2011-08-06

Grappling With Grammar
The Sentence – Part II

Last week we discussed the different kinds of sentences. This week, I’d like to start by deconstructing a sentence so you know all the various parts, then I’d like to move on to the different ways a sentence can go wrong.

A sentence can be divided into two parts: the subject and the predicate. The simple predicate of a sentence is a verb. The simple subject is the noun or a noun substitute.

The bird (simple subject) sang (simple predicate).

The complete predicate includes the verb plus all its complements and modifiers. The complete subject includes the noun or noun substitute and all its complements and modifiers.

The blue bird (complete subject) sang incessantly (complete predicate).

We can continue to describe and modify both the subject and the predicate parts of the sentence.

The beautiful blue bird (complete subject) sang incessantly, until I wanted to shoot it (complete predicate).

Phrases and clauses are the building blocks of a sentence. A phrase is a group of related words that lacks both a subject and a predicate. Phrases come in two basic varieties: prepositional phrases and verbal phrases.

The bird is perched high in the tree (prepositional phrase).
The bird’s goal is to drive me crazy (verbal phrase).

A clause is a group of related words that contains a subject and a predicate. An independent or main clause is a complete sentence.

I gave up and bought earplugs.

A dependent or subordinate clause also contains a subject and predicate, but does not express a complete thought. It is not a sentence and cannot stand alone.

Perching high in the tree (dependent clause)
Perching high in the tree, the blue bird sang its beautiful song (dependent clause linked with main clause).

Now that we know what goes into making a sentence, let’s take a look at some of the ways a sentence can fail.

Sentence Fragments
A fragment is literally an incomplete piece. It’s a group of words sheared off from or never attached to the sentence. The group of words may lack a subject, a predicate, a complete thought, or any combination of the three. No matter what it lacks, it is not a grammatical sentence and should not stand alone. If you punctuate it as if it were a sentence, you have created a fragment.

This is one.

Fragments can be single words, brief phrases, or lengthy dependent clauses. The number of words is irrelevant. What matters is that the words do not meet the definition of a sentence. A common mistake is to look only for the subject and verb and, having found them, to believe you have written a complete sentence. Remember, a sentence expresses a complete thought.

Although the bird was beautiful

It contains a subject (the bird) and a verb (was) but does not express a complete thought. It is a dependent clause, a fragment. You have three choices to fix the fragment: rewrite the fragment to include all the parts it needs (subject, verb, complete thought); incorporate the fragment into a complete sentence; add to the fragment, making it a complete sentence.

The bird was beautiful. But annoying. (fragment)

The bird was beautiful. Unfortunately, it was also annoying. (complete thought)
The bird was beautiful but unfortunately it was also annoying. (rewritten to incorporate the fragment)
The bird was beautiful. It was annoying in that it wouldn’t shut up. (addition to fragment to form a complete sentence)

Some writers will tell you that fragments serve a useful purpose. In appropriate instances, to achieve particular effects, certain grammatical rules can be broken – and this is one o them. Purposeful fragments—consistent with the subject, the audience, and the medium—are a matter of style. Accidental fragments are a grammatical error.

Run-On Sentences

A run-on sentence doesn’t know when to quit. Rushing forward without proper punctuation, this construction may actually include two or three sentences. Length is not the issue here. A relatively short sentence, like the following one, can be a run-on.

The university announced a 20-percent tuition hike, students are calling for a daylong strike.

This sentence is actually two independent clauses run together with a comma. Using commas to link independent clauses (without a conjunction) almost always results in a run-on sentence. You may be more familiar with this error under its other name, the comma splice.

There are four ways to correct a run-on sentence:
1. Change the run-on sentence into two (or more) complete sentences.
2. If there is a close relationship between the complete thoughts, replace the comma with a semi-colon.
3. In a comma-splice run-on, connect the two sentences with a coordinating conjunction and a comma.
4. Rewrite the sentence making one of the independent clause dependent instead.

Dead Constructions

These constructions have little place in good writing: it is and there is. In most cases these words merely take up space, performing no function in the sentence. They not only add clutter but also often rob the sentence of its power.

There was a protest by angry animal-lovers today. (verb potential)
Angry animal-lovers protested today. (stronger verb)

In addition to strengthening the sentence by using an action verb, avoiding there is/there are constructions has another benefit: simpler subject-verb agreement. There is not usually a subject. Looking for the subject after the verb often creates agreement confusion. Avoid both the confusion and the dead construction by restructuring the sentences.

It is/there is constructions are not entirely without value. You might purposefully choose this structure to emphasize the subject and change the meter of the sentence.

It was the hobo who held the winning ticket. (emphasis)
The hobo held the winning ticket. (no emphasis)

A good rule to follow is this: if it is/there is merely takes up space in the sentence, restructure the sentence. If on occasion you want to emphasize the subject, use it is/there is, but use it sparingly.

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