Sentence level. Simple sentence



Sentence: definition and properties

Communicative properties of simple sentences

Structural properties of simple sentences

Sentence parsing

Actual division of the sentence

Practical tasks and assignments


Sentence: definition and properties

A sentence is the integral unit of speech (either a word or a group of words) built according to a definite syntactic pattern and having a contextually relevant communicative purpose.

A sentence:

  • Presents referents as making up a certain situation
  • Expresses predication (the attributing of characteristics to a subject to produce a meaningful statement combining verbal and nominal elements)
  • Is a unique unit created by a speaker
  • Has certain intonation pattern
  • Has illocutionary force (the basic purpose of a speaker in making an utterance and particular presuppositions and attitudes).

The difference between  a sentence and a clause:

  • A sentence is a combination of words that contains at least one subject and a the predicate (if a subject is absent, but “implied” , the combination , though elliptical, is still a sentence)
  • A sentence, which is part of a larger sentence, is called a clause

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Communicative properties of simple sentences

As a sentence is a primary unit of communication, here exists a classification of sentences depending on the purpose of communication. These types of sentences also have special syntactic structures:

1)       A declarative sentence states a fact in the affirmative or negative form, e.g. He goes everywhere. He doesn’t go anywhere.

2) An interrogative sentence asks a question. In English it is usually formed by means of inversion, i.e. by placing the predicate (or the part of it) before the subject.

There are four types of interrogative sentences in English:

a)    general questions requiring answers yes or no, e.g. Do you live here?

b)    special questions beginning with an interrogative word, e.g. Where do you live?

c)     alternative questions, indicating choice, e.g. Do you live in London or in Birmingham?

d)    disjunctive (tail) questions requiring the answer yes or no and consisting of an affirmative statement followed by a negative question, or a negative statement followed by an affirmative question, e.g. You live here, don’t you? You don’t live here, do you?

3) an imperative sentence serving to induce a person to do something, so it expresses a command, a request, an invitation, etc., e.g. Come here!

4) Exclamations are initial phrases introduced by WHAT or HOW without the inversion of subject and operator, e.g. What wonderful weather! How wonderful the weather is!

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Structural properties of simple sentences

The content of each simple sentence reflects some real situation. Thus, each sentence is a system of function-expressing elements.

These nominating elements of the sentence are:

The subject is a person-modifier of the predicate. This function is mainly fulfilled by noun phrases, but may also be fulfilled by a subordinate clause, or a gerundial or infinitive phrase.

e.g. My son went to university in Wales.

To perform at Madison Square Gardens was her highest ambition. 

The predicate is a process-modifier of the subject-person: it means that the predicate completes an idea about the subject, such as what it does or what it is like.

e.g. The lorry braked hard.

None of the supporters had seen the goal.

All my three remaining grandparents are deaf.

The object completes or restricts the meaning of a verb or, sometimes, an adjective.

e.g. Seven baby frogs crossed the path in front of me (direct object)

Jennifer sent her boss a postcard.(indirect + direct objects)

She dyed her hair red. (direct complex object)

Mary made me successful. (direct complex object)

The adverbial is a quality-modifier (in a broad sense) of a processual part or the whole of the sentence.

e.g. The train pulled away from the station very slowly (adverbial modifier of time + adverbial modifier of manner).

In a moment, I shall pour you a cup of tea (prepositional phrase as an adverbial modifier of time).

Every day of my life I practise for four hours (noun phrase as an adverbial modifier of frequency; adverbial modifier of manner).

The attribute is a quality-modifier of a substantive part.

e.g. He seems a very silent guy.

A letter from her sister arrived.

The smiling girl said nothing.

The parenthesis is a detached speaker-bound modifier of any sentence-part or the whole of the sentence.

e.g. Evidently, he was at a loss.

The address is a substantive modifier of the destination of the sentence.

e.g. Never do it again, Jack.

The interjection is a speaker-bound emotional modifier of the sentence.

e.g. Wow, what a great idea!

These parts are arranged in a hierarchy.

Traditional grammar distinguishes between main and secondary parts of the sentence. The subject and the predicate are the main parts of the sentence and together they form a predicative line.

According to the structure of the sentence, we can distinguish

  1. Simple sentences, containing one subject and one predicate and expressing a complete thought;
  2. Composite sentences, consisting several units of speech connected together

According to the presence of the main members of a sentence, we can distinguish two-member and one-member sentences:

  • A two-member sentence has two principal members – a subject and a predicate. If one of them is missing we can easily understand it from a context (e.g. I work very much. – Been tired? (=Have you been tired?) If one or both parts are missing but can be easily understood from the context, a sentence is called elliptical. Elliptical sentences are mostly used in colloquial speech.
  • A one-member sentence is a sentence that has only one part, which is neither subject nor predicate. This doesn’t mean, however, that the other part is missing, for the one member makes the sentence complete. (e.g. Dusk. Winter. Freedom! To be or not to be?)


