The Well Bred
An Intensive Study of Sentence Construction and Punctuation
© Sophie Johnson
The Well Bred Sentence (Table of Contents)
Chapter 1 What is a Sentence?
|the sentence is ...||the indispensable basic sentence||copular-verb model of the basic sentence|
verb model of the basic sentence
styles of the independent sentence
subject and predicate
copula model of the basic sentence
We are relentless communicators. We have a passion for `reaching' people, for `connecting'. We tell one another where we, they and all the others are `at' or `coming from'. Even our refusal to speak is an act of communication: `I won't speak to you', it says. And it is understood as `This person won't speak to me'. We communicate in sentences even on this pre-speech level.
On speech level the sentence is openly with us, even when it is only a word of itself: When someone says `Milk!' a shopkeeper will understand something like `This rude slob is asking me to sell him some milk', having already understood the slob's 'Milk!' to be an economical version of `I should like some milk, please'.
There is no getting away from it: We communicate in sentences. They are to communication as oxygen is to breathing. The long and the short of it is this: When we say something, or understand what someone else has said, we make sentences whether we intend to or not. So did Neanderthal Man. The difference between his and our way was achieved in the interim that saw ever more refined structures assemble to make life easy. One of those was the prose-structure we now know as that sequence of words that raises a subject and says something about it: the sentence. We use it to transmit our passion for communicating, successfully or unsuccessfully, depending on how well we understand its capabilities.
This prose structure, our highly-refined contemporary sentence, manifests in two ways: as an independent sentence and as a dependent sentence.
The sentence that raises a subject and says something about it (or `predicates something of it’) is an independent sentence. It makes a statement that makes sense and only one sense. Such a statement has only three structural models, or `basic-sentence’ types. They are the verb sentence, the copula sentence and the copular-verb sentence.
The independent sentence is the typical written sentence. It is the one we depend on when we write an essay, an article for a periodical, a thesis – in short, when we write in any genre that does not require us to represent casual-speech structures.
The sentence raises a subject and says something about it. To put it another, more formal, way: The sentence predicates something of the subject. This is all that Traditional Grammar means when it declares that the sentence consists of a subject and a predicate.
No sequence of words is a sentence if it fails to make one unambiguous sense. No sequence of words makes one unambiguous sense unless it is a basic sentence or it contains one. Stripped of its basic sentence, this sequence makes no sense:
very best a dog called Caesar contemporary street.
It becomes sensible only when a basic sentence holds it together:
My very best friend, a dog called Caesar, does not respect contemporary street sculpture.
Writers must become so familiar with the three models of the basic sentence that one `jumps out' at them from every sentence they read. Such a level of familiarity will ensure that the sentences they write will never fail to meet the first and most important criterion of valid sentence-construction: the unmistakable presence of a basic sentence. It will ensure also that they are able to punctuate the longer sentences they write.
Before you read on …
In the course of reading about what sentences do, you will come upon quite a bit of `parts of speech’ vocabulary. If you are new to this, don’t let it worry you. This Chapter means to make only the point that every part of a sentence does something to contribute to the sense the whole makes. Observe this, and leave concerns about the precise meaning of `noun’, `adjective’, etc. until you read the second Chapter. (You will find that these terms `stick’ to you anyway. Don’t make heavy weather of it.)
In the verb model of the basic sentence there always is a specific relationship between the subject and object in a sentence. In every instance of a verb basic sentence the subject and object relate in one the following ways:
1. The subject acts upon the object.
In this sentence:
the subject 'nationalism’ perpetrates an act, denoted by the verb `alarms’, upon the object `minorities’. Traditional Grammar says of sentences in which the subject acts upon the object that they are active voice sentences.
