Clause patterns and clause elements

This is an edited version of material taken from my book Grammar for Teachers. Some sections are incomplete. To read the full text you need to purchase a copy of the book, which is available as a download. Find out more.

Grammar is about how sentences are constructed. Sentences, however, are not easy to define. One traditional definition is that a sentence is ‘the expression of a complete thought or idea’. However, it is not difficult to think of sentences that are grammatically correct, but which do not fit this definition. For example, it would be difficult to explain the complete thought or idea in:

Is that it?

Equally, there are plenty of non-sentences that do seem to express a complete thought or idea. For example:

DANGER LIVE CURRENT

And then again, you have to remember that it is perfectly possible to construct sentences that are grammatically acceptable, but which don’t make a lot of sense. Chomsky’s famous example of this was Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

So it is better to define a sentence in formal terms as a grammatical unit that consists of one or more finite clauses.

Sentence types

There are four types of sentence:

  • declarative
    These are sentences normally used to make statements such as Elephants are dangerous.
  • interrogative
    These are normally used to ask questions like Are elephants dangerous? or What are those elephants doing?
  • imperative
    These are normally used to make commands, orders, and requests, like Look at that elephant!
  • exclamative
    These are used to make exclamations of various kinds such as How charming that little baby elephant is!

Each of these sentence types has a distinctive word order. In this chapter, which is all about word order, we shall stick to declarative sentences (the type used to make statements) since they are by far the most common.

Five basic clause patterns

On this page we’ll look at sentences that consist of just one clause (see simple sentence) and in the process find out more about what a clause actually is. We’ll do this by looking at sentences no more than four words long.

All the sample sentences are about elephants. If you want to try out the ideas and sentence patterns in the chapter, think of a topic of your own as the basis for parallel sentences. Choose a plural concrete noun (one that refers to a person, place, or thing) – like books, trains, or teachers. Then use it to construct sentences with the same patterns as the elephant ones used as examples.

Subject + verb

The shortest sentence you can make starting with the word ­elephants consists of two words. For example:

Elephants exist.

This sentence consists of one clause. The clause has two parts, a subject and a verb:

subject: Elephants
verb: exist.

The subject
The subject of a simple sentence:

  • comes at or near the beginning of the sentence
  • comes before the verb
  • is a noun or ‘a noun-like thing’
  • often gives a good idea of what the sentence is going to be about.

The verb
The verb of a simple sentence:

  • normally comes immediately or shortly after the subject
  • agreeswith the subject:
    • in number
      One elephant walks; two elephants walk.
    • in person
      I am; she is; they are
  • provides information about an action (talks) or a state (believes) or links the subject to another part of the sentence in some other way (as am does in the sentence I am happy.)

The simple pattern…

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Subject + verb + object

You can’t, of course, make sentences of the subject + verb type with just any old verb. This is not a complete sentence:

Elephants like  X

The immediate response to that is: ‘like what?’ The sentence is missing a key part: the object. So our second pattern covers sentences like this:

Elephants like grass

The object
The object of a clause or sentence:

  • normally comes after the verb
  • is a noun or ‘noun-like thing’
  • usually refers to a different person, thing or idea from the subject. (The exception to this is objects that include the part-word -self, as in I cut myself, where subject and object refer to the same person.)
  • very often tells us about a person or thing that is
    • affected by the action of the verb, or
    • ‘acted upon’ in some way.

In the example…

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Subject + verb + indirect object + direct object

We have seen that some verbs, like want, must have an object. A number of verbs,however, usually have not one object, but two. So the ‘sentence’ below is not complete, even though it has a subject, a verb, and and one object:

Elephants give children   X

We are left asking, Elephants give children what? It is true that ­children is an object, of a kind; it fulfils all the requirements in the list on the previous page. But verbs like give need a second object:

Elephants give children rides.

Rides is the direct object – it is what the elephants give. Children is the indirect object because the children are the ones who benefit from the rides – the people that the rides are being given to. You can always tell this type of sentence because it can be rephrased like this:

Elephants give children rides. —> Elephants give rides to children.

Many verbs that refer to the action of passing something from one person or thing to another work in this way. Examples are

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Subject + verb + complement

There is another pattern which resembles the subject + verb + object pattern, but which is actually very different:

Elephants are animals.

The word animalsis a ‘noun or noun-like thing’ and it comes after the verb, so we might expect it to be the object. But it fails the other test: it does not refer to something different from the subject. The items before and after the verb refer to the same thing. The sentence is more like a maths equation:

Elephants = animals.

The complement
In this clause pattern the element that comes after the verb provides more information about the subject, it serves to complete it, so it is called the complement, or more fully, the subject complement. It:

  • comes after the verb
  • is either:
    • a noun (or ‘noun-like thing’), or
    • an adjective (as in the sentence, Elephants are big.)
  • refers to the same person or thing as the subject.

This type of clause uses a special type of verb, called a linking (or copular) verb. The commonest of these is be. Others are become and seem.

Subject + verb + object + complement

Objects, as well as subjects, can have complements. They occur in clauses constructed on the following pattern:

Elephants make children happy.

You can contrast this clause with one we looked at earlier:

Elephants give children rides.

It is true that both have two elements after the verb: a direct object and something else. In the second sentence, children and rides refer to completely different things. In the first sentence, children and happy refer to the same thing. The word happy serves to give more information about the object, children: it completes it. Hence the name object complement. To use the mathematical analogy, we could represent the sample sentence as:

Elephants make children = happy.

The object complement
This clause element…

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Subject + verb + adverbial

We saw how some verbs need to be followed by particular clause elements.  The following sentence opening sets up a similar need:

Elephants live    X

This part sentence raises questions such as, Elephants live where? To complete the pattern we need a third element:

Elephants live here.

Verbs that need an adverbial in this way refer to movement (for example, hurtle) or position (for example, hang):

Dauntless’s dark wet hair was hanging over his eyes.

Subject + verb + object + adverbial

There is also a small group of verbs that take an object and then also require an adverbial. For example:

The elephant thrust him away.

The sentence does not work without away. Verbs that usually need an object to be followed by an adverbial include put and throw:

He put his face in his hands.

Adverbials

So adverbials are the missing piece of the jigsaw, bringing the total number of clause patterns to seven. Unfortunately, as we shall see, adverbials are awkward customers. Although they only crop up in these two ‘compulsory’ positions in clause patterns, they can also appear almost anywhere in any of the other patterns as an optional element:

Elephants exist now. (subject+verb+adverbial)
Usually elephants are big. (adverbial+subject+verb+complement)

Adverbials carry information about when, where, and how the events in the sentence occur.

This is an edited version of material taken from my book Grammar for Teachers. Some sections are incomplete. To read the full text you need to purchase a copy of the book, which is available as a download. Find out more.