The subject.

The subject  is the principal part of a two-member sentence which is grammatically independent of the other parts of the sentence and on which the second principal part (the predicate) is grammatically dependent. The subject can denote a living being, a lifeless thing or an idea.

The subject in English can be expressed by

  1. One word: a noun in the common case, a pronoun, a substantivized adjective or participle, a numeral, an infinitive, a gerund
  2. A group of words used as quotation ; e.g. His “I will” sounded very strange.
  3. A word combination that cannot be separated: Six and six is twelve. My coming late irritated him.
  4. A clause; e.g. What happened in this room is a mistery.

A sentence in modern English cannot be used without a subject (the exceptions are elliptic and imperative sentences ).

According to the lexical meaning of the subject, we can distinguish:

  1. Notional subject expressing some idea. Without it the predicate is senseless. We also call it a personal subject, as it expresses the person or a thing in broad sense, e.g. I’ll give you a pen. It (=the pen) is very nice. One cannot live like this. (indefinite personal pronoun)
  2. Formal subject expressed by a word devoid of any lexical meaning and which is necessary only for correct grammatical structure. This is impersonal subject that does not represent any idea, person or thing. In English it is represented by the pronoun it , which

a)     expresses natural phenomena, e.g. It often rains here. It is cold in winter. It is stuffy here.

b)    denotes time and distance, e.g. It is far away. It is 5 pm.

c)      expresses common opinion, e.g  It is known that

d)    introduces the real subject, e.g. It was difficult for him to do it. (=To do it was difficult for him)

e)     serves for emphatic purpose, e.g. It was he who had killed her.

 The predicate.

The predicate is the second principal part of the sentence which expresses an action, state, or quality of the person or thing denoted by the subject. It is grammatically dependent upon the subject. As a rule the predicate contains a finite verb which may express tense, mood, voice, aspect, and sometimes person and number.

According to the structure and the meaning of the predicate we distinguish two main types: the simple predicate and the verbal predicate.


types of predicate

The simple verbal predicate is expressed by a finite verb in a simple or a compound tense form, e.g. I live here. I have been living here for 20 years.

The simple phraseological predicate is expressed in English by a phraseological unit, such as to have a smoke, to have a swim, to get rid of, to take care etc., You are constantly making fun of him.

The compound predicate consists of two parts: a finite verb + some other part of speech. The second component is the significant part of the predicate.

The compound nominal predicate denotes the state or quality of the person or thing expressed by the subject. It consists of a link verb (be, get, become, go, look, seem, appear, feel, smell, taste, remain, keep, grow…) and the nominal part called predicative. The predicative is usually expressed by a noun, pronoun, numeral, adverb, gerund, infinitive, participle. e.g. He was tired. He looked tired. He felt tired. He is the first. She became a teacher. The wine smells nice.

The compound verbal predicate can be divided into two types according to the meaning of the finite verb:

(a)  the compound verbal modal predicate

(b)  the compound verbal aspect.

The compound verbal modal predicate shows whether the action expressed by a non-finite form of the verb is considered as possible, impossible, obligatory, necessary etc. It consists of the modal verb or expression conveying the above-mentioned meanings and a gerund or infinitive: e.g. I must rest. He is to do it.

The compound verbal aspect predicate expresses the beginning, duration or cessation of the action expressed by the non-finite form of the verb. It consists of such verbs as begin, start, set about, go on, stop, continue, give up etc.+ an infinitive or gerund: I went on sleeping. He started to cry.

There exist so called mixed types  of the predicates:

  1. The compound modal nominal predicate: He must be very tired.
  2. The compound aspect nominal predicate: He continued to be egoistic.
  3. The compound modal aspect predicate: He must go on working.

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Sentence parsing

There are currently two major types of diagrams in use to represent sentence structure: traditional diagrams, mainly used in classrooms, and tree diagrams, the most common method used by professional linguists.

The traditional analysis of sentences (sentence parsing) shows the hierarchy of sentence members. The sentence structure is views as dependency-based: for every word in the sentence, there is exactly one node in the syntactic structure that corresponds to that word.




Traditional diagrams are the Reed-Kellog diagrams.

The diagram of a simple sentence begins with a horizontal line called the base. The subject is written on the left, the predicate on the right, separated by a vertical bar which extends through the base. The verb and its object, when present, are separated by a line that ends at the baseline. If the object is a direct object, the line is vertical. If the predicate consists of a link verb and the predicative, the line looks like a backslash, \, sloping toward the subject and separating the link verb and the predicative. Modifiers of the subject, predicate, or object dangle below the base line.