2. The object acts upon the subject.
In this sentence:
the object `the endangered’ acts upon the subject `a will to live’. The verb `is developed’ denotes this act. Traditional Grammar says of sentences in which the object acts upon the subject that they are sentences cast in the passive voice mode. As all verb sentences, this one has an active voice too, as the grid shows:
`Infinitive’ complications and the complemented verb
There are infinitives that consist of more than `to’ and one word: `To set’ is one infinitive, `to set free’ quite another. Their meanings are different, just like the meanings of `to give’ and `to give up’ are different. They are the cause of structures such as `He set me free’, in which the object `me’ comes between the parts of the infinitive. These structures are otherwise ordinary active-voice verb sentences that typically also have a passive voice: `I was set free by him’. This situation is less obvious in the infinite that seems to have a `to make (someone) do’ structure. We meet this structure regularly in statements such as:
He made me clean the house/wash dishes/laugh (active voice).
There is no doubt that this, too, is a sentence in which the subject acts upon the object (active voice), or the object acts upon the subject (passive voice):
I was made to clean the house/wash dishes/laugh by him (passive voice).
So this is certainly a verb sentence. The curious thing is that in the passive voice sentence the verb changes to the phrase `was made to clean’. This reveals that the real object in this sentence is `the house’, not `me’. However, it is indisputable that the subject `he' acts upon the object `me'. (More will be said later about how `clean the house’ in the active-voice structure is the noun phrase that names the content of the verb `made’.)
3. The activity between subject and object devolves upon a third party.
As subject and object perpetrate an act upon one another, a third party is affected by the action. So in `He read me the Riot Act’ the subject `he’ perpetrated an act upon the object `Riot Act’: he read it. 'The riot act' is therefore the direct object of the subject’s activity that is denoted by the verb `read’. This subject acts also upon `me’. So `me’ is also an object. But it is not the direct object that the subject acts upon: it is the indirect object of the subject’s activity `read’:
4. The activity between subject and object is named by the predicate noun complement.
In this sentence:
He called them liars,
the subject `he’ acts upon the object `them’. To this extent, this sentence is of the type outlined in `1’. It differs from it markedly, however, in that the noun `liars’ is embedded into the `1’ sort of structure, `he called them’, to name the content of the activity `called’. That noun is not an object at all. It is therefore in no way possible to call it an `indirect object’. Other sentences of the same structure are:
boy taught his grandmother Mathematics
The subject `the boy’ perpetrated the act denoted by the verb `taught’ on the object ,`his grandmother’. The content of the subject’s act is named by the noun `Mathematics’ in the first sentence, and by the infinitive-noun phrase `to suck eggs’ in the second.
5. The subject acts upon the object to procure its existential or geographical state.
In this sentences:
The film had me laughing,
the subject `the film’ acted upon the object `me’ to put it into a laughing state. The meaning here can be paraphrased as `he had me in a laughing state’. `In a laughing state’ names the existential state of the object `me’. The actual sentence, however, has truncated the noun phrase to `laughing’. The truncation nevertheless functions as a noun in this sentence, as the paraphrasing indicates that it must. It is a noun embedded into the basic sentence `he had me’. In another sentence:
He sat me in the front row,
an embedded noun phrase with the same function, `in the front row’, is kept in entirety to name the whereabouts of the object `me’. It, too, is embedded into the verb basic sentence.
6. The subject acts upon the object such that only the object is the experiencer of the act.
In this sentence:
John interests Mary,
the subject `John’ certainly perpetrates an act upon the object `Mary’. But only the object `Mary’ experiences the effect of that act. The subject `John’ may not even be aware that he has perpetrated that act. This situation exits because there are verbs that are inherently 'object-experiencer' verbs. These are: annoy, irritate, amaze, provoke, impress, interest. Some of their synonyms might also prove to be object-experiencer verbs in some constructions.
The `subject + verb’ sentence as the basic sentence.
Where the basic sentence is a `verb + subject’ sentence, nothing is predicated of the subject other than that the subject does, has done or will do something:
Mary has taught.
The Prime Minister will resign.
All that can happen in the `verb + subject’ sentence is that certain indicators describe the subject’s act. Those indicators are adverbs. They describe:
- when (time) the subject perpetrated an act:
She arrived early;
- how (manner) the subject perpetrated an act:
The girl answered slowly;
The girl came begging for mercy;
- the intensity (degree) of the subject’s act:
We could hardly see.
