The anatomy of an English sentence

An article taken from Perfect Grammar by Dr Derek Soles

The Simple Sentence

A simple sentence contains a single subject and a single verb. A subject is a noun or a pronoun responsible for performing the action which the verb specifies. A noun is a word that identifies a person, a place, or a thing, including a state of mind such as happiness or revulsion; a pronoun  is a small word that takes the place of a noun so the noun does not have to be repeated, so we can write ‘David met his father’, instead of ‘David met David’s father’. A verb is a word that usually identifies an action, though the very common verb

‘to be’ identifies more a state of existence than an action. Here is an example of a simple sentence:

Belfast is prospering.

The noun-subject of the sentence is ‘Belfast’ and the verb- predicate is ‘is prospering’.

A simple sentence might also contain a word that receives the action of the verb. Here is an example:

Belfast hosted the conference.

In this sentence, ‘Belfast’ is the subject, ‘hosted’ is the verb, and ‘conference’ is the word that receives the action of the verb, indicating what Belfast hosted. This word, usually a noun or pronoun,  is called the object of the verb, more specifically the direct object of the verb.

A simple sentence might also contain a noun or pronoun that widens the context of the direct object. Consider this sentence.

The Lord Mayor of Belfast gave Dr. Whitman  the award.

The subject is ‘Lord Mayor’, the verb is ‘gave’, and the direct object is ‘award’. Remember the direct object is the receiver of the action of the verb: the mayor did not give Dr. Whitman; the mayor gave the award. He gave the award to Dr. Whitman. We call such a word, usually a noun or a pronoun, which widens the context of the direct object, the indirect object of the sentence.

Now consider this simple sentence: Belfast is a beautiful city.

This  sentence  seems to  follow the  subject-verb-object pattern  of ‘Belfast hosted  the  conference’.  But notice this important  difference: ‘Belfast’ and  ‘conference’ identify different entities, but ‘Belfast’ and ‘city’ identify the same entity. The verb ‘is’ links together two things that are the same. The verb ‘is’ is a form of the verb ‘to be’. It is called a copula verb, as distinct from the action verb ‘hosted’.‘Belfast’ is still the subject of the sentence but ‘city’ is not the object of the verb because it is not receiving the action of the verb. It complements the subject and, thus, is called a subject complement.

We have, then, four simple sentence patterns:

1. Subject-verb

2. Subject-verb-direct object

4. Subject-copula verb-subject complement.

Now a simple sentence can be and usually is fleshed out with other words and phrases. The noun-subjects and noun- objects might be qualified or clarified with other  words, known as adjectives: Belfast is a beautiful city. It hosted an excellent conference. The verbs might be qualified or clarified with other words, known as adverbs: The neighbourhoods in Belfast are still highly segregated. Adverbs can also qualify adjectives—Belfast is a very beautiful city.

A simple sentence can also be fleshed out with phrases. A phrase is a group of words which does not contain the subject-verb sentence pattern  but  which modifies nouns and verbs in a sentence. The most common type of phrase is the prepositional phrase, which begins with a preposition and  ends with a noun  or  pronoun,  called the  object of the  preposition,  as opposed  to  the  object of the  verb. A preposition is a short word that establishes links among verbs, nouns, and pronouns  within a sentence. Common prepositions include these words: by, for, to, in, with, near, from, out, into, about. Study this sentence carefully:

With its new sports centre, fine restaurants, and designer shops, Belfast is becoming a popular destination for low-cost airlines from Britain and Europe, for shoppers from the Irish Republic, and for business conferences.

Although long, this is a simple sentence consisting of a subject, a copula verb, and  a complement—Belfast is becoming a destination—and  a series of prepositional phrases. Each of these phrases begins with a preposition and ends with a noun—the object of the preposition. They are:

With its new sports centre, fine restaurants, and designer shops (modifies ‘Belfast’);

for low-cost airlines (modifies ‘destination’); from Britain and Europe (modifies ‘airlines’); for shoppers (modifies ‘destination’);

from the Irish Republic (modifies ‘shoppers’);

for business conferences (modifies ‘destination’).

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