A sentence (SIN-tents) is a word or group of words organized to convey a complete thought. Second only to the word, sentences are the basic building block of modern human communication.
To understand the construction of a sentence, it’s important to know all the components that work together to form sentences: parts of speech, punctuation, and phrases and clauses.
Parts of Speech
Generally, all words fall into one of the following categories, based on how the word is used and how it interacts with words: nouns, pronouns, prepositions, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, interjections, conjunctions, and articles.
A noun is a word denoting one or several people, places, things, or ideas. There are two noun designations: proper versus common nouns and concrete versus abstract nouns.
Common nouns are general, non-specific things, written in lowercase letters. Writer, building, and rock are common nouns because they can refer to any writer, building, or rock. Proper nouns refer to specific, named or titled entities. To differentiate from common nouns, proper nouns are capitalized. Emily Dickinson, Smithsonian American History Museum, and Hope Diamond are proper nouns because they refer to a specific writer (Emily Dickinson), a specific building (The Smithsonian American History Museum), and a specific rock (the Hope diamond).
Concrete nouns have physical properties, meaning they can generally be perceived using the five senses. Song, incident, chemicals, taco, and breeze are concrete nouns because they can be heard, seen, smelled, tasted, and felt, respectively. Abstract nouns, on the other hand, denote ideas and concepts that cannot be physically perceived. Loneliness, confusion, despair, charm, and grace are abstract nouns because they cannot be determined using the senses.
A pronoun is a word that replaces or refers back to another word, usually a noun. The word that a pronoun refers to or takes the place of is called its antecedent. There are many types of pronouns; here is some of the most common types.
- Personal pronouns: They stand in for a previously mentioned person, place, thing or idea. I, we, they, and her are examples of personal pronouns. Based on their position and function, these pronouns can be subjective, possessive, objective, or reflexive.
- Subjective pronouns: These refer to the subject of the sentence. In “Barbara said that she does not like licorice,” she is the personal pronoun that replaces Barbara.
- Possessive pronouns: When the antecedent is a possession, its resulting pronoun is known as a possessive pronoun. In the sentence “I know what the wallet has in it because it is mine,” the antecedent wallet is replaced by mine. This indicates that the I in the sentence is the owner of the wallet.
- Objective pronouns: These refer to the object in a sentence, or the thing that receives an action. In “I heard your cousins like the group Menudo, so I sent them some concert tickets,” them replaces your cousins. Your cousins is the object of the sentence because it receives the verb action.
- Reflexive pronouns: As implied, these pronouns “reflect” their antecedents using the suffix –self or –selves. “I didn’t realize that you were talking to yourself” uses the reflexive pronoun yourself to refer back to you.
- Demonstrative pronouns: True to their name, these pronouns demonstrate—this one, that one, those. When using them, think about pointing to something; for example, “The red candies stain my fingertips, so I’ll take these instead.”
- Indefinite pronouns: These are just the opposite of demonstrative pronouns. Instead of pointing out specific things, indefinite pronouns refer to general or unknown things. For example, “Someone must have taken the last of the barbecue chips” or “I didn’t even get to eat any.” In these sentences, someone and any are indefinite pronouns that apply to an unknown person or food, respectively.
- Interrogative pronouns: Interrogative pronouns, like who, what, and which, are used to ask questions. “Who is coming over?” “What are you getting me for my birthday?” “Which child falls asleep fastest?”
- Relative pronouns: These use the same words as interrogative pronouns, but they function differently by fleshing out a sentence with details. “Ismail al-Jazari, who invented the flush mechanism we use in modern toilets, illustrated his designs with miniature paintings.”
Prepositions are words that show a relationship between two nouns, pronouns, or noun phrases. On is the preposition in the sentence “Xander put dinner on the table.” The preposition in “The drowsy toddler fell asleep under the table” is under. In “The sneaky dog skulked around the table,” around is the preposition.
A verb is a word of doing or being that falls into two categories: action verbs and linking verbs.
Action verbs describe what someone is doing, physically or otherwise. Dancing, dreaming, and denouncing are action verbs. Linking verbs do not indicate an action. Instead, they connect nouns to descriptive words. Is, seems, and becomes are linking verbs.
Verbs are written in tense form, the most common being present and past. Present tense indicates actions that are taking place. Past tense indicates completed actions. There are several other tenses that can be used in certain situations.
Adjectives and Adverbs
These are both types of modifying, descriptive words. Adjectives—like blue, tearful, unexpected, salty, and irrelevant—modify nouns by describing some aspect of them. There are also possessive adjectives, which operate like adjective-pronoun hybrids. For example: “The puppy wriggled under his blanket and went to sleep.” His replaces the puppy and indicates the puppy’s ownership of the blanket.
Adverbs are essentially adjectives for verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. In the sentence “They dance well,” the adverb well modifies the verb dance to describe the quality of the action. In “They dance very well,” the adverb very modifies well, further detailing how the action is being done.
