A Basic English Sentence
Parts of Speech
The Passive Voice
Imperative (a command)
Proper Use of the Apostrophe
Other Common Errors
in Written English
What is a sentence?
A sentence expresses a complete thought. A sentence can be a single word, like Stop! but most sentences are longer. Let's look at a few examples.
He likes cookies.
She built the fence.
They will fix the car.
The above are all complete thoughts, and therefore, complete sentences.
The following are not complete thoughts, and therefore they are not complete sentences.
Built the fence.
They sound strange. He likes what? Who built the fence? They fix what?
In each "sentence" some piece of information is missing, and that is why they sound strange. Because there is information missing, we don't understand what the writer is trying to tell us. These are called sentence fragments. There is another sentence fragment on this page, below; can you spot it? Hint: near Jack and Jill.
Nobody talks like that. Make sure you don't write like that. Make sure all of your sentences are complete sentences.Back to Contents
Most sentences have three basic parts: a subject, a verb, and an object, often abbreviated SVO. The basic structure is
Someone or Something (the subject) does something (the verb) to someone or something (the object). Example:
She built the fence.
The Object is whoever or whatever receives the action of the verb. Most often the object will be a noun (or nouns) or pronoun (or pronouns), but sometimes the object is something else. In addition, prepositions and participles also have objects.
See Verb, below, for more details.
A noun is a person, a place, a thing, or a quality. Both things and qualities can be difficult to understand. See the grey box below.
|Person:||Jack, Mrs. Robinson, the butler, Elmer Fudd|
|Place:||Edmonton, the moon, Greece|
|Thing:||cat, sausage, attention, idea, shoe, room, butler, moon|
|Quality:||bravery, courage, stupidity, swiftness, slowness, uselessness, helpfulness|
|Things and qualities might be abstract concepts. Something abstract exists mostly (or entirely) in the human mind; it's an idea or thought. As an example, think about the word fairness: you can't touch fairness, or feel it, or buy it, or package and sell it. It only exists as an idea. Fairness is an abstract concept. There are also overlapping ideas: a word like "butler" can represent both a person and a thing (an abstract concept), as in: "A butler should polish the silver". The word "butler" in that sentence does not refer to any particular butler, but any butler, or the general concept of "butler".|
A verb is a word which describes either the state (as in condition) of something, or an action. There are three types of verbs. Let's look at each in turn, with examples.
Copulative verbs join two parts of a sentence, and indicate the state or condition of some thing, some place, or some person. Examples (the verbs are in italics):
London is a city.
There was an election.
Your jeans become faded.
Resistance is futile.
The stick turned blue.
Transitive verbs indicate an action performed by a subject upon someone or something else. As explained above, the structure is: A (the subject) does something (this is the verb) to B (the object, whoever or whatever receives the action). Thus we have the basic English sentence, subject-verb-object. Let's colour-code them:
|Green = Subject||Black = Verb||Red = Object|
She fed the dog.
They bought a car.
I hate turnips.
In complex (long) sentences, it may be difficult to see the basic subject-verb-object structure. Look at this one; it is colour-coded, as above: the subject and everything related to it is green, the verb black, and the object red:
After much worry, and having given up on relationships, Jill, who completed her Ph.D. last spring, finally married the man who used to be her best friend's lover, and whose dog loves tomato juice, Jack, in secret.
A needlessly complex sentence. When you strip away everything else, the basic statement, the fundamental thought expressed, the subject-verb-object group, is:
Jill married Jack.
All the rest of that crap is just extra information about the subject (Jill), the object (Jack), and the verb (married; see adverbs, below). Notice that in secret (which describes how they got married) is separated from the verb. Words which go together are not always right beside each other.
Still, there is a middle ground. Some variety is a good thing. An endless string of three-word sentences sounds like that's about the author's age.Back to Contents
Intransitive verbs do not have an object: there is nothing receiving the action of the verb. Examples (verbs in italics):
You will die.
