The Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler defines sentences as the following:
- A group of words which makes sense.
- A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.
- A combination of words that completes a thought.
The Collins English Dictionary defines a sentences as "a sequence of words capable of standing alone to make an assertion, ask a question, or give a command, usually consisting of a subject and predicate containing a finite verb."
Sentences must be complete in thought and in construction. They should be clear, unambiguous, logical, and interesting to the listener or reader.
Sentences come in different sizes and shapes. Here is a sentence from the opening of Daniel Defoe's
The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719):
I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull: he got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznoer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called, nay, we call ourselves, and write our name Crusoe, and so my companions always call me.
If it were written today, it would appear like a paragraph below:
I was born in York in 1632, of a good family. My father came from Bremen and first settled at Hull, acquired his estate by trading merchandise, and then moved to York. There he met and married my mother, from a well established family in that country named Robinson. I was consequently named Robinson Kreutznoer, but in time my own name and that of our family was anglicized to Crusoe. That's what we're now called, that's how we write our name, and that's what my friends have always called me.
The example appears to defy the rules of what a sentence should be; nevertheless, it is still a valid sentence when placed in the correct context:
Jane turned abruptly from the window and faced him with blazing eyes.
"Well, you've finally done it! You realize we're all ruined, don' you? Don't you!"
"But ---!" Harry was squirming. Speechless.
"But ---!" adequately expresses a response and an action in the context. Despite its seeming incompleteness, it is nevertheless a sentence of a kind, although some grammarians would label it a sentence fragment.
Her expression conveyed everything. Disaster. Ruin. Utter ruin.
Three of the four sentences here are sentence fragments but are perfectly legitimate. Use fragments for emphasis only and with care.
The Long-winded Sentence
Long-winded sentences are rambling and unclear, a result of having too many ideas and related thoughts jammed into one sentence:
Jonathan Yeats, whose family moved to the United States from Ireland in the late 1950s, and who later married a Mormon girl from Wisconsin, wrote the novel in less than three months.
This sentence makes the reader asks the following questions: what has the novelist's family to do with his writing a book in record time? Did the Mormon girl help him? Why mention these facts?
A good sentence will be no longer than necessary, but this doesn't mean that you should chop all your sentence to a few words. To keep the reader alert and interested you need variety.
The Inner Workings of the Classic Sentence
A sentence is a combination of two units:
The Subject The Predicate
Your book is over there.
Dr. Smith has examined the last patient.
Usually, the subject is in the initial position in sentences. However, sentences that begin with the predicate may sound awkward but are still grammatical.
The Predicate The Subject
Appeared over the horizon, an immense armada.
Sometimes the subject of a sentence is buried or disguised:
How many more times must we do this long journey?
Interrogative sentences often transposes the subject and the predicate. The subject here is "we."
Take this load of rubbish to the shop for a refund.
In an imperative sentence the subject is implied.
(Will you please) Take this load of rubbish to the shop for a refund or (You) Take this load of rubbish to the shop for a refund.
Quite often both the subject and predicate of a sentence can consists of two or more parts, or compounds (compound subjects and compound predicates):
Subject Subject Predicate
French and English literature were not Andy's favorite courses.
Subject Predicate Predicate
The three lads partied at night and recovered by day.
The subject phrase is composed of at least a noun and its modifiers. The predicated can be complicated. It can consist of a single verb or a number of elements that describe, modify, or supply extra information.
Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex Sentences
Single-word expression, sighs, catchphrases, greetings, and so on are called irregular, fragmentary, or minor sentences. Sentences that are constructed to express complete, independent thoughts are called regular sentences, and these are divided into simple, compound, and complex sentences.
A simple sentence consists of a single main clause:
The storm brought down all the power lines.
A compound sentence consists of two or main clauses:
The new art show opened today, and the crowd was immense.
When you have a main and a subordinate clause, you have a complex sentence:
The spacecraft that caused the emergency was considered obsolete.
Consisting of two main clauses and a subordinate clause is a compound-complex sentence.
When the play ended, the curtains closed, and the audience applauded.
Be careful with confusing or overloading the reader by having too many clauses in one sentence.
Types of Regular Sentences
A declarative sentence makes a statement:
A rose bush grew in the garden.
An interrogative sentence asks a question:
Is that a rose bush in the garden?
An exclamatory sentence expresses an emotion:
Do not pick the roses from that bush!
Another aspect of a sentence is that it can express thoughts or actions positively or negatively:
I like eating in restaurants. (positive sentence)
I don't like eating in restaurants. (negative sentence)
The difference may seem obvious in these two examples but a sentence can damage itself with inclusion -- sometimes unconsciously -- of double negatives and near or quasi-negatives.
I don't know nothing. (non-standard double negative)
It was a not unusual sight to see the heron flying away. (acceptable double negative)
I hardly saw nobody at the sale. (negative and quasi-negative)
There is no question that Robert will pay the debt. (negative, but the no question is intended to positively express "no doubt whatsoever")
I can't help but applaud her generosity. (intended to be positive but grammatically the sentence expresses a negative sense)
The second example is a litotes, an elegant form of understatement expressed by denying a negative:
She's not a bad cook means She's quite a good cook.
The effect is by no means negligible means The effect is quite noticeable.
Sometimes it is better to express negative thoughts in a positive way. She is not beautiful or She's by no means of beautiful are not only negative but vague--she could be statuesque or handsome. A more positive and precise description might be She is rather homely.