Interjections are words that function as words only, usually to express strong emotions. Wow, um, dang, oops, and gee are interjections; they express things like shock or guilt without meaning “to shock” or “to feel guilty.” Words like yes, no, and OK could be considered interjections as well.
Conjunctions are joining words. They connect words, phrases, and clauses. There are three types of conjunctions: coordinating, correlative, and subordinating.
Coordinating conjunctions join two sentence components that are alike. They can connect:
- Nouns: “Kineks and Hamal disagree.” And is the conjunction connecting the nouns Kineks and Hamal (which, in this case, are also proper nouns referring to two people).
- Verbs: “Did you copyedit or proofread the document?” Or connects the verbs copyedit and proofread.
- Clauses: “He saw her, but she tried to hide.” The clauses He saw her and she tried to hide are connected by but.
- Phrases: “They live across the street and down the block.” The conjunction and joins across the street and down the block—both of which are prepositional phrases.
Correlative conjunctions serve the same function as coordinating conjunctions, but they always work in fixed pairs that cannot be swapped with other correlative conjunctions.
- “Both Jose and Jeanetta found the story funny.” Both and and are conjunctions connecting the nouns Jose and Jeanetta. This correlative pair indicates things that are combined.
- “Whether the sun comes out or the rain continues, we’ll make the most of the day.” The correlative pair whether/or indicates a choice between or likelihood of two things; in this case, the choice/likelihood being sunny weather or rainy weather.
- “Dennis neither swept nor mopped the floor.” Neither and nor connect swept and mopped. This correlative pair indicates a lack of choice, or the concept of nothingness. In this sentence, neither verb action has been completed.
- “I spilled ink not only on the table but also on the floor.” The prepositional phrases on the table and on the floor are connected by the correlative pair not only and but also. This is another pairing that indicates a choice or likelihood, but both things occur, rather than one or the other.
Subordinating conjunctions are words at the beginning of a dependent clause (a phrase unit that does not express a complete thought) that connects it to an independent clause (a phrase unit that creates a complete thought). These conjunctions indicate a causal and/or conditional relationship between the clauses.
- “They opened their own restaurant because there wasn’t a good one nearby.” Because is the conjunction that connects the dependent there wasn’t a good one nearby to the independent They opened their own restaurant. The causal relationship indicated by the conjunction is that the lack of a restaurant led to the opening of a restaurant.
- “The ship can move out of the harbor as soon as the fog lets up.” The clauses The ship can move out of the harbor (independent) and the fog lets up (dependent) are joined by as soon as. Here, the independent clause’s action (move out) is conditional on the dependent clause’s (lets up); the former can’t happen without the latter happening first.
- “We are going to eat grass until the cows come home.” the cows come home, the dependent clause, is separated from We are going to eat grass, the independent clause, by until. This is an example of a causal relationship; once the dependent clause’s action takes place, the independent clause’s action will end.
- “I avoid the number 13, even though I know that’s superstitious.” Even though separates the two clauses, which have a type of conditional relationship. While the information conveyed by the dependent clause (understanding superstition) should cancel out the independent clause’s action (avoiding 13), both are happening at the same time.
Articles classify a noun or noun phrase as definite or indefinite. There are only three such words: a, an, and the. The is the definite article—it denotes specificity. In the book, the contract, and the time I wish to forget, the indicates that a specific book, contract, and time are being discussed. A and an are used for nonspecific things. An orange, a job, and a clearance event refer to concrete things but don’t point to a specific orange, job, or clearance event.
In sentences, punctuation marks denote pauses and intent, which help divide sentences into more digestible pieces. While there are many types of punctuation, the following are the most essential.
A period (.) ends a declarative or imperative sentence, such as “This sentence is over.” It is a full stop—that is to say, if one was reading aloud and saw a period, they would stop and take a breath.
A comma (,) denotes a shorter pause in the middle of a sentence. Commas can perform many functions.
- They can separate items in a list: “Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and banana-pretzel are my four favorite flavors of ice cream.”
- They can separate independent clauses with two different subjects: “Marthe is making a batch of their famous brownies, and I am painting a still-life portrait of them.”
- They can separate an introductory element, such as a name, an adverb or adverbial phrase, or a subordinate clause, from the rest of a sentence: “Ezinne, do you want to take a walk into town with me?” “This time, you’ve gone too far.” “If you think I’m kidding, you’re in for a surprise.”
- In pairs, they can separate similar elements in the middle of a sentence: “Take these tickets to the show, Lido, and have a wonderful time.” “It’s a fantastic book, as a matter of fact, and it changed my life.” “Amii cooked the chicken and then, as they say on the farm, flew the coop.”
