Grammar AdviceGrammar, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2004

Sentence Structure 101

One of the first things we learned in English class was the definition of a sentence: a group of words that expresses a complete thought, containing a subject (the person, place or thing about which something is said) and a verb (the action word or words referencing the subject). By this definition, you could make a sentence from two words, such as: I study.

To make our writing appealing and interesting to our readers, however, we should go beyond the two-word sentence and vary how we construct our sentences, using:

· Simple Sentences. These can vary in length, but express only one thought and may contain more than one subject and verb. Example: My best friend and I study every afternoon and complete our assignments. (Subjects: friend, I; Verbs: study, complete)

· Compound Sentences. Expressing two or more related thoughts, compound sentences are joined by either a semicolon or a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet). When constructing a compound sentence, each complete thought should be able to stand alone as a simple sentence. Example: My best friend and I study every afternoon; we strive to complete our assignments quickly.

· Complex Sentences. When a sentence contains at least one complete thought and one or more incomplete thoughts (phrases), you have constructed a complex sentence. Incomplete thoughts begin with words such as after, although, as, as long as, before, unless, though, since, when, if and while. Example: Because my best friend and I study every afternoon, we complete our assignments quickly.

Once you understand the architecture of these three sentence types, you can sprinkle your writing with a variety of sentence structures, while always being alert for certain pitfalls:

Sentence Fragment – When a period is used after a part of a sentence that does not express a complete thought, this is known as a "sentence fragment." Example of sentence fragment: You study every afternoon. Which allows you to complete your assignments quickly.

Loose Hook-up – This occurs when a compound or complex sentence contains unrelated thoughts. Be careful with excessive use of "and" and "but" to try to connect loosely related ideas; even if the grammar and punctuation are correct, the sentence is faulty. Example: My best friend and I study every afternoon, but my little sister takes dancing lessons on Saturday.

Word Omission – Omissions of necessary words results in awkward and unclear writing. It is never advisable to sacrifice clarity for brevity, as your reader will then have to supply the missing words. Example: Studied all afternoon. Assignments completed.

Comma Fault – Placing a comma between two complete thoughts creates a "comma fault." Example: My best friend and I study every afternoon, we complete our assignments quickly. To avoid comma faults, try one of the following:

· Place periods at the end of each complete thought.
· Place a semicolon between the complete thoughts.
· Place a comma and a coordinating conjunction between the complete thoughts.
· Begin the sentence with an incomplete thought followed by a comma, then end the sentence with a complete thought.

It is extremely important that sentences are coherent, with words and thoughts connected in proper relationships to avoid misunderstanding on the part of the reader. Always proofread your writing to ensure that the meaning of each sentence is clear, based on these guidelines:

Placement of Sentence Parts: Make sure that words are placed with the unit of thought to which they are related. Misplacing even one word can change the meaning of a sentence, as demonstrated in the following examples:

1. Only I study in the afternoon. (I alone study in the afternoon.)

2. I only study in the afternoon. (I never do anything else in the afternoon.)

3. I study only in the afternoon. (I never study any other time.)

Parallel Construction: Ideas of equal value in a sentence should be expressed in the same form to help the reader recognize the similarity of the ideas. Study these examples of "wrong" and "corrected" parallel construction:

1. (Wrong) When I study in the afternoon, I read my textbook, write my essays and to improve my spelling. (Corrected) When I study in the afternoon, I read my textbook, write my essays and improve my spelling.

2. (Wrong) The three objectives of studying in the afternoon are: (1) to complete assignments quickly, (2) learning to spell and (3) making a good grade. (Corrected) The three objectives of studying in the afternoon are: (1) completing assignments quickly, (2) learning to spell and (3) making a good grade.

Complete Comparison: When making comparisons in your sentences, supply all the words needed to complete the comparative thought.

1. (Wrong) I study faster. (Corrected) I study faster than my best friend.

2. (Wrong) I have been studying longer. (Corrected) I have been studying longer than anyone else in my class.

Pronoun Reference: (This is my worst editing nightmare.) The word to which a pronoun refers must be clear to the reader. It, he, she, they, you and this take the place of nouns (person, places or things), and must agree with the nouns to which they refer so that a consistent viewpoint is maintained. If your reader has to re-read the sentence to determine the noun to which the pronoun refers, then your sentence is faulty.

1. (Wrong) After studying with my best friend, she thought we would get a good grade. (Corrected) After studying with me, my best friend thought we would get a good grade.

2. (Wrong) A student who completes assignments quickly will turn in their work on time. (Corrected) Students who complete assignments quickly will turn in their work on time.

The English language is one of the most difficult languages in the world; there are rules, and then there are exceptions to those rules.
Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.
Subscribe
Chat With Us