The Voice of a Sentence
The voice of a sentence is the kind of verbal inflection used to express whether the subject acts (active voice) or is acted upon (passive voice).
Her boyfriend bought the ring.
The ring was bought by her boyfriend.
Generally, we use the active voice while the passive voice is reserved mostly for technical, scientific, and academic writing.
The Mood of a Sentence
Another quality of a sentence is its "mood," or more accurately the mood of its verb--another kind of verbal inflection used to express the speaker's intention in a sentence, such as making a statement (indicative), giving a command (imperative), or posing a hypothetical situation (subjunctive).
She's tired and exhausted.
Call me tomorrow.
If I were you, I'd tell them about it.
We often use the subjunctive mood without being aware of it I (I wish you were here, God save the Queen, So be it, If I were you, I'd . . .) perhaps because such utterances are idiomatic, it is nevertheless the mood that gives us the most trouble.
No wonder the Liberal Party turned him down as a possible candidate, suggesting he went away and came back with a better public image.
No wonder the Liberal Party turned him down as possible candidate, suggesting he go away and come back with a better public image.
You can add "should" to make it more readable:
No wonder the Liberal Party turned him down as a possible candidate, suggesting that he should go away and come back with a better public image.
The correct use of the subjunctive mood can look strange (i.e. Although he die now, his name will live on). Most writers tend to avoid or ignore the subjunctive, so that sentences such as I insist that he is sacked (I insist that he be sacked) and It is to be hoped that she stops her bad behavior (It is to be hoped that she stop her behavior) are now considered acceptable.
Ellipsis: Trimming Away Sentence Fat
When the children were called to the dinner table, they came immediately to the dinner table.
Harry Green had more coins in his collection than Thomas had coins in his collection.
When the children were called to the dinner table, they came immediately.
Harry Green had more coins in his collection than Thomas had in his.
The reason we can get away with omitting part of the structure of sentences is that, if the listener or reader is paying attention, he or she will automatically supply the missing words form the context of what is being said or written.
We resort ellipsis constantly in our everyday communicating:
Leaving already? means (Are you) leaving already?
See you! means (I will) see you (later, tomorrow, etc.)
Coming? means (Are you) coming (with me)?
Sometimes our economizing extends to dropping what were once considered important words in the sentence.
He was unceremoniously kicked out the door.
That hat Rita bought is a total disaster.
Such sentences are considered informal, although their meanings are perfectly clear. If a person greets a guest with, "I am delighted that you could come," isn't the person being too informal? More likely, the greeting would be, "I am delighted you could come!"
Although omitting that in sentences may now be acceptable, remember that it can sometimes lead to ambiguity. At the other extreme is the multiple that: "He pointed out that that in the sentence was superfluous. What can you do about that?"
Harmony in the Sentence
The most important principle in the construction of sentences is what is called harmony--or concord, consistency, or parallelism--meaning that all the units in a sentence must agree and harmonize with each other. We can spot most inharmonious constructions because they usually jar:
February is usually a succession of rain, hail, and snowing.
February is usually a succession of rain, hail, and snow or In February, it is usually either raining, hailing, or snowing.
Phrases in a sentence should match, too.
Bad grammar is like having bad breath--even your best friends won't tell you.
Bad grammar is like bad breath--even your best friends won't tell you.
Using bad grammar is like having bad breath--even your best friends won't tell you.
Misplaced conjunctions are another source of discord in sentences.
They had to agree either to visit the museum or the gallery.
The house was not only affected with woodworm but also by years of neglect.
They had to agree to visit either the museum or the gallery.
The house was affected not only by woodworm but also by years of neglect.
Another form of discord is the shift from active to passive voice sentence, or vice versa.
My father painted those pictures, which were left to me.
To achieve harmony, keep the same voice:
My father painted those pictures, and left them to me.
Those pictures, which were left to me, were painted by my father.
The sentence that uses the active voice is easier to read.
Discord is created when a sentence mixes personal and impersonal points of view:
The student should always exercise care and judgment because you will never succeed with slipshod thinking.
The student should always exercise care and judgment because he or she will never succeed with slipshod thinking or Students should always exercise care and judgment because they will never succeed with slipshod thinking.
Faulty word order or misplaced modifiers in the sentence can create confusion and chaos:
I saw you in my underwear!
The sentence could mean either I saw you when I was wearing only my underwear or I saw you, wearing my underwear!
If all the factors that can result in disharmony in a sentence, the most prevalent is disagreement between the verb with its subject. A singular subject requires a singular verb, and a plural subject requires the plural form of a verb.
We was furious at the umpire's crazy decision.
We were furious at the umpire's crazy decision.
Notice the difference when using a collective noun:
The team was furious at the umpire's crazy decision.
Starting a Sentence with And and But
There is no rule to say that you can't begin a sentence or a paragraph with the conjunction but. When you want to express doubt or outright disagreement, beginning a sentence with but can emphasize and dramatize your point.
There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles, the Second. But the seaman were not gentlemen; ad the gentlemen were not seamen.
As Winston Churchill, one of the most expert users of the language, once wrote, "I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence -- which is a noble thing." It is worth remembering the hierarchy in which it exists:
- A word consists of one or more morphemes (speech element).
- A phrase consists of one or more words.
- A clause consists of one or more phrases.
- A sentence consists one or more clauses.
- A paragraph consists one or more sentences.
Collins Good Writing Guide. Glasgow: Harper Collins Publisher, 2005. Print.