31) Sentences in detail

Sentence types

A sentence is a group of words which begins with a capital letter and ends in a full stop, and which has a subject and a predicate that expresses a complete thought. To have this complete thought the sentence needs to have at least one subject-verb relationship within it. Now we have looked at all the building blocks of a sentence, let’s look at the different ways of classifying sentences. The first way is looking at their function, meaning, or use, and the second is the structure. Let’s start with the function.

1) Function of the sentence 

1.1 Declarative sentences

Declarative sentences are sentences that make any form of statement. For example:

If you keep running, you will fall off that cliff.

Here we have a statement that is stating a perceived fact. Statements can also extend to a denial, as in:

I did not steal the cookies from that jar.

This is also an example of a negative declarative sentence, which we achieve by placing the adverb ‘not’ in front of the auxiliary verb ‘did’.

Statements can also be false, as in:

The English language has only existed for 1 second.

Declarative sentences are the most common types of sentences because we use them in all sorts of ways including telling a story, describing perceived facts and stating opinions, which makes up a large bulk of our conversations. Take this riveting conversation:

“It’s been very sunny out.”

“Yes, it has been very warm.”

“I don’t think it will last.”

“No, it never does.”

“The weatherman said it is going to rain.”

“Yeah, I saw that as well.”

All of the above are declarative sentences.

Word order in declarative sentences

The most common word order in declarative sentences is subject + predicate. This normally leads to:

Subject + verb + object

For example:

I ate the apple.

Here the subject is ‘I’, the verb is ‘ate’ and the object is ‘the apple’.

While this is by far the most common way of writing declarative sentences, there are some exceptions. It is often these exceptions that can throw us off just when we think we have got used to the whole subject + verb + object thing. Some of the exceptions are rare, and sound a bit awkward. However, there is one type of exception which is fairly common: conditional statements which omit the word ‘if’ from the beginning often have the verb before the subject. For example:

If we were the owners, we would sell the house.

Were we the owners, we would sell the house.

In the first example we have the common subject (‘we’) + verb (‘were’) construction. In contrast, in the second sentence – where the ‘if’ is omitted – we have the inverted verb (‘were’) + subject (‘we’) construction.

There are many other exceptions, but it probably isn’t worth trying to learn them all. The main skill we need to have is to be able to see an exception, and work out what is going on. This involves moving out of our comfort zone of subject + verb + object and figuring out what is going on using everything else we have learned. Because this can be very hard, let’s look at one exception, and try to work on what is happening:

Never had I been so embarrassed.

Here we have the auxiliary verb ‘had’, followed by the subject ‘I’, followed by the past participle ‘been’, giving an inverted verb + subject + past participle construction. Let’s break down the whole sentence.

We start with the adverb of time ‘Never’ which appears to be modifying the verb phrase ‘had…been’ by answering the question ‘when had I been so embarrassed?’ Another way of looking at it is that it is modifying just the past participle ‘been’, with ‘had’ just being an auxiliary to ‘been’. Then we have the verb ‘had’ + the pronoun subject ‘I’ + the past participle ‘been’. The perfect past tense is formed via ‘had’ + past participle, which is what I think is going on here. The perfect past tense usually expresses a completed event in the past. Is that what is happening here? The sentence is basically saying that the event that happened in the past was more embarrassing than any other event that had happened in the past. Both of those are completed events in the past, so the perfect past tense seems a reasonable way to describe it. Finally, we end with the adverb ‘so’ which is modifying the adjective ’embarrassed’ – which itself is modifying the subject ‘I’. I think that ’embarrassed’ is working as a predicate adjective, looping back to the subject ‘I’ via the linking verb ‘been’. This then means that ‘so’ is an adverb of degree modifying the adjective ’embarrassed’ by telling us the extent of the embarrassment. I should say that there are likely a number of contentious conclusions in here and I urge you (as always) to argue with this. Do you agree with this breakdown? If not, what is wrong, and why?

If we tried to re-write the above in the more conventional subject + verb sense we could write:

I had never been so embarrassed.

