Sentence Structure Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 28, 2011


A complete sentence requires two basic elements: a subject and a predicate. A predicate is a word or phrase that acts as a verb, describing action. A subject is generally a noun, describing who or what performed that action.

A complete sentence, therefore, might contain only two words, such as this: You go! In this example, go is the verb describing the action, and you is the subject performing that action. Here are some more examples:

Notice that the subjects and predicates in the previous examples might each be one word—the proper noun Mike forms one subject, and the verb go forms one predicate—but they are often composed of phrases rather than single words. The phrase likes to eat works together to form one predicate, while the phrase the tired students forms a subject.

The important thing to remember is that a sentence is not complete unless it contains both a predicate (the action being performed) and a subject (the person or thing performing that action). If the subject or predicate is missing, it is an incomplete sentence or sentence fragment.

Sentences, however, are generally not as short and direct as these examples; these are known as simple sentences, but most writing consists of complex sentences. Our simple sentences each consist of one clause, or one complete thought. Complex sentences, however, are made up of two or more clauses, or two or more ideas combined into a single sentence.

The sentence Mike likes to eat consists of one clause, one complete idea. The sentence Mike likes to eat, but he isn't fat contains two separate ideas, each contained in a separate clause. Some clauses can stand on their own as complete sentences, such as in our previous example: Mike likes to eat. He isn't fat. These are called independent clauses; an independent clause contains a subject (he) and a predicate (isn't fat). Clauses that could not form complete sentences are called dependent clauses, because they depend on another clause to make sense. Here is another example:

The first clause in that sentence is independent because it could stand on its own as a complete sentence: I'll help you on Thursday. The second clause, however, is not a complete sentence—if possible; it depends upon the first clause to make sense.

Sentence Structure Terminology

Here are some more terms that you'll need to understand:

  • Independent clause: a clause that expresses a complete sentence. →Monica walked on the grass.
      Dependent (subordinate) clause: a clause that does not express a complete sentence. →though it was wet
      Monica walked on the grass, though it was wet.
  • Essential clause: a dependent clause that is necessary to the basic meaning of the completed sentence. →who are pregnant
      Women who are pregnant can crave salty or sweet foods.
  • Nonessential clause: a dependent clause that is not necessary to the basic meaning of the completed sentence. →who growls whenever the phone rings
      Elmo, who growls whenever the phone rings, tried to attack the vacuum cleaner.
  • Appositive: a phrase that makes a preceding noun or pronoun clearer or more definite by explaining or identifying it. →rice pudding and fruit salad
      Candice's grandfather brought her favorite desserts, rice pudding and fruit salad.
  • Fragment: a phrase punctuated like a sentence even though it does not express a complete thought. →Timothy saw the car. And ran.
  • Coordinating Conjunction: a word that joins two independent and equal clauses. (and, but, so, or, for, nor, yet)→Dorothy had a beautiful rose garden, and her yard was a profusion of color every summer.
  • Subordinating Conjunction: a word that makes a clause dependent (after, although, as, because, before, if, once, since, than, that, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, while)→The man wasn't angry, though he had a right to be.
  • Conjunctive Adverb: a word that introduces a relationship between two independent clauses (accordingly, besides, consequently, furthermore, hence, however, instead, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, then, therefore, thus)→On Tuesdays, I play racquetball; otherwise, I would go with you. Conjunctive adverbs are generally preceded by a semicolon.
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