Additional reading:

Diagramming sentences

How to diagram sentences

The structural grammar introduced the constituency-based parse trees. They distinguish between ultimate and non-ultimate nodes (constituents).


Constituent is any word or construction that enters into some larger construction. It can be a word, a phrase, a clause, but not a sentence.

Immediate Constituents (ICs) are non-terminal nodes in a sentence tree; they are major divisions or layers within a syntactic construction at any level.

Ultimate constituent is a terminal node: it is an irreducible grammatical unit, which is the final product of IC analysis after the breaking down of each higher-level constituent.

As a result of analysis we have so-called “sentence tree” (parse tree).

 Immediate Constituent Analysis (IC) is a procedure in grammatical analysis dealing with major divisions made within a syntactic construction, at any level—phrase, clause and sentence. The division can be further analyzed into lower level of immediate constituents and continues until irreducible constituents (ultimate constituents) are reached.

The analysis begins with the largest ICs and comes down to the smallest phrases. The largest ICs of the sentence are the nominal phrase and the verbal phrase. The division is binary, that is we break down the constructions or constituents into two parts until the ultimate constituents are reached. An ultimate constituent is an irreducible grammatical unit, which is the final product of IC analysis after the breaking down of each higher-level constituent.

The resulting parse tree is the entire structure, starting from S and ending in terminal nodes (ultimate constitutents). The following abbreviations are used in the tree:

  • S for sentence, the top-level structure in this example
  • NP for noun phrase.
  • VP for verb phrase, which serves as the predicate
  • V for verb.
  • D for determiner
  • N for noun
  • V for verb
  • PP for prepositional phrase




NP—Noun Phrase;

VP—Verbal Phrase

PP—prepositional phrase






A further insight into the problem of a sentence analysis was given by the Transformational Grammar. Relations between the elements of a sentence are obligatory and optional. According to this model, a language consists of a limited number of kernel sentences (i.e. structurally the most simple sentences), and their transforms, i.e. structures derived from them.

kernel sentence is the basis upon which other sentences are constructed.

  • A kernel sentence is a simple declarative construction.
  • It is always affirmative.
  • It is composed of a subject and one single verb and sometimes a direct object.
  • The verb is in the active voice and indicative mood.

Kernel clauses are essentially the building blocks of a language’s sentences.

Other sentences are derived by applying transformation rules. For example, other phrases or clauses, modifying words such as adjectives and adverbs can be added to kernel sentences. The mood can be changed and the negation of the sentence can also be effected.

For example, a sentence ‘The old man saw a black dog there’ is generated from the following simple sentences:

The man is old.

A dog is black.

The man saw a dog.

A dog was there.


In English there exist the following types of kernel structures (S—Subject; V—Verb; A—Adverbial; C—Complement; O—object; Oi—Indirect object; Od—Direct object; Vint—Intransitive verb)

1. SVA       Mary is in the house.

2. SVC        Mary is kind/ a nurse.

3. SVO       Somebody caught the ball.

4. SVOA    I put the plate on the table.

5. SVOC    We have proved him wrong.

6. SVOiOd She gives me expensive presents.

7. SVint      The child laughed.

In modern grammar such sentences are considered as paradigmatic invariants which lie in the base and are able to generate utterances (derivations, variants of kernel sentences)

The set of rules showing how a sentence is generated is called rewrite rules, or transformational rules, such as:

1) Morphological changes to express grammatical categories

John starts → John will be starting — John has started etc.

2) Expansion

John is walking→ John is walking in the park.

3) Substitution

The pupils ran out of the classroom. → They ran out of the classroom

4) Deletion

Would you like a cup of tea? → A cup of tea?

5) Positional arrangement (change of word order)

He is a student. → Is he a student?

6) Intonational arrangement, i.e. application of various functional tones and accents.

7) Nominalization: kernel sentences can be nominalized, i.e. they can be transformed into noun-phrases (NP) which preserve the semantic relations of the kernel sentence, E.g.The bird sings

 1) the singing of the bird;

2) the song of the bird;

3) the bird’s song;

4) a singing bird.

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Actual division of the sentence

The aim of the actual division of the sentence (functional sentence perspective) is to reveal the correlative semantic contribution of sentence elements in the total information conveyed by a sentence, i.e. their informative significance.

The main components of the AD are the theme and the rheme (focus).

The theme is the starting point of communication; the point of initiation.

The rheme (focus) is the basic informative part of communication; point of completion.

There are some factors that determine the arrangement of the information in a sentence and which contribute to the presentation of the content of a clause in one particular order rather than another.

The principle of the END-FOCUS — the tendency to put new information towards the end of the sentence.