This has the same meaning as the sentence above. We can then compare it to my conclusions above. I have this one as: the subject ‘I’ + the auxiliary verb ‘had’ + the adverb ‘never’ (modifying ‘been’) + the adverb ‘so’ + the predicate adjective ’embarrassed’.

1.2 Imperative sentences

Imperative sentences are sentences that articulate a command, or a request. These sentences are common in everyday life, fiction and descriptions of real life interactions, but less so in academic writing. I wonder how long it took for words to become commands? The hierarchical nature of our societies makes me think it was instantaneous!

So what is the difference between a command and a request? This is more the manner in which the imperative is conveyed. For example, a command would be:

Leave me alone.

whereas a request might be:

Could you please give me some time alone.

With the command example, it is a straight instruction, with no other option. With the request example, it is much more polite, with a feeling of being able to negotiate in the sentence.

Imperative sentences are not as common as declarative sentences. If we were to imagine a conversation all in imperatives, it might sound like this:

“Pass me the salt.”

(it is passed)

“Pass me the olive oil.”

(it is passed)

“Please help me move next month.”

As soon as a request which needs a verbal answer is said, such as ‘Please help me move next month’ imperatives are powerless, because they only allow for requests and commands. This shows they are obviously very limited.

Word order in imperative sentences

The interesting thing about word order in imperative sentences is that the subject is always very similar. This is because the subject is the person who the request, or command, is being directed at. For example:

Please pass the salt.

Leave me alone.

Both of these have the same elliptical subject, which is ‘you’. The verbs are ‘pass’ and ‘leave’ respectively. The subject is often not written because some form of body language, like looking at someone when the command is being made, will indicate who the subject is. Grammar sources might sometimes write the subject in brackets at the beginning, to show it is left out, as in:

(you) Please pass the salt.

(you) Leave me alone.

In fact, it is possible to direct a command at someone by using the word ‘you’ in the imperative sentence, as in:

You, pass the salt.

You, leave me alone.

The subject in both of these is ‘you’ and the verb comes after as either ‘pass’ or ‘leave’. However, when we know the name of the subject, that could be implied, or written in, as in:

(Ben) Give me a chocolate.

(Jane) Please help me.

The subject in the first sentence is ‘Ben’ and its verb is ‘give’, while the subject in the second sentence is ‘Jane’ and its verb is ‘help’.

A confusing word to try to classify is the word ‘please’ in the second sentence (‘Please help me.’). The first word class that I thought it might be was an adverb because of its proximity to the verb ‘help’. But is it modifying the verb ‘help’? It is a bit like saying:

I request that you help me.

Is ‘I request that you’ an adverb phrase modifying the verb ‘help’? It doesn’t seem to quite fit the other type of adverb categories that we have seen previously. The ‘please’ seems to be modifying the whole rest of the sentence, ‘help me’ rather than just the verb ‘help’.

Another thing we can try is replacing ‘please’ with an adverb, as in:

Kindly help me.

It might be said that the adverb of manner ‘kindly’ is modifying the verb ‘help’ by answering the question ‘help me how?’ Again, though, it also feels like this is modifying the whole phrase ‘help me’ not just modifying the verb ‘help’. It is a bit like saying:

Be kind and help me.

If it was:

Show him around the office kindly.

This is slightly different, more like saying:

Show him around the office in a kind way

Does ‘please’ have this sort of difference? Let’s compare two similar sentences:

Please help me.

Help me please.

They are both the same, showing some difference between ‘please’ and ‘kindly’. I think the use of ‘please’ is closer to the original use of ‘kindly’ in ‘kindly help me’ because ‘please help me’, ‘help me please’ and ‘kindly help me’ are all requesting help in a polite way.

Another difference is that ‘kindly’ can take another adverb, as in:

Very kindly help me.

whereas ‘please’ cannot, as in:

Very please help me.

Help me very please.