Note that some verbs have both a transitive and intransitive usage, just to confuse us:
She runs (intransitive); She runs a business (transitive - a business is the object of runs).
The Passive Voice is a mind-bending concept: the action of the verb is performed upon the subject by someone or something else. In that case, who or what actually performs the action is expressed (if at all) as an agent, typically using the word by. Examples (passive verbs are in italics):
The report was criticized by everyone.
My horse was trained by experts.
You will be assimilated.
The house was destroyed.
The house was destroyed by a bomb.
The passive voice is widely (and with good reason) condemned as being colloquial and ambiguous. The identity of the agent (the real performer of the action) can remain anonymous. It is not considered good form.
Did you notice that the previous paragraph contains passive constructions? Exactly who is it considers the passive to be bad form? You don't know. I didn't say. Note the agent in the last example sentence: a bomb. That still doesn't tell us who is really responsible. Bombs do not build, plant, and detonate themselves. I hope you see my point.
Impersonal verbs are another odd concept: they have no real subject at all. Impersonal constructions often start with "It is" or "There are". Examples:
There are five roads.
There were two of us.
It is four o'clock.
It is windy.
It is raining.
"It" is raining? What exactly is "it"? We could say that "it" is the clouds, but then why not say "The clouds are raining"? You could, but people might look at you funny. We just don't say it like that. It's one of those peculiarities of English.
Imperative is the form of verb that indicates a direct order or command. Examples:
In every case, there is something missing: the subject. This is perfectly fine, because the subject, you, is understood. In the last example (Stop!) both the subject and the object are understood.
Exactly what the subject is supposed to stop doing is understood from the context (the situation in which the command is given). If you see someone running down the street, and someone else yells Stop!, then what they are to stop is running. The complete sentence is:
You stop running.
Infinitive - The infinitive is the form of the verb with the word "to" in front; often used in definitions:
to boldly go
The meaning of the infinitive is really something like the concept or idea of x. For example, "to run" can be thought of as the concept of running. Because of this - and here's a mind-bender - infinitives can act like nouns, and often do. You may have heard this, or something similar:
To err is human, to forgive (is) divine.
She hates to run.
In sentences like that above, it is also common to find the form of the verb that ends in -ing instead of the infinitive:
She hates running.
|To boldly split infinitives - English infinitives are peculiar, because they are not real infinitives, they are prepositional phrases (to is a preposition; see below). Some people say splitting an infinitive is bad form. Splitting an infinitive means placing another word(s) between the to and the verb, as in to boldly go. I can't understand the objection. There are no problems placing words between other prepositions and the words they modify, as in Let's go to the beautiful green house today. In other words, objecting to split infinitives is the same as objecting to split prepositional phrases - which, as far as I know, is not a problem.|
A word which indicates (replaces) a noun without naming it.
Familiar to everyone are the personal pronouns:
|1st Person||I, my, mine, me||we, our, us|
|2nd Person||you, your(s)||you, your(s)|
|3rd Person||he, his, him
she, her(s), her
|they, their(s), them|
Other common pronouns are: this, these, that, those, who, which, anyone, no-one, everyone, anything, someone, something, whoever, whatever, etc.
Who and whom are pronouns which cause huge problems. The rule is quite simple, really: if it is acting as a subject, use who, otherwise use whom. Definitely use whom if it comes right after a preposition (little words like by, with, from, in, on, to, for). For whose (possession), see below. If you don't know what a subject is, click here.
As a simple test, replace who with he or she or they in its expression; if all three sound funny, you probably need whom. Here are some examples. Try the substitutions.
You were speaking to the man who owns the place.
The man who you were speaking to is the owner.
This is incorrect. Who refers to (the) man and is the object of the preposition to. That fact is disguised by the word order.
Fix the word order first: who you were speaking to = to who you were speaking
Test: to who you were speaking > to he (or she or they) you were speaking. Sounds funny. Whom is needed here, because it is the object of to. We don't say "to he" or "to she", we say "to him" and "to her".