It has been claimed, thanks to the `subject + predicate’ sentence, that describing sentence structure is a sham. The claimants argued that Traditional Grammar holds that `Mother is cooking’ and `Dinner is cooking’ are sentences of the same syntactic structure. If Traditional Grammar’s system of analysis were constrained to do that, it would indeed be a sham. But it is not so constrained. The sentence `Mother is cooking’ (Mother is doing the cooking) is a `verb + subject’ sentence. `Dinner is cooking’ is a copula sentence in which the predicate adjective `cooking’ describes the subject `dinner’ (`the cooking dinner’).
The copula model of the basic sentence makes a statement in which the copula (a formation that derives from the infinitive 'to be') assigns the subject either a description or a definition or a location (geographical or existential) or an occupier. In behaving thus, the copula basic sentence is completely different from the verb basic sentence. It has to be different because there is no relationship of subject and object in it. Indeed, the copula sentence does not have an object. It has instead a complement.
1. The copula assigns a description to the subject.
In the sentences that follow, the copula has the complement describe the subject. A description that occurs in this way is called a predicate adjective if it is achieved by a single word, and predicate-adjective phrase if it is achieved by a sequence of words. In the sentence:
John was ill/annoying/pleased,
the copula assigns the description `ill’ (or `annoying’ or `pleased’) to the subject `John’. In the next sentence:
Walking to school might have been as bad as you say,
the copula `might have been’ assigns the description `as bad as you say’ to the subject `walking to school’.
2. The copula assigns a definition to the subject.
This activity of the copula has the complement define the subject. In:
Practice is what you need,
the copula `is’ defines the subject `practice’ in terms of the noun phrase `what you need’. In the next sentence:
To know that you are well has always been all I asked,
the copula phrase `has always been’ has the complement `all I have ever asked’ define the subject `To know that you are well’.
3. The copula assigns a place in space to the subject.
In this role, the copula has the complement name the location of the subject. In so doing, it names the place that, geographically speaking, the subject occupies (or did or will occupy). The complement in such sentences names a geographic location (which is necessarily a place). It is therefore a locative noun phrase when it names a place (`John was in London/at the party’), and a locative pronoun when it refers to a place (`John was here/there’).
4. The copula assigns a place in existential space to the subject.
In this role, the copula has the complement tell us where the subject is on a spiritual, ethical, moral, professional, etc. plane. In:
He is beyond recall,
the subject `he’ is located by the copula `is’ in some spiritual (or ethical or moral) space that is named by the noun phrase `beyond recall’. In the sentence:
They were in mourning,
the subject `they’ is located by the copula `were’ in the spiritual space named by the noun phrase `in mourning’. In the sentence:
She had been on duty,
the subject `she’ is located by the copula phrase `had been’ in her professional space, named by the noun phrase `on duty’.
5. The copula effects the occupation of the vacant subjects `it’ and `that’.
When the copula sentence does not name a subject but erects a token one instead (`It', `That', `What') the erection is a vacant one yet to be filled with the naming capacity (a noun or noun phrase) of the complement. The copula directs that this filling, or occupying, take place. Thus in the sentence:
It is true that he is happy,
the copula `is’ directs the noun phrase `that he is happy’ to occupy the vacant subject `It’. This occupation is evident in that the noun phrase can sensibly take the place of the subject:
is true that he is happy.
The subjects `It’ and `That’ are not always vacant subjects.
The vacant subject should not be confused with `It' subjects that are not vacant. In this sentence `It’ represents the subject raised in an earlier sentence:
This machine is in good order. It was fixed yesterday.
In this sentence `That’ represents the sense `the person you saw who was not me':
am sure I saw you there.'
No adverb in a copula sentence
The important characteristic of the the copula sentence is that it cannot contain an adverb. This is no more than logical, for adverbs modify verbs, and the copula sentence does not contain a verb, for the simple reason that it is a copula sentence, not a verb sentence. Now, it might seem that this copula sentence:
contains the adverb `really'. But it does not, for `really' modifies the predicate adjective `ill'. Modifying an adjective, