing alone because the word ‘Chris’ could be said in answer to a question like ‘What is your name?’ In that instance, it would be instructive; however, if you just walked up to somebody and said ‘Chris.’ it wouldn’t generally have much meaning. I suppose you could be acknowledging that person, or using it as an alternate way of saying ‘hello’ – which would involve changing the intonation, and usually eye contact and a nod of the head. Another way that this might make sense alone is if you, for example, just finished giving a talk in a meeting and then turned to your colleague to get their opinion and said ‘Chris?’ One important distinction between these two and a sentence which has both a subject and a predicate is that ‘Chris.’ or ‘Chris?’ don’t stand alone without either some implication added by a change in intonation, or by previous sentences which led to their use. Therefore, one way we might like to test whether something is a sentence is to imagine it written on a page by itself, with no context, and see if that has any meaning:
‘Chris swims.’ does tell us something alone.
‘Chris.’ or ‘Chris?’ don’t.
Are there any contentious examples where only predicates are used? One example is:
The implied subject here is the person that it is being directed towards, which, if you hear it shouted towards you, is ‘you.’ It could, therefore, be written like this:
Here we have the subject ‘you’ and the predicate ‘Stop!’. These are called imperative sentences, and can have a more explicit subject such as:
Chris, stop running.
Chris, go home.
Chris, leave this house.
How instructive are imperative sentences like ‘Stop!’, ‘Go!’ or ‘Leave!’ on a page alone? Just like ‘Chris.’ and ‘swims.’ they feel like an incomplete sentence.
That is because they don’t specify a subject, nor what the subject should ‘stop’ doing, where he should ‘go’, or where he should ‘leave’. Therefore, imperative sentences like ‘Stop!’, ‘Go!’ and ‘Leave!’ need context to be understood; however, the same could be said about most sentences. For example:
‘Chris, stop running’: which ‘Chris’ is this? And when should he stop running?
‘The cat sat on the mat’ : which cat is this? Which mat is this? When did it happen?
So, really, a large number of sentences are going to need context, and this doesn’t necessarily make them any less a sentence. Consequently, going back to the idea of saying ‘Chris’ as a greeting, or ‘Chris?’ to get his opinion, what the person really means is:
Hello Chris, how are you doing?
What is your opinion, Chris?
They are just too lazy to actually say it! The only problem with this logic build around implications is you could even say that a wave of the hand when leaving has the implication of saying:
Could this hand gesture be defined as a sentence? Sign language is a similar thing to think about. This involves a bunch of hand gestures which signify words that can build full thoughts that stand alone as a sentence. Considering this, do we even need to write down a word to create a sentence?
This sort of question is part of the fun of learning grammar. The study of grammar isn’t all about learning rules; there are many interesting questions to discover which allow us to think a bit more philosophically. It really doesn’t have to be a solitary activity either; we are all at least somewhat acquainted with language. Next time you meet someone who is interested in this sort of thing, try and remember to ask them what they think the definition of a sentence is. You might get some very interesting results.
The answers to these questions will grow as the course continues. They are worth having a good answer for now, and to continue to build on as we learn more. Give as much detail as you can in your explanations. Imagine your definition of a sentence is being questioned; what sort of arguments might people have against it?
1) What is the definition of a sentence?
2) What is a subject?
3) What is a predicate?
Let’s move on to objects, next.