As the lifeblood of conversation, sentences can take us from one word commands to a multitude of words describing our emotions.
Sure, we could live life uttering one word commands such as: 'coffee', 'eat', 'annoyed' etc. However, we must be able to use sentences to be fluent in a language, like English, and we need to know how sentences work.
What's in a sentence?
Words in a sentence must be in the correct order for a sentence to be clear and easily understood. In previous articles I've discussed some of the nuts and bolts of sentence parts: nouns, verbs, adverbs etc. We can use sentence parts such as these to create whole sentences, as long as we always use a subject and a predicate. The subject needs to be a noun such as 'dog', and the predicate (which must at least have a verb in it) helps the noun to be a sentence:
The dog barks.
The sentence must always begin with a capital letter, and can end with an exclamation mark, a question mark, or most often a full stop.
There is also the use of commas and semi-colons. Many novice writers accidentally create what are known as 'run-on' sentences. Basically this means to create a long winded sentence which would make little sense when read aloud.
For example: "If you were my girlfriend even though you're not I would love you forever this would mean I adore you for all time."
If you read that sentence then you'll notice the lack of pause in the statement makes it very confusing. This is why we need to use commas when needed. Let's take another look at that sentence with some more commas and an extra full stop:
Revised: If you were my girlfriend, even though you're not, I would love you forever. This would mean, I adore you for all time.
Even though it is not a great piece of writing, the sentences are a little more clear since we added extra punctuation to them.
Another, underused, way to break up a paragraph is to use semi-colons in sentences. Even in England semi-colons are seldom used, and are often used incorrectly. When working for a housing company I received a letter from a lawyer's office which used semi-colons similar to the below:
From this complaint we summarise the following:
this person did not report the issue;
the circumstances were recorded incorrectly;
the company involved are not liable for damages;
The above is completely wrong. Semi-colons are only to be used to link two complete sentences together which are closely related. They can replace a full stop where necessary.
A correct example: Your daughter is a fine and intelligent woman; I am sure she will do very well when she leaves to study law at university.
When creating basic sentences, I would recommend you consider the rule of using 'subject – verb – object'.
The subject as we mentioned before is often a noun, but it can also be a pronoun such as: he, she, them, him, you, us, we, yours, theirs and mine. We then move on to the verb which is expressing a state of being or describing an action: to think, to play, to run, to relax etc. The object of the sentence is something which is affected by the subject. The object is often referred to as the direct object. Below are three short sentences which explain the 'subject – verb – object' rule:
The cat jumped onto the fence.
She threw the football at me.
The car skidded across the road.
You must also be careful with word order in your sentences. If you place the subject in the wrong position your sentence will have the opposite meaning of what you intended. When I worked in editing, I realised just how many grammatical mistakes are missed by people who edit best selling books. For reasons of copyright, I cannot list the mistakes here but take a look at this sentence:
Walking quickly, Big Ben passed him on the right side.
The above sentence makes it seem that one of London's most famous buildings, Big Ben, decided it would go for a walk. If we alter the sentence, it can make more sense:
Revised: He was walking very quickly, and he walked straight past Big Ben which was on his right hand side.
With some adjustment the sentence makes sense, and readers will not throw your book into the nearest rubbish bin.
Is your sentence active or passive?
A lot of books on the subject of writing will usually recommend novice writers use the active voice. Put simply, the active voice means that the subject of the sentence is carrying out an action. The subject therefore creates an action, rather than have an action done to it. Consider the following example:
He crashed his car into a store front.
In this sentence the store front was not doing anything other than being there. That was until a car accelerated and crashed into the store front causing a lot of damage. The driver instigated the crash and was therefore the active voice in the sentence.
On the other hand, the passive voice relegates the subject to being the person or thing which has an action done to it:
His car was destroyed by the truck whose brakes had failed.
You may notice the passive voice is used by some authorities to appear less threatening:
Residents will need to buy a television licence if they own a television.
Although even in the passive voice, some messages still have an undercurrent of threat to them:
Drug smugglers, who are caught, will be executed in this country.
Are your sentences moody?
When creating a sentence you must also make clear to your reader or listener what the mood of the sentence is. There are three moods we can use when creating a sentence: the indicative, interrogative, and subjunctive mood.
The indicative mood
This is used to express facts. When using the indicative mood you are stating something which is clearly true such as:
There are four bedrooms in our new house.
My Mother and Father have been married for thirty years.
We painted the rear wall white.
The interrogative mood
When forming question sentences we must enter the interrogative mood. We create a sentence which must always end with a question mark:
Do you have the movie 'Titanic' on DVD?
How long have you two been dating?
How much is a plane ticket to Tokyo?
The subjunctive mood
This is a mood which creates a lot of fear in students and often fills English teachers with dread. The easiest way to describe it is that it creates sentences which are possible, not real, and may express our hopes and dreams:
I think I'd like to win a million dollars tomorrow.
If he spent less money on video games then he could buy a car.
I wish I could concentrate more on practising Mandarin.