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Sound Writing

Subsection 7.1.2 Basic Sentence Structure

Subsubsection Subject-Predicate

In Standard American English (SAE), a basic sentence is composed of two parts: the subject and the predicate. The subject of a sentence is the person or entity that does an action or is the main focus of the sentence. The subject may be a noun, proper noun, personal pronoun, noun phrase, or different nouns linked by a conjunction. The predicate is the action or description of the subject. The predicate may be a verb, a verb accompanied by helping verbs, or an entire verb phrase. For instance, in the sentence “The first-year student waited in line for the Farm-to-Table special,” the noun phrase “the first-year student” would be the subject and “waited in line for the Farm-to-Table special” would be the predicate. An easy way to distinguish the subject and predicate of a sentence is to 1) ask yourself what is “being done” (predicate), and then 2) ask yourself “what” is doing that action (subject).

Example 7.1.2. Subject-Predicate: Sample Sentences.

Below you can find a few example sentences showing the subject (italicized) and predicate (regular typeface):
  • Ollie studied in the coffee shop.
  • The Economics professor told the class to turn the assignment in by the end of the day.
  • The a capella group “What She Said” will perform at the spring concert.

Subsubsection Direct and Indirect Objects

A complete sentence always has a subject and a predicate. A predicate can include both direct and indirect objects.
A direct object is the noun on which the action occurs. In the sentence, “You bought a present,” “the present” is the direct object because it is the noun on which the action “bought” occurs.
An indirect object is the secondary object, or the object secondarily affected by the action, which is to say that a sentence can only have an indirect object if it also has a direct object. An indirect object is either explicitly or implicitly prepositional. In the sentence, “You bought a present for me,” “me” is the indirect object because it is the recipient of the object originally acted on. In this case, it is marked by the preposition “for.” The sentence could also be constructed “You bought me a present.” Here, the direct and indirect objects are the same, only the indirect object is not indicated by the preposition “for.” An easy way to identify the direct and indirect object of a sentence is to ask yourself: On what is the action occurring? (This is the direct object.) And what is being affected by the action having already occurred on something else? (This is the indirect object.)
This diagram displays the difference between direct and indirect nouns. The top half has the label, "You bought a present." There is a person and a graphic of money that is labeled "action - bought" and a graphic of a present that is labeled "direct object - present." An arrow from the money to the present shows that the action is acting on the present. The bottom half of the diagram is labeled "You bought a present for me." The same images are replicated, and additional graphic of a happy person is labeled "indirect object - me." An arrow points from the present to the person, showing the relationship between direct and indirect objects.

Subsubsection Clauses

What do clauses and amino acids have in common? They’re both essential building blocks! Just as amino acids make life possible, clauses make sentences possible. As you read in the previous section, every clause is composed of a subject and a predicate, which also means that every clause has a noun and a verb. Unfortunately, like many things in English, there are far too many terms that make it difficult to keep the concepts straight.
An independent clause, also called a main clause, has a subject and a verb and conveys a complete thought.
The primary feature of a dependent clause is that it cannot stand alone because it does not form a complete thought. A dependent/subordinate clause (also called a dependent clause) is dependent on an independent/main clause to make sense. Subordinate clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction.

Example 7.1.3. Subordinate/Dependent Clause: Raining Outside.

I will wear my raincoat today because it is raining outside.
  • “I will wear my raincoat today” = a complete sentence
  • “because it is raining outside.” = an incomplete sentence

Example 7.1.4. Subordinate/Dependent Clause: Residence Life.

If you want to be an RA, you should attend the upcoming res life info session.
  • “If you want to be an RA” = incomplete
  • “you should attend the upcoming res life info session.” = complete

Example 7.1.5. Subordinate/Dependent Clause: Hiking and Homework.

I can go hiking this weekend as long as I finish my homework by Friday.
  • “I can go hiking this weekend” = complete
  • “as long as I finish my homework by Friday.” = incomplete
There are three types of dependent clauses: adjective, adverb, and noun clauses. Each of these types of clauses is named after a part of speech because, when used in dependent-clause form, these groups of words act as a single part of speech—that’s why they’re called dependent.
An adjective/relative clause acts as an adjective to modify a noun (the subject). Adjective clauses begin with a relative pronoun or a relative adverb (that, who, which, whose, whom, when, why, where). Adjective clauses answer questions like “Which one?” “How many?” and “What kind?”

Example 7.1.6. Adjective/Relative Clause: mascot.

“The mascot costume, which belongs to the school, is to be used only at official school events.”
  • Subject: the mascot costume
  • Question: which one?
  • Answer: the one that belongs to the school

Example 7.1.7. Adjective/Relative Clause: Chocolate Labs.

“The two chocolate labs that walk around campus are so cute.”
  • Subject: the two chocolate labs
  • Question: which ones?
  • Answer: the ones that walk around campus
An adverb clause acts as an adverb to modify the verb in a sentence. Adverb clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction (although, because, after, until, etc.).

Example 7.1.8. Adverb Clause: Running Track.

“I ran around the track until I couldn’t run any more.”
  • Verb phrase: ran around the track
  • Question: How?
  • Answer: until I couldn’t run any more

Example 7.1.9. Adverb Clause: Extra Dining Dollars.

“He bought fifty bottles of Powerade at the end of the semester because he had leftover Dining Dollars.”
  • Verb phrase: bought fifty bottles of Powerade
  • Question: Why? (Great question!)
  • Answer: because he had leftover Dining Dollars
A noun clause acts as a noun. Noun clauses begin with who, whom, which, that, when, how, why, and whatever, whoever, whenever, wherever, etc., and answer questions like “What?” or “Who?”

Example 7.1.10. Noun Clause: Anonymous Cookie Friend.

“Whoever gave me that cookie is the best!”
  • Question: Who is the best?
  • Answer: Whoever gave me that cookie

Example 7.1.11. Noun Clause: Rayleigh Scattering.

“Do you know why the sky is blue?”
  • Question: What do you want to know?
  • Answer: Why the sky is blue

Subsubsection Phrases

Phrases are to sentences what landscaping is to the university. Just as the university’s landscaping makes the campus beautiful, interesting, and informative, so too do phrases add beauty, interest, and information to sentences. Like clauses and almost everything else grammar related, though, there are far too many phrases with overly confusing names. To remember and understand each type of phrase, it might be helpful for you to review List 7.1.1. Since phrases function as single parts of speech, you can figure out which type of phrase a particular phrase is by identifying its role in a sentence.

Note 7.1.12. Distinguishing a Phrase from a Clause.

Whereas a clause has both a noun and a verb, a phrase has either a noun or a verb, but not both. Phrases are groups of words that function as a single part of speech (e.g., a noun or an adjective).
List 7.1.13. Common Types of Phrases
Here are some of the types of phrases you’ll see most often:
infinitive phrase
Infinitive phrases feature our good friend, the infinitive verb.
To include all types of phrases in this list would be too boring.”
To pull an all-nighter, I need to stop by the coffee shop to get my usual: a nitro cold brew with a shot of espresso.”
prepositional phrase
Remember that a preposition tells you the timing or placement of a noun. A prepositional phrase, then, is a phrase that tells you about the timing or placement of another part of the sentence. Prepositional phrases function as either adjectives (to modify a noun, as in “The cat on the bed”) or as adverbs (to modify a verb as in “The cat jumped off the bed”).
“That cat is under the table.”
“As I walked along dark campus pathways, I was glad that I had called a security escort.”
noun phrase
A noun phrase acts as (gasp) a noun! Noun phrases include nouns and modifiers (e.g., adjectives).
“My spunky roommate listens to the best music.”
“I’m always brought so much joy when I see that perfect, beautiful, wonderful little puppy dog prancing around campus.”
participial phrase
You’ll frequently run across phrases that contain present or past participles. Present participles usually end in -ing (“I am running, jumping, swimming, and talking”), and past participles end in -ed or take an irregular form (“I ran, jumped, swam, and talked”).
“I like my eggs from the dining hall covered in ketchup.”
“The student ran to catch up with her friends, slipping in the puddles along the sidewalk.”
gerund phrase
A gerund is a verb that ends in “-ing” and acts as a noun. Examples of gerunds include: studying, reading, working, crying, whining, whimpering, and napping. Just like these words, a gerund phrase adds some spice (i.e., -ing) to a sentence.
Crying while studying is not recommended.”
“Although it may seem like a good idea, having pizza from Dominos for every meal probably isn’t the way to go.”

Subsubsection Modifiers

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that characterizes a noun and is typically used to add description or specificity to a sentence. You can identify the modifier in a sentence by asking yourself which or what kind of noun the sentence is highlighting. For example, in the sentence “The students gazed in awe at the towering sequoia tree,” the word “towering” is being used to modify or describe the sequoia tree. Therefore, to identify the modifier, you can ask yourself “Which sequoia tree?” and answer “The towering one.”

Participial Phrase as Modifier.

A participial phrase can also act as a modifier. For instance, in the sentence “Gazing at the towering sequoia tree, the students were in awe,” the phrase “gazing at the towering sequoia tree” is the modifier describing the students. You can play the same game as before: “Which students were in awe?” “The ones gazing at the towering sequoia tree.”

Adjective Clause as Modifier.

An adjective/relative clause can act as another type of modifier. In the sentence “The sequoia tree, which was towering over the students, inspired widespread awe,” the clause “which was towering over the students” is the modifier describing the sequoia tree. Again: “What kind of sequoia tree?” “The one towering over the students.”

Subsubsection Types of Sentences

Sentence structure is important to keep in mind while you’re writing because strong writing typically employs sentences of varied type and length. Writers can also strategically use certain sentence structures to convey meaning to a reader beyond the meaning of the words alone. If you realize that you mostly utilize one or two sentence types, try mixing up your sentence structures a bit more!
List 7.1.14. Types of Sentences
simple sentence
“I love the university.”
“My RA is so cool.”
“The Grand Canyon is in Arizona.”
compound sentence
at least two independent clauses connected via a coordinating conjunction
“I miss my high school friends, but I’m excited to make new friends.”
“I have always loved Harry Potter, and I’m so excited to go to the movie marathon next month!”
“I always need coffee when I study early in the morning, so I’m grateful that the coffee shop opens at 6am.”
complex sentence
“When the dining hall runs out of hummus, I want to cry.”
“If you feel unsafe walking back to campus alone, Security Services provides a free escort service.”
“I need to drink coffee when I’m tired.”
When the dependent clause goes in front of the independent clause, we separate the two clauses with a comma. When the dependent clause goes second, though, we do not use a comma.
compound-complex sentence
“Independent clauses are really cool, but sometimes they get too long when you add too much information.”

Subsubsection Functional Types of Sentences

List 7.1.15. Functional Types of Sentences
declarative sentences
make statements. You will use primarily declarative sentences in your academic writing.
interrogative sentences
interrogate—that is, they ask questions and end with question marks.
imperative sentences
do what we all love to do; they give people directions and tell them what to do.
exclamatory sentences
exclaim things! They are so exciting!

Example 7.1.16. Declarative Sentences.

“This sentence is a declarative sentence.”
“My favorite club is Yoga Club.”

Example 7.1.17. Interrogative Sentences.

“Don’t you think that ‘interrogative’ is a funny word?”
“Why are we talking about question marks?”

Example 7.1.18. Imperative Sentences.

“Go tell him that it’s imperative that he knows what an imperative sentence is.”
“Grab me a Greek yogurt from the dining hall, please.”

Example 7.1.19. Exclamatory Sentences.

I love the university!
I love writing!

Subsubsection Subordination and Coordination

Because each clause in a compound sentence is independent, neither one is obviously foregrounded in relation to the other (as in a complex sentence). That’s because the relation between the clauses of a compound sentence is only conveyed lexically (through the coordinating conjunction), as opposed to lexically and syntactically (in a complex sentence). Nonetheless, a compound sentence can serve various purposes. A compound sentence that conjoins clauses using “and” can provide extra information (“I want to go to the park and I want to search for Pokemon”). A compound sentence that conjoins clauses using “or” or “nor” can provide alternatives (“I want to go to the park or I want to stay home and play Pokemon”). A compound sentence that conjoins clauses using “so” or “for” can provide justification (“I want to go to the park so I can search for Pokemon; I want to go to the park for I love to search for Pokemon”).
As its name implies, a dependent/subordinate clause must always be subordinated to the independent/main clause independent clause in a complex sentence. The effect of this subordination is the backgrounding of the subordinate clause and the foregrounding of the independent clause. In the example “When the dining hall runs out of hummus, I want to cry,” the subordinate clause “When the dining hall runs out of hummus” is backgrounded in relation to the independent clause “I want to cry.” This relativization places different emphasis on the clauses. The independent clause “I want to cry” is more important than the subordinate clause “When the dining hall runs out of hummus” because it conveys a complete thought, while the subordinate clause only modifies that thought. As the backgrounded clause, the subordinate clause specifies the context (provides the background) of the independent clause. The picture would be coherent without the background, but not nearly as robust. When constructing a complex sentence, then, consider what the most important part of that sentence is and foreground it.

Note 7.1.20.

A compound sentence can easily be transformed into a complex sentence. For instance, the example “I miss my high school friends, but I’m excited to make new friends.” could be reconstructed to read “Although I miss my high school friends, I’m excited to make new friends.” Consider what meaning you want to convey in your sentence and construct them accordingly.