Sentence Structure and Grammar Study Guide (page 2)
Sentence Structure and Grammar
Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. - E. L. DOCTOROW (1931– )AMERICAN NOVELIST
This lesson focuses on the various types of sentences and pays particular attention to common sentence errors such as sentence fragments and comma splices.
Now that you've completed a review of the big four (and most important) parts of speech, this lesson provides a quick review of how those parts of speech function in correct sentence structures.
Don't be put off by technical grammatical terms. Correct sentence structure is simply the term for the ways in which sentences are constructed in proper English. However, you need to remember that spoken English is often more informal than written English. Think of how many times you answer a question by saying, "Yeah, okay." Or you answer with an incomplete phrase like "Not me." Those are incomplete sentences that are acceptable in conversation, but that may not qualify as correct sentences in formal writing. So be aware that when you are writing, 99% of the time you must obey the formal rules of sentence structure.
Basically, sentences are made up of words put together to communicate ideas. Every grammatically correct sentence must have a subject (the noun doing the action) and a predicate (the verb describing the action). Once words are combined to communicate ideas, they are called clauses. And clauses can be either independent clauses, which are clauses that express a complete idea, or they can be dependent (or subordinate) clauses, which are clauses that do not express a complete idea but that contribute to (or modify) the independent clause in a sentence. Once you understand these basic definitions, you should have no problem constructing sentences that convey your ideas grammatically.
Three Kinds of Sentences
There are three kinds of sentences: simple, compound, and complex. Look at the following samples to see how the three types of sentences differ from each other.
- Simple sentence: Fido loves to greet visitors. Simple sentences contain one independent clause that expresses a complete thought.
- Compound sentence: Fido loves to greet visitors, and he often slobbers all over them. Compound sentences contain two (or more) independent clauses and no dependent clauses.
- Complex sentence: Because Fido is such a happy dog, many neighbors don't mind his slobbering. Complex sentences contain one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.
Compound-complex sentences are also possible. They combine the two categories, and can contain two or more independent clauses as well as one or more dependent clause. Here is an example of a compound-complex sentence:
Because Fido is such a happy dog, he often slobbers on visitors, and he frequently jumps up frantically to kiss them as well.
Here are a few simple sentence structure rules:
- Simple sentences are not necessarily short, but they must contain only one independent clause.
- In compound sentences, the two (or more) independent clauses must be related in thought.
- In complex sentences, the dependent clause clarifies the relationship between ideas. Often, these dependent clauses start with words like because, when, who, or where.
One of the most common errors that writers make is to write sentence fragments. You absolutely must learn never to make this error. (Other common errors will be discussed later in this lesson.)
Sentence fragments are sentences that lack one or more of their essential elements; they lack either a subject or, more commonly, a predicate (the verb).
How to Avoid Writing Sentence Fragments
Read every sentence you've written aloud, very slowly. If you've written a fragment, you'll hear your voice stop in midair at the end of the sentence. This is because in our natural rhythm of speech, we drop our voices at the end of a sentence, which is usually when the idea of the sentence is complete. Usually when you read a fragment aloud, your voice at the end will sound as if it is dangling off the edge of a cliff.
After reading every sentence aloud, go back through your writing and check each and every sentence to make sure that it falls into one of the three sentence structure categories. Remember, every sentence must have at least one subject and one predicate, and compound sentences can contain two subjects and two predicates.
When are fragments allowed? You will sometimes notice that writers use fragments for effect. (This book sometimes uses fragments, for example.) Fragments are allowed only when they are used carefully, and for dramatic effect or to emphasize a point. As you read, note carefully the use of fragments; analyze why the writer has chosen to ignore the strict rules of grammatical sentence structures. In your own writing, you'll be much safer if you obey the rules.
Another very common error that writers make is to write run-on sentences. These are exactly what they sound like: two or more sentences (or thoughts) that have been jammed together and written as if they were one. You can check your writing for run-ons in the same way you check for sentence fragments: by reading aloud and by making sure that the sentence doesn't attempt to say too much, all in one breath. Complex sentences, as you know, may contain more than one dependent clause, but sentences that contain more than one independent clause must include a connecting word (such as and or because) in order to be grammatically correct compound sentences. Careless writers include too many separate ideas, strung together with or without connecting words, in a single sentence.
Here are a few hints on how to avoid common sentence structure errors:
- Check each sentence you write, carefully, for complete thoughts, and for the appropriate subject-predicate pairs.
- Read each of your sentences aloud to see if your voice drops naturally at the end of the sentence. If it doesn't, you've probably written a fragment.
- Slow down. Rushing to get your work finished is a common trap, and very often the rush will produce sentence fragments and/or run-ons.
Excercises for this concept can be found at Sentence Structure: Grammar Exercises.