Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Is a Sentence, Anyway?

In all of the months I've blathered on about grammar basics and writing, not once have I dedicated a whole post to deciding whether your sentences actually are. I've certainly mentioned in passing the criteria, but I thought it about time to specify the requirements in one place.

A sentence requires two essential elements to qualify as such. It must posses a subject and a predicate, minimally a noun or pronoun and a verb, either written or understood. I could write a sentence as simple as, "Sit." In this example, we understand that I mean "You sit" and likely that I mean you to sit on something--your behind, at least, if not on a particular spot.

Hey! Only an interjection may violate this basic rule, and even then it may be considered a part of the related sentence. In the case of an interjection, the entire context may be understood and a mere ejaculation suffice to register your surprise or displeasure. But I've wandered into risqué territory and away from the point.

The subject of a sentence may be found by asking who or what receives the action or feeling of the sentence. About which thing has the sentence been written? No matter how many phrases, clauses, and other decorations are hung upon it, you must specify a central topic for your sentence. You may complicate matters by writing about "Bob, Jules, and Nancy" but they, as a set, still constitute a subject.

The predicate explains something about the subject--action that it performs or receives, its feeling, or its state of being. There are a whole lot of grammar terms that can be used in relation to the words in the predicate, but the whole point remains that they describe the subject or its action and are not the subject.

Thus, you may write: Bob, Jules, and Nancy, dancers all, attended the fourth annual holiday recital in Quebec. The subject remains "Bob, Jules, and Nancy" while the predicate begins with "attended". It explains what the subjects did, where, and when (even if you have to do a web search to find out on what date and time the recital took place). No matter the complexity, you cannot have a sentence without a subject and a predicate. Specifying only one or the other leaves you (and your audience) with a fragment, and often with only a fragment of your meaning.

If this came across as unclear as I think it did, please drop me a note about where your need for clarification lies. Thank you. (You understood the "I" as the subject in that sentence, didn't you?)