Whom would you like to give the money to?
|Note: Ending a sentence with a preposition (to in this case) is generally considered bad form.|
Whom is again the object of the preposition to; this is a question, so whom is unknown and doesn't refer to another person in the sentence.
The girl who knew the answer wouldn't tell us.
There is the woman whose husband eats roses.
A word which describes a noun by expressing some quality of it:
|small house||bad dog|
|green peas||preposterous suggestion|
|great idea||uplifting speech|
|depressing movie||tall tree|
In English, adjectives usually come before the word they describe, as in the examples. You can use more than one at a time:
The big bad wolf.
Multiple adjectives are generally separated by commas:
The big, bad, ugly, purple, stupid, bald, mean, kleptomaniac wolf.
Adjectives have three Degrees of Comparison, referred to as the Positive, Comparative, and Superlative degrees. There are several ways of forming the different degrees. Many of the most common adjectives are irregular.
Comparison of Adjectives
|evil||more evil||most evil|
|beautiful||more beautiful||most beautiful|
A word which qualifies a verbal action (including participles), or an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs refer to manner (how an action is done), space, place, direction, and time, and concepts like how much and to what extent (quantity or degree); many English adverbs end in -ly. Examples:
|Adverb(s) (in italics)||Tells us||Refers to|
|They went down.||Where did they go||Space/Direction|
|badly worn||How or how much is it worn||Manner/Degree|
|well informed||How informed||Manner/Degree|
|Go away!||Where to go||Space/Place|
|He speaks loudly||How he speaks||Manner|
|as soon as possible||When is it possible||Time|
|a boldly green door||How green||Degree|
|a very green door||How green||Degree|
|more than enough||How much||Quantity|
|too many||How many||Quantity|
|too much||How much||Quantity|
|far from here||Where||Space/Place|
|really brilliant idea||How brilliant||Degree|
|very badly lit||How lit||Manner/Degree|
|to boldly go||How to go||Manner|
Like Adjectives, Adverbs have Degrees of Comparison:
Comparison of Adverbs
|badly||more badly||most badly|
|swiftly||more swiftly||most swiftly|
A word which indicates how a noun or pronoun is related to another word. The word a preposition goes with is called its object. Prepositions give information about relationships like how and where; some common prepositions are: to, for, from, out (of), by, with, without, along, beside, between, behind, before, after, on, onto, upon, under, over, in, into, at, of, near, across, through, etc.
Prepositions usually come right before the word they modify (their object), but there can also be words in between:
Let's go to the house.
Let's go to the beautiful green house.
The preposition may also be somewhere else entirely in the sentence, such as:
Where do you want to take the gifts to?
Whom do you want to give the gifts to?
Separating a preposition from its object is not a problem, as long as the meaning is clear; ending a sentence with a preposition, however, is generally frowned upon.
|Note: Some prepositions are also adverbs, just to confuse you: You are falling behind (adverb, refers to space/place); I put it behind the box (preposition; the box is the object of the preposition; in the previous example behind has no object, so it must be an adverb).|
A word which connects words, phrases, clauses, or even complete sentences: and, if, also, or, but, etc. They often help convey information about purpose, result, time, or conditions: although, since, because, after, when.
|Note: Some conjunctions are also adverbs and/or prepositions, to confuse you further: We may begin, since everyone is here (conjunction); I haven't seen him since (adverb); She has been gone since May (preposition; May is the object of since).|
There are two articles: the indefinite (a or an) and definite (the)
They are in fact weak demonstrative pronouns, but you don't need to know that. They are used with nouns to indicate specificity, either a particular noun, or one of a group:
A smart dog learns quickly.
A in that sentence refers to any member of a category identified as smart dogs. This is the indefinite usage, since it does not refer to any particular dog.
The smart dog learned quickly.
The refers to one particular dog, not any member of a group.
The good die young.
He helps the needy and the poor.
The wicked go directly to hell.
She is a master of the absurd.
