Principal Elements of the Sentence for English Grammar

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Aug 12, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Principal Elements of the Sentence Practice Exercises for English Grammar

A sentence is a group of words that makes a statement and can be followed by a period, question mark, or exclamation point.

The principal elements of a sentence are the verb, subject of the verb, and direct object of the verb or complement of the verb. Many sentences have only a verb and a subject.

Other important sentence elements are the indirect object and modifiers.


A verb is the word or words that describe the action or state of being of the subject.

Rats eat cheese. (The verb eat describes the action performed by the subject rats.)
Marty has felt well recently. (The verb has felt describes the state of being of the subject Marty.)
The organ was often played during chapel. (The verb was played describes the action of the subject organ.)


A subject is the person or thing that performs the action indicated by the verb or that is in the state of being that is described by the verb.

Trees and shrubs line the boulevard. (Trees and shrubs is the subject of the verb line, answering the question Who or what line? Trees and shrubs line.)

Rare photographs are expensive. (Photographs is the subject of the verb are. Who or what are expensive? Photographs are. Expensive is the complement of are.)

Direct Object

A direct object is the word or words that receive the action indicated by the verb.

Automobiles are destroying cities. (What is the action? Are destroying. What receives the action? Cities. Cities is the direct object of the verb are destroying.)

The gardener fertilized the lawn and the trees. (What receives the action? The lawn and the trees. Lawn and trees is the object of fertilized.)

The bank was robbed. (There is no direct object. This sentence has only the subject bank and the verb was robbed.)


A complement is the word or words that complete the meaning of verbs that express feeling, appearing, being, or seeming. Such verbs are classified as copulative, or linking, verbs. Copulative verbs do not take a direct object. They are completed by complements. Note that all forms of the verb to be are copulative except when used as auxiliary verbs.

He seems well. (The verb seems does not describe action, but does describe a state of being. Seems links the subject he with well, and well is the complement of seems. Note that it occupies the position in the sentence that an object would occupy. The sentence He seems well can best be understood by imagining that a physician is receiving a report on a patient's health. No action is being reported, only a state of being. The verb seems conveys no meaning without a complement. Thus, well completes the meaning of seems and is called the complement of the copulative verb seems.)

He will be a carpenter. (The verb will be links the subject he with carpenter, a noun. No action is being performed. Carpenter complements—completes—the copulative verb will be.)

Emma feels fine early in the morning. (The copulative verb feels links Emma with fine, the complement of feels.)

It should be noted that the verb feel does not always function as a copulative verb. In the sentence She felt the table, an action is being performed, the action of feeling. In this sentence, then, table is the direct object of felt.

To find the principal elements of a sentence:

  1. Find the verb or verbs by asking yourself: What is happening? What state of being is indicated?
  2. Find the subject or subjects by asking yourself: Who or what is performing the action described by the verb or verbs? Whose state of being is described by the verb or verbs?
  3. Find the direct object of the verb or verbs by asking yourself: Who or what is receiving the action of the verb or verbs?
  4. Find the complement of a copulative verb by asking yourself: What element of the sentence completes the verb?

Note that a verb that takes a direct object cannot take a complement. A verb that takes a complement cannot take a direct object.

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