This is an example of a word that there doesn’t appear to be a perfect answer for, at least not in the traditional grammar that this course is focussing on. There are almost certainly many other ways to look at this problem, including going through all of the word classes and trying to see if it fits any of them. I would recommend having a think about this yourself, and trying to figure out how you would like to categorise it. Then again, I would recommend that for all of the examples!

OK, so we got side tracked there. Back to the idea of subjects in imperatives. A commonplace real world example is using the subject at the beginning of the sentence, to get the attention of the person, as in:

Ben, look over here.

Here the subject is ‘Ben’ and its verb is ‘look’.

Another interesting thing about imperatives is they might seemingly break the rule about needing a subject and a verb in a sentence. For example:

Run!

But, again, remember that this is really saying:

(You) Run!

So it has the subject ‘you’ and the verb ‘run’. Another thing to notice is that ‘Run!’ has an exclamation mark on the end. This is used for sentences meant to be more forceful, such as telling someone to run from a hungry incoming crocodile.

1.3 Interrogative sentences

Interrogative sentences ask a question and end in a question mark. For example:

What time will you be there?

There are different types of interrogative questions. Here are four common types.

1) Yes/No questions

These are questions which can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example:

Is your name John?

I am pedantic enough to sit around thinking about ways that this sort of question could be answered in another way. For example one might pretentiously say:

I don’t actually subscribe to the concept of names because I believe we are all one.

Even with such an answer, he is still saying ‘no’, but then adding a qualification. Take another one:

Is that your father?

The answer might be:

I don’t know.

This isn’t yes or no. So, these questions don’t have to be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but they can, and often will, be.

2) Choice questions

These are questions which provide the recipient with a choice of answers. For example:

Would you prefer to sit in the booth or in the seats?

This question is providing two choices for the recipient, but it could be more, as in:

Would you like an apple, orange, pear or banana?

3) Open ended questions

These are questions to which the answer is open ended. This essentially means that they can’t be answered with just ‘yes/no’, and there is no choice given. Consequently, open-ended questions tend to provoke a much more detailed response. For example:

What is love?

This cannot be answered with ‘yes’/’no’, nor is there a choice given.

4) Tag questions

Tag questions involve an imperative/declarative sentence + a question as in:

Pass me the salt, will you?

Here we have the imperative statement ‘pass me the salt’ + a comma + the interrogative fragment ‘will you?’ turning it into a question. Another example is:

You work at the supermarket, don’t you?

Here we have the declarative statement ‘you work at the supermarket’ + a comma + the interrogative fragment ‘don’t you?’

5) Leading questions

Leading questions can be any of these types. For example:

Is red your favourite colour?

This is a ‘yes/no’ question which leads the recipient towards the answer ‘yes’. A less leading question would be:

What is your favourite colour?

Another example is:

Would you prefer Scotland or Ireland for your holiday?

Here we have a choice question which is restricted to two answers. All choice question lead towards certain choices, so they could all be described as leading in a sense. However, this question isn’t leading towards either of the choices, and if these are the only choices available it is harder to accuse the question of being leading. A more leading version of this question would be:

Would you prefer sunny Spain or wet Ireland for you holiday?

The use of the favourable adjective ‘sunny’ for ‘Spain’ and ‘wet’ for ‘Ireland’ make this more clearly leading. In both cases, a less leading question would be:

Where would you like to go for your holiday?

Another example is:

What do you think about the devastation caused by driving accidents?

This is an open-ended question which uses the noun phrase ‘the devastation’ to lead towards a particular answer.

1.4 Exclamatory sentences

Exclamatory sentences are declarative, or imperative, sentences, which have an exclamation mark on the end to show a more powerful emotion. For example:

I am never going back in there!

This is a declarative sentence with an exclamation point on the end to add strength to the statement. Let’s look at it without the exclamation mark.:

I am never going back in there.

In this situation, I don’t think the exclamation mark adds too much. One problem with sentences like this is the exclamation mark can take away some of the subtlety. They are probably most used in texting, or informal emails, because they convey emotion in a way which can make the writing seem more friendly.

Another example is:

Run!

