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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English

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Part Two: Organizing sentences

 

It's only words, but words are all I have
To take your heart away

The Brothers Gibb 1968

Before we go on to examine the different types of prose, we will need to describe what goes into writing all kinds of English. Descriptions, discussions and business letters all have one thing in common the sentence. Therefore before we discuss how to use sentences, we should take a look at what goes into them.

Words are a writer's tools. They are the basic building block of communication from which a writer makes sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Here we look at how words are organized in sentences, and the part each word or clause plays in building a sentence. There is more to this than you might think.

The basic sentence

The minimum you need for a sentence is a single word, for example in the imperative sentence 'Go!' However, to have meaning, most sentences need some basic parts.

  • Subject and predicate

  • Word order and grouping

  • Complements

The basic sentence

The minimum you need for a sentence is a single word, for example in the imperative sentence 'Go!' However, to have meaning, most sentences need some basic parts.

Subject and predicate

The first way of looking at a sentence is to consider the sentence as having a subject and a predicate. The subject tells us what or who the sentence is about, the predicate tells us what the subject did, and (usually) whom or what the subject did it to.

So the sentence 'Sally kissed.' has the subject of Sally, and a predicate saying what she did she kissed. We can expand the sentence to say 'Sally kissed Bill.' However, Sally is still the subject but 'kissed' and 'Bill' are both parts of the predicate.

When writing a sentence it is always useful to remember these two parts. First you identify what you are talking about (the subject), and then you give information about that subject's actions (the predicate).

Word order and grouping

We can also look at most sentences as having a subject, a verb and an object. (The verb and object are still predicates, though.) With the sentence 'Sally kissed Bill' we have the subject, verb and object, in that order. While this basic sentence seems simple, there are some things to remember.

The first is that unless you have a particular reason for writing differently, subject - verb - object is a good sequence of word order to use. Secondly, when writing more complex sentences, it is a good idea to keep parts belonging to the subject close to the subject, those related to the verb with the verb, and so on. This can be about style we can say 'Lovingly, Sally kissed Bill.' or 'Sally kissed Bill lovingly.' and both sentences are grammatical. However, for maximum clarity and good style we should keep the verb and the adverb together and say 'Sally lovingly kissed Bill.'

This makes the sentence easier to follow, and it also avoids grammatical errors such as dangling participles.

(What's a dangling participle?
Consider this example 'We looked out of the window and saw the mountains, flying over Austria.'
Obviously it is we who were flying over Austria, and not the mountains, so the subject parts of the sentence - 'flying over Austria' and 'we' - should be grouped together to make the sentence more comprehensible. 'Flying over Austria, we looked out of the window and saw the mountains.')

Complements

These do not tell your sentence how nice it looks those are compliments. Complements are things that are added to a sentence to make it richer in information. When we say 'Sally lovingly kissed Bill.' the word 'lovingly' tells us more about how Sally kissed and so it is a verb complement.

The complements that everyone knows are adjectives and adverbs (such as 'lovingly') but there are many other kinds of complement. For instance predicates are subject complements in sentences such as 'Sally is tall' in which Sally is the subject, but the predicate does not tell us what Sally did or whom she did it to, but instead tells us more about Sally.
We also have object complements, which are sometimes confused with indirect objects. Object complements are not indirect objects, but additional information about the object itself for example with 'I am talking to you, Bill.' the word 'Bill' is the object complement because it tells us more about 'you' that your name is Bill.
On the other hand if I give a hat to Bill, the hat and Bill are completely different, so here 'Bill' is not an object complement but the indirect object of 'give'.

With complements, as with other components of a sentence, it is a good idea to keep complements together with the part of the sentence they are complementing. Also, while complements make a sentence richer in information, the more information in a sentence, the harder the sentence becomes to understand, so while complements are an essential part of writing, they should be used with care.


The next part we will look at word order in sentences.

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