NB:  Not all initial parts are the theme!

The principle of END-WEIGHT — the tendency to reserve the final position for more complex part of the sentence.

A limited number of possible clause structures — there is a limited number of possible clause structures, with each element of a clause having its specific role.

There exist several grammatical or lexical means for highlighting the focus and achieving the reversing order of roles, if needed:

  • The Passive voice

That he was prepared to go to such lengths astounded me.

I was astounded that he was prepared to go to such lengths.

  • Conversion with the change of the verb

An unidentified blue liquid was in the bottle.

The bottle contained an unidentified blue liquid.

  • Subject-verb inversion

Here comes the bus.

In went the sun and down came the rain.

  • Subject-operator inversion

Under no circumstances must the switch be left on.

  • Cleft sentences (often sentences with formal emphatic it)Cleft sentences are used to help us focus on a particular part of the sentence and to emphasise what we want to say by introducing it or building up to it with a kind of relative clause.It was John who had done it.

A cleft sentence is a complex sentence (one having a main clause and a dependent clause) that has a meaning that could be expressed by a simple sentence. Clefts typically put a particular constituent into focus.

I’ve come to discuss my future with you. —> The reason why I’ve come is to discuss my future with you.

  • Pseudo-cleft sentences (sentences with wh-clause: subject, predicative or attributive clause) Pseudo-cleft sentences are similar in function to cleft sentences, but they are formed with the pronoun what (= the thing(s) that/which). The emphasis in a pseudo-cleft sentence is on the phrase after what-clause + be:Compare:It’s a good rest that you need most. — A good rest is what you need most.More examples:What I didn’t like was the end of the movie.What changed his mind was a book he’d read.
  • Existential sentences (there)

Something must be wrong. —> There must be something wrong.

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A sentence that states a fact in the affirmative or negative form is called…

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A sentence that asks a question is called…

Show answer »


A sentence which expresses a command or request is called…

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Identify the function of the phrase “in their nests” in the following sentence.

Storks arrive in their nests every March.

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Adverbial modifier of place

Identify the function of the word “old” in the following sentence.

Storks arrive in their old nests every March.

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Which of the following sentences is elliptical?

a. Storks remain in Central Europe until the end of August.

b. Must have done something right.

c. Never before has he been so upset.

Show answer »



Identify the subject in the following sentence.

Working in the theatre has a lot in common with unemployment.

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Working in the theatre

Identify the predicate in the following sentence. What is the type of the predicate (simple verbal, compound nominal or compound verbal)?

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

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Is right – compound nominal

Identify the predicate in the following sentence. What is the type of the predicate (simple verbal, compound nominal or compound verbal)?

Athletes must have finished in the top ten in their respective events in order to qualify for the meet.

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Must have finished – compound verbal modal

In which sentence “it” is used as a subject for emphatic purpose?

a. It has been reported that the situation became worse.

b. It is located 5 km from the sea.

c. It is Michael for whom we are looking.

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Identify the function (role) of the underlined word or phrase in the following sentence.

NASA uploaded a video of a big explosion on the sun.

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Direct object


Identify the function (role) of the underlined word or phrase in the following sentence.

These tiger babies were born only a month and a half ago.

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Adverbial modifier

Which of the following sentence is a cleft sentence?

a. What we now need are actions rather than words.

b. Mary works harder than anybody else in this organisation.

c. Can you tell me what you need most?

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Which of the following sentences contains subject-verb inversion?

a. First comes love, then comes marriage.

b. We should carefully consider all the results.

c. On its next big trip next month the plane will travel from San Francisco to New York.

Show answer »



Provide an example of an elementary sentence with the structure SVOd (Subject – Verb – Direct Object).

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E.g. He closed the door.


Practical tasks and assignments: Simple sentence


Sentence parsing. Identify the functions of the sentence elements according to the traditional method of sentence analysis.

  • Logic is a systematic method of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence. (Muphy’s law)
  • Being honest with someone will always turn that person into an enemy. (Muphy’s law)





Logic is a systematic method of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence.


  • Logic — subject
  • is a method  — predicate (compound nominal)
  • systematic – attribute to ‘method’
  • of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence – attibute to ‘method’; expressed by a gerundial phrase, in which:
    • coming – head word
    • conclusion – indirect prepositional object to ‘coming’
    • wrong – attribute to ‘conclusion’
    • with confidence – adverbial modifier of manner to ‘coming’


Being honest with someone will always turn that person into an enemy.

  • Being honest with someone– subject, expressed by the gerundial phrase, in which:
    • Being honest – head word
    • With someone – indirect object
    • Will turn – simple verbal predicate
    • That person into an enemy – complex object to ‘turn’
    • Always – adverbial modifier of frequency