Think of semicolons (;) as a sort of super-comma. It causes readers to pause for a length of time between that of a period or comma. They are for instances where a comma isn’t quite strong enough, but a period would be too much. These are some examples:
- Joining two independent clauses with an adverbial transition: “Helen McKenna literally wrote the book on toilet repair; unfortunately, neither she nor her book is here to help us.”
- Replacing a coordinating conjunction: “The Frog Suit enables you to swim; the Tanooki Suit enables you to fly.”
- Separating lists with internal commas: “I put pinto beans, green beans, and carrots in my soup; but Nicole uses chicken, bell peppers, and poblano peppers.”
A question mark (?) ends a sentence that is asking a question: “Is that all you wanted to ask?” If the example was read aloud, the speaker would raise the pitch of their voice when they reached the end.
An exclamation point (!) ends a sentence that conveys intensity or excitement: “Everyone is going to love this sentence!” When reading aloud, the volume of the speaker’s voice would raise a bit at the end.
Sentence Construction Basics
There are no real parameters on how long a sentence can be. It can be as short as one word; for example, Go. is a complete sentence. Sentences can also be the length of a paragraph (though that is often frowned upon outside of creative writing). To make a collection of words into a sentence, it needs two parts: a subject and a predicate.
The subject is who or what the sentence is about; it is something or is doing something. A subject is almost always a noun or noun phrase.
The predicate is the part of the sentence that describes what the subject does or how or where the subject is; this part of the sentence contains the verb.
A phrase is a group of words that forms a single component. It works as a unit but doesn’t have both a subject and a verb. Phrases are not complete sentences. Here are some examples:
- “forgetting that I left the stove on”
- “during the interview”
- “because of his charming naivete”
- “stunned and not moving”
A clause is also a group of words that forms a single component. It works as a unit and contains both a subject and a verb. Some clauses could be complete sentences (these are independent clauses), while others are not (dependent clauses). But either way, they are considered sentence components.
- “because he isn’t worth the trouble” (dependent)
- “This is just between you and me” (independent)
- “where the streets have no names” (dependent)
- “My favorite song from George Michael’s album Faith is not ‘Faith’” (independent)
Types of Sentences
There are two classifications that sentence types are divided into: structure, which concerns a sentence’s complexity, and intent, which explains why the sentence is spoken or written.
There are four structures that sentences can have, based on the clauses in a sentence.
- Simple: A simple sentence contains only one independent clause and no dependent clauses. “No one is in the bathroom.”
- Complex: These sentences have one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. In “If you were wondering, the fridge is empty,” If you were wondering is the dependent clause, as it does not convey a full thought. the fridge is empty is the independent clause.
- Compound: Sentences of this type have more than one independent clause. “I walked past the classroom, and everyone was seated.” The two clauses separated by the conjunction and are both full thoughts, making them independent clauses.
- Compound-complex: These have more than one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. “Because you both need to do your homework, Jackie can use the desktop computer, and Francine can use my laptop.” The two independent clauses are Jackie can use the desktop computer and Francine can use my laptop; the dependent clause is Because you both need to do your homework.
Like structure, there are four types of sentence intent.
- Declarative: These sentences are simply an observation; the speaker or writer is saying something to inform, entertain, or make a statement. “I had a dream about falling snow.”
- Imperative: This type of sentence tells someone to do something. “Look up the directions to Harry’s house.”
- Interrogative: This is a question sentence. “Are we out of milk?”
- Exclamative: These express a strong emotion. “I can’t believe you forgot the birthday gift!”
Run-on Sentences and Fragments
Sometimes, a sentence leaves out key information or tries to fit too much information without utilizing the right punctuation. A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses follow one another without a connector, such as a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon; often, the two clauses should be two separate sentences.
For example, “I couldn’t find my glasses I need them to see.” is an obvious example of a run-on sentence because it contains two complete thoughts without adequate separation. There are three ways to fix this issue. First, the run-one sentence can be made into two sentences: “I couldn’t find my glasses. I need them to see.” The second way is adding a coordinating conjunction: “I couldn’t find my glasses, and I need them to see.” The final option is adding a semi-colon: “I couldn’t find my glasses; I need them to see.”
A sentence fragment, on the other hand, is a group of words that cannot be a sentence because it is missing either the subject or the predicate. “Dances very well, despite having had no formal training.” is a fragment because it’s unclear who is performing the action of dances very well. To fix the sentence, the subject must be added: “Clarabelle dances very well, despite having no personal training.” An example of a predicate-less fragment is: “Risotto, a traditional Italian dish featuring arborio rice.” Adding the predicate is my mother’s favorite dish fixes the sentence: “Risotto, a traditional Italian dish featuring arborio rice, is my mother’s favorite meal.”
Further Resources on Sentences
Strunk and White’s Elements of Style has been writers’ refresher course in grammar for generations. The writing is fun, and the advice is accessible and applicable.
Capital Community College Foundation’s Guide to Grammar and Writing demonstrates how to diagram (break into component parts) any type of sentence.
- Parts of speech