This is an imperative sentence with an exclamation mark on the end. It is really valuable in this situation, as can be shown by writing it without the exclamation mark:

Run.

It doesn’t seem like someone is shouting it anymore, does it?

2) Structure of the sentence 

The other way of classifying a sentence is based on its structure. There are four types of sentences, each with increasing levels of complexity.

2.1 Simple sentence

A simple sentence is made up of one main/independent clause with a capital letter at the beginning, and a full stop at the end. Therefore, simple sentences and main/independent clauses are essentially the same thing. As a reminder, main clauses are groups of two or more words which have one subject-verb relationship, and can stand alone as a complete thought.

The most simple form of a simple sentence is probably an imperative, such as:

Run!

This has the implied subject ‘you’ and the verb ‘run’, as in:

(You) Run!

Some might argue over whether this is a complete sentence or not. We looked at this right at the beginning when looking at subject and predicate, so I won’t dwell on it again here.

The next most simple is something like:

People cry.

Here we have the subject ‘people’ + the verb ‘cry’ to give a complete thought.

Simple sentences can get more complex than this if we add in different constructions. For example, a slightly longer simple sentence with a direct object noun phrase added in is:

I ate the apples.

Here we have the subject ‘I’ and the predicate ‘ate the apples’ combining together to make a complete thought which stands alone. Rather than just the simple subject + verb of ‘People cry’ this has the subject ‘I’ + the verb ‘ate’ + the direct object noun phrase ‘the apples’.

We can also add in adjectives and adverbs as in :

I slowly ate each tasty apple sequentially.

Here we have the subject ‘I’ + the adverb ‘slowly’ + the verb ‘ate’ + the pronoun ‘each’ + the adjective ‘tasty’ + the noun ‘apple’ + the adverb ‘sequentially’. This has the subject ‘I’ + the predicate ‘slowly ate each tasty apple sequentially’ and combines to make a single complete thought, so it is still a simple sentence.

Compound verbs (verbs that share the same subject) and prepositional phrases can add a further level of complexity, as in:

The book club read 50 pages, wrote notes and discussed books on the long train journey to the literature festival.

Here we have the noun phrase ‘The book club’ + the compound verbs ‘read…wrote…discussed’. These verbs all share ‘the book club’ as their subject, which makes it clear they are part of the same complete thought. They all have a noun after them including the noun phrase ’50 pages’, the noun ‘notes’ and the noun ‘books’. This whole combination of nouns and verbs also links in with the prepositional phrase:

on the long train journey to the Literature festival

The preposition ‘on’ links ”read 50 pages, wrote notes and discussed books’ with the noun phrase ‘the long train journey to the Literature festival’. So, simple sentences are not called ‘simple’ because they are short, but because they focus on a single complete thought which can be broken down into a subject and predicate. But can a simple sentence have two verbs that aren’t compound?

Let’s try answering this by looking at this sentence:

Some people thought both films were too long.

Here we have the subject noun phrase ‘some people’ + its verb ‘thought’ + the direct object noun phrase ‘both films’ + the object complement ‘were too long’ – which is working as an adjective by modifying the direct object noun phrase ‘both films’ So, in this sentence we have two noun-verb relationships:

some people + thought

both films + were

However, we don’t generally consider ‘both films’ to be a subject in this sentence, even though it has a relationship with a verb, and is talking about something other than ‘some people’. We generally think of ‘both films’ as the direct object of the verb ‘thought’, rather than a second subject. Therefore, there is only one subject (‘some people’), and therefore only one subject-verb relationship, and one subject and predicate:

Subject verb relationship: ‘some people’ + ‘thought’

Subject: ‘Some people’

Predicate: ‘thought both films were too long.’

There is also another way of analysing this sentence. Take a look at it again:

Some people thought both films were too long.

We could say we have the subject ‘Some people’ + the verb ‘thought’ + the noun clause direct object ‘both films were too long’. We can show that ‘both films were too long’ can be thought of as a noun clause, by replacing it with a pronoun:

Some people thought it.