This is a form of the verb which is used as an adjective or noun. Present participles end in -ing, and many past participles end in -ed. Like verbs, participles have a subject, can take an object, and they can be modified by adjectives and adverbs:
|The running people||adjective||people||-|
|The talking bird||adjective||bird||-|
|A truck belching smoke||adjective||truck||smoke|
|A man lacking strength||adjective||man||strength|
|They love singing||noun||-||singing is the object of love|
|The painted gate||adjective||gate||-|
|A rented car||adjective||car||-|
|The chosen people||adjective||people||-|
|Running ruined his knees.||noun||Running is the subject of ruined||-|
Dangling Participles are a very common error. A dangling participle has no identifiable subject. Just as with other forms of the verb, the subject is whoever or whatever performs the action of that participle. There is no such thing as an impersonal participle; they must have a subject. Example:
Considering the amount of damage, it's odd there is no outcry for the government to get involved.
Who is doing the considering? We have no idea. Rather like the passive voice, dangling participles are sloppy and ambiguous.
Incidentally, the fact that the participle has no subject would be screamingly obvious if you were to translate this sentence into certain languages (Latin comes to mind). You would have to rewrite it. Something like this, perhaps: When you consider the amount of damage, it's odd there is no outcry for the government to get involved. Not elegant, perhaps, but an improvement.Back to Contents
The Apostrophe is NOT used to indicate a plural, with a few exceptions - click here.
Apostrophes indicate possession or contraction. Let's look at some examples.
I. Possession - indicating that something belongs to something or someone. The normal way to indicate possession is to add 's (apostrophe + s). Words that already end in -s are treated differently; see below.
A. Words that do not end in -s
In the last sentence, what it is that Jack possesses is understood, and not expressed: Jack's house, or Jack's apartment, etc. Any of those sentences can be rewritten using of to indicate possession, instead of the apostrophe:
Note that saying the house of Jack's is redundant - you are indicating possession twice: once with of, and again with 's
B. Words that end in -s. Possession is normally indicated by adding an apostrophe after the final -s. With personal names, it is also acceptable to add apostrophe + s.
NOTE that many English words form the plural by adding -s or -es or -ies.
These sentences can also be rewritten using of:
C. Plurals that do not end in -s are treated just like other words that do not end in -s, as in scenario A, above: men - men's, women - women's.
D. ITS as opposed to IT'S
IT'S is a contraction of it is, as in: I think it's going to rain.
ITS indicates possession, as in The dog was chasing its tail. Its is a possessive pronoun, like my, mine, your, her(s), his, and their.
If you aren't sure if it's is correct, try expanding it to it is; if it makes no sense, you've got it wrong:
I think it's going to rain > I think it is going to rain.
The dog was chasing it's tail > The dog was chasing it is tail.
Incorrect. This makes no sense.
II. Contraction - indicating that something is shortened or abbreviated. This most often involves short words like is, are, has, have, and not. Here are some examples of contracted and uncontracted words. By the way, try to avoid such contractions in formal writing.
|The cat's asleep.||The cat is asleep.|
|Fred's left.||Fred has left.|
|They couldn't do it.||They could not do it.|
|Jack's not here.||Jack is not here.|
|They're gone.||They are gone.|
|They've left.||They have left.|
III. Exceptions - when an apostrophe CAN be used to indicate a plural.
Personally, I completely disagree with this usage. I think it is sloppy, ambiguous, and it has caused endless confusion about when you should use an apostrophe. However...
I don't know who decided this or why, but apparently you may use an apostrophe to indicate a plural IF you are pluralizing an abbreviation or an acronym or something that we don't normally think of as having a plural state. Examples:
I remember the 1980's.
They have several size 12's.
I have lots of CD's.
The above are potentially confusing: The 1980's what? Lots of CD's what?
What about this:
I have lots of CDs from the 1980s.
The meaning is perfectly clear, without any confusing apostrophes.Back to Contents
Have a look at this web site by Paul Brians for the most common mistakes: