When we use a language the basic tool for making it useful is the "sentence". Whether in speech or in writing the molecule of a language is the sentence. It is made up of the "atoms", the words. With just words, unordered words, we would be capable, in speech, only of making noises. As is the case with all other animals we would have only a very limited ability to communicate with each other. Words only would permit little transference of ideas or concepts. It is the grouping of words according to the rules of grammar that raise human beings above the level of beasts.

A sentence may be defined as a group of words which, when spoken or written, makes sense. Sentences may be simple or complex but all have just two parts, a subject and a predicate. The subject is the word or group of words which denotes the thing about which something is being said or written. The predicate is that which is being said or written about the subject.

There are groups of words which are not nonsensical but which do not amount to sentences. These are "phrases" and "clauses". A phrase is a group of words that can replace another part of speech. An example may help

Consider the sentence

"Knowledge is his desire."

The word "knowledge" is a noun.

In the sentence

"To see the match is his desire"

the single word "knowledge" has been replaced by the group of words "to see the match". These are two different sentences with two different meanings but the group of words in the second replaces the single word in the first. This group of words is a "phrase". In this case it is a "noun phrase" because this group of words is doing the work of the single word "knowledge", a noun, in the first sentence. A phrase may replace other parts of speech and may then be called an adjectival phrase, if it takes the place of an adjective, or an adverbial phrase if it replaces an adverb.

A "clause" is also a group of words forming part of a sentence but is different from a phrase in that it must always contain a finite verb. In the sentence

"I know Fred."

the word "Fred" is a noun. (In this case a proper noun, but we shall come later to the difference between common and proper nouns.)

In the sentence

"I know what you said."

the group of words "what you said" is a clause. It contains the verb "said". This clause replaces the noun "Fred" in the first sentence and contains the finite verb "said". It is, therefore, a noun clause, not a phrase. The phrase, above, contains the infinitive part of the verb "see", "to see" not a finite part of the verb.

To conclude this elementary consideration of the composition of a sentence it is now only necessary to see how to recognise its two parts, the subject and the predicate. To identify the subject it is only necessary to take the verb and ask the question "who?" or "what?". Again, an example will clarify the matter.

Consider the sentence

"This consideration is finished."

What is "finished"? The "consideration". This, then, the "consideration" is the subject of the sentence. Everything else is the predicate. The noun (or pronoun) is the indispensible part of the subject whereas the verb is the vital part of the predicate.

Sentences themselves can be classified according to the meaning that they intend to convey. They may be "statements", "questions", "desires" or "exclamations". The first of these classifications is by far the most common. Sometimes questions have the same form as statements. A "question mark" (?) at the end of a question is the punctuation mark that identifies a question in written work. An "exclamation mark" (!) serves the same purpose for an exclamation. A change in voice intonation identifies both in speech. A question is usually expressed with a raised or higher tone especially at the end of the question. An exclamation is most often made with some urgent or emphatic tone. Desires, which may include "commands", "requests", "entreaties" and "wishes" are not usually identified by a punctuation mark although some may be terminated with an exclamation mark. In both speech and written form they are most easily identified by the sentiment expressed and words used.

Grammatically sentences can, as mentioned above, be either simple or complex. This classification is independent of that given in the previous paragraph, any of which may be simple or complex. It is not necessary to go to such depths in this basic examination of grammar so just the definitions of simple and complex will be given here. A simple sentence is one which has only one predicate. A complex sentence is one that has a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses.

For all practical purposes at this level it is sufficient to understand that a sentence is a group of words that make sense in saying something about a subject. Not being fully conversant with the other details given above and of matters not pursued here will not prevent you from writing and speaking in good, plain English.













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