We all start learning words and how to string them together from birth. Language comes naturally to us, and most of us would rarely stop to consider how our language is constructed.

Little phrases are joined with verbs to make clauses; clauses are strung together to make sentences of varying complexity. Sentences are then grouped together to make paragraphs, and paragraphs can be assembled to make chapters and chapters make books.

However, before we make paragraphs and chapters, we must know how to create the basic units of language. Let’s examine just how words are assembled:

  1. Phrase:

    A phrase is any short collection of words that stands together as a conceptual unit; the phrase will generally form part of a clause. Here are some examples (marked in blue):

    • any short collection of words [no real meaning without other information].
    • that stand together [a concept, but incomplete].
    • part of a clause [still requiring a verb and subject to form a clause].
  2. Clause:

    A clause is a phrase that contains a subject and a verb (technically, a subject and predicate) and comes in two types: dependent and independent. Dependent clauses are incomplete ideas that need to be joined to other clauses for them to make sense:

    • ... when they arrive ... [has a verb and subject, but is incomplete].
    • ... after the TV show had finished ... [not much use on its own].
    • ... where they find the best grapes ... [interesting, but makes no sense].
    Independent clauses are similar to simple sentences in that they are complete and logical in their own right, but will belong to a longer sentence:
    • ... he likes animals ... [not much information, but the idea is complete].
    • ... they all eat apples ... [brief, but logical].
  3. Sentence:

    A sentence is a set of words, complete in its own right, conveying a statement, question, or command. Each sentence generally has two main parts: the subject and predicate (see 4. and 5. below). In its simplest form, the sentence is much the same as an independent clause (see above), except that it will not be attached to other clauses. All sentences start with a capital letter and mostly end with a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark. There are four types of sentence:

    1. A simple sentence has one independent clause – but no dependent ones. The subject and verb can be compound, and the sentence may contain modifying words and phrases as well:
      • John sighed.
      • We followed the cow into the barn.
      • Mary and the MacDonald girls laughed uproariously for five minutes.
    2. A complex sentence will contain one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. In the following examples, the independent clause is marked in blue, and dependent clauses in green:
      • Given all her broken promises, he trusted her no more. [Note the comma.]
      • While I was reading, the milkman, who always arrived before breakfast, ran up the garden path. [Note here that the dependent clause splits the independent clause.]
    3. A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses usually joined by a co-ordinating conjunction. There are no dependent clauses. In the following examples, the independent clauses are marked in blue:
      • I went to the movies, but my wife went shopping.
      • He was a big man, yet he looked small next to the wrestler.
      • Genevieve worked hard all day, so she was exhausted by teatime.
      • He supped the wine appreciatively; he was a noted connoisseur. [Here a semicolon replaces the conjunction.]
    4. A compound-complex sentence, as you may guess, is a combination of the compound and complex structures, having at least two independent clauses – usually joined by a co-ordinating conjunction – and at least one dependent clause. In the following examples, the independent clauses are marked in blue, and dependent clauses in green:
      • Fossil fuels are running out; therefore, we need to find new energy sources that are completely renewable.
      • Samantha worked hard all day after dragging herself out of bed early; so, she was exhausted by teatime.
      • When Daisy shuffled into the barn, we followed her inside and David quickly shut the gate.
    A note on sentence length: There are many opinions about how long a sentence should be, but there seems to be a degree of consensus among grammarians on the following points:
    • Vary your sentence length to maintain interest for the reader. If all your sentences are of a similar length, your writing will be monotonous.
    • In general, keep sentences under 30 words. Long sentences will likely reduce the clarity of your writing.
    • If your average sentence length is above 22, then your writing will be obscure and difficult to wade through.
    • If your average sentence length is below 10 words, then you may be overusing short sentences, which will give your writing a robotic feel.
    • So how long should a sentence be? However long it needs to be to make your message clear, keep the readers interested, and maintain the ‘rhythm’ of your writing!
  4. Subject:

    Every sentence and clause must have a subject, which in turn is modified by the predicate (see 5. below). The subject denotes the doer of the action, or the part referred to, described or identified. Here are some examples, and the subject is marked in blue:

    • The girl walked her dog. [The ‘girl’ is the doer.]
    • Large trucks are useful for moving furniture. [‘Trucks’ are being described.]
    • There is no excuse for bad grammar. [More obscure.]
    • Sheep dogs and white rabbits make wonderful pets. [A compound subject.]
    • This, unbelievably, is the answer to the riddle. [Ask: “What is?”]
    • To err is human. [‘To err’ is being referred to.]
  5. Predicate:

    The second part of the sentence along with the subject is the predicate. It must contain a verb, and (usually) other elements that state something about the subject. Note: intransitive verbs can stand on their own. Other elements of the predicate can include: objects (which can be direct, indirect or prepositional), adverbials and complements. Here are some examples with predicates marked in blue:

    • He laughed. [‘laughed’ is an intransitive verb and does not require an object.]
    • Karen watched television. [‘television’ is a direct object.]
    • The foreman passed me the spanner. [‘me’ is an indirect object; ‘the spanner’ is a direct one.]
    • Michael listened to the radio. [‘to the radio’ is a prepositional object.]
    • Helen placed the roses in a vase. [‘in a vase’ is an adverbial complement – if it was removed, the sentence becomes meaningless.]
    • The tutor helped me with my assignment. [‘with my assignment’ is an adverbial adjunct – it is important to the meaning, but leaves a workable sentence if removed.]

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