With this analysis we still only have one subject-verb relationship: ‘some people’ + ‘thought’.

In conclusion, it appears a simple sentence can only have one subject-verb relationship, even if it has multiple verbs.

2.2 Compound sentence

A compound sentence has two, or more, main/independent clauses in it, which are usually connected by a semi-colon or a coordinating conjunction with a comma before it. Here is an example:

The world rejoiced when the meteor missed, and everyone took the next day off work.

Here the main/independent clause:

The world rejoiced when the meteor missed

is linked to the other main/independent clause

everyone took the next day off work

Note that there is a comma after the first main clause ‘The world rejoiced when the meteor hit’, which links the two main clauses together via the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. We could extend this again, as in:

The world rejoiced when the meteor missed; everyone took the next day off work, and they all breathed a sigh of relief.

Here the main/independent clause:

The world rejoiced when the meteor missed

is linked to the main/independent clause:

everyone took the next day off work

via a semi-colon. It is also linked to the main/independent clause:

they all breathed a sigh of relief

by the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. After the first main clause there is a semi-colon linking the two main clauses because there is no coordinating conjunction, and after the second main clause there is a comma linking the two main clauses because there is the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. Check out the punctuation section for a lot more detail on when to use commas and semi-colons.

2.3 Complex sentence

A complex sentence contains one main clause and one, or more, subordinate clauses.

The main clause can come first, with the subordinate one coming after, as in:

I loved walking in the mountains, until that day I hurt myself.

Here we have the main/independent clause ‘I loved walking in the mountains’ linked to the subordinate/dependent clause ‘until that day I hurt myself’. People don’t always put a comma after a main clause when it is followed by a subordinate clause like this. In a lot of situations, I usually wouldn’t either, as in ‘I love reading because it opens my mind’. However, in the above sentence it just feels right to me for some reason; the extra pause given by the comma seems to lament that loss of love for walking that little bit more, at least to me.

An example with more than one subordinate clause is:

I loved walking in the mountains, until that day I hurt myself when the mist made me slip near the edge.

Here we have the main/independent clause ‘I loved walking in the mountains’ linked to the subordinate/dependent clause ‘until that day I hurt myself’ and the second subordinate/dependent clause ‘when the mist made me slip near the edge’.

Contrastingly, the subordinate clause can come first, and the main clause can come second, as in:

Until that day I hurt myself, I loved walking in the mountains.

Here we have the subordinate clause ‘Until that day I hurt myself’ linked to the main clause ‘I loved walking in the mountains’. Note how there is a comma after the subordinate clause ‘until that day I hurt myself’, which often is the case when the subordinate clause comes before the main clause.

Again, there can be more than one subordinate clause, as in:

Until that day I hurt myself, when the mist made me slip near the edge, I loved walking in the mountains.

Here we have the subordinate clause ‘Until that day I hurt myself’, and the subordinate clause ‘when the mist made me slip near the edge’ linked to the main clause ‘I loved walking in the mountains’.

There is an interesting difference between putting the main clause first, or the subordinate clause first. When putting the main clause first, the subordinate clause is accentuated as the final thought:

I loved walking in the mountains, until that day I hurt myself.

I think this is most effective in this situation because it is ‘that day I hurt myself’ which is the most dramatic and interesting part of the sentence. However, if you wanted to leave the sentence with the feeling about previously loving walking in the mountains, you might choose:

Until that day I hurt myself, I loved walking in the mountains.

This option is useful when trying to build towards a final point as in:

Before the warriors arrived, when the plains were barren and empty, we sharpened our swords for the slaughter.

Here we have the subordinate clause ‘Before the warriors arrived’ + the subordinate clause ‘when the plains were barren and empty’, both linked to the main clause ‘we sharpened our swords for the slaughter’. Each subordinate clause creeps towards the final image of the swords being sharpened for the slaughter, increasing the power of that final clause. Sentences that move towards the main point at the end like this are sometimes called ‘periodic sentences’.

2.4 Compound-complex sentences

A compound-complex sentence has both:

1) Two main/independent clauses, which are are usually linked together by a coordinating conjunction or semi-colon. This is called a compound sentence, and is the ‘compound’ part of the compound-complex sentence.

2) One, or more, subordinate/dependent clause, which will be dependent on a main clause. When you have a main clause + a subordinate clause you get what is called a complex sentence. This is where the ‘complex’ part of compound-complex sentences come from.

An example which uses subordinate clause + main clause + main clause is:

Despite their past arguments, the brothers had a strong connection; their parents had brought them up to forgive.

Here the subordinate/dependent clause ‘Despite their past arguments’ is linked to the main/independent clause ‘the brothers had a strong connection’ and the other main/independent clause ‘their parents had brought them up to forgive’.

An example using main clause + main clause + subordinate clause would be:

The film was brilliant and the book was even better, although some people thought both were too long.

Here we have the main clause ‘the film was brilliant’ linked to the other main clause ‘the book was even better’ by the coordinating conjunction ‘and’, and the subordinate clause ‘although some people thought both were too long’ on the end.

We can also have more than one subordinate clause, as in the following main clause + main clause + subordinate clause + subordinate clause example:

The film was brilliant and the book was even better, although some people thought both were too long, even though they were average length.

Variations where the main clauses are not next to each other

Do compound-complex sentences need to have the main clauses next to each other, and, if so, what would we call a sentence where this doesn’t happen? Is it even possible to have a sentence like this? For example, let’s try to write a sentence which goes main clause + subordinate clause + main clause:

The music sounds great because the sound-system is perfect and the band had been playing together for years.

Here we have the main clause ‘The music sounds great’ linked with the subordinate clause ‘because the sound-system is perfect’; however, is ‘the band had been playing together for years’ a main clause? It has a single subject-verb relationship, and is being linked by the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ which suggests it is. Furthermore, it does stand alone as a sentence. Nevertheless, it also feels like it is an extension of ‘The music sounds great’ as in :

The music sounds great because the band had been playing together for years.

It seems like the above is what is trying to be conveyed. To emphasise this, we could write it again, like this:

The music sounds great because the sound-system is perfect and (because) the band had been playing together for year.

It is like the ‘because’ is implied. If this is true, the clause ‘the band had been playing together for years’ could be thought of as a subordinate clause, being subordinate to the main clause ‘the music sounds great’, just as ‘because the sound system is perfect’ is. If that is the case, then this is a complex sentence, not a compound-complex sentence. I think it can probably be argued either way.

Let’s try another example:

The music sounds great because the sound-system is perfect; the fans were very satisfied.

Here, again, we have the main clause ‘The music sounds great’ linked with the subordinate clause ‘because the sound-system is perfect’; however, this time, we have the clause ‘the fans were very satisfied’ linked via a semi-colon. Is this a main or a subordinate clause? Well, if we try the trick from before of taking the subordinating conjunction ‘because’ and using it to link the main clause and the unknown clause we get:

The music sounds great because the fans were very satisfied.

This doesn’t make sense, suggesting that it is indeed a stand alone main clause, and there is no implied subordinate clause there. This would mean we have two main clauses, and one subordinate clause, making this a compound-complex sentence.

Another example, involving main clause + subordinate clause + main clause + subordinate clause is:

The street parties were positive because everybody socialised, and there will be another one next month unless the weather is bad.

Here we have the main clause ‘the street parties were positive’ linked to the subordinate clause ‘because everybody socialised’, which are both linked to the main clause ‘there will be another one next month’ by the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. Finally, the main clause ‘there will be another one next month’ is linked to the subordinate clause ‘unless the weather is bad’. The fact this has two main clauses and two subordinate clauses suggests it is a compound-complex sentence.

3) Questions

1) Explain the different sentence types by function.

2) Explain the different sentence types by structure.

This marks the end of the English grammar course. That was a long slog at points, but I really help you found it interesting, and learnt a lot along the way. Once you have taken a well deserved break you might want to look at some of the other English courses on the site.

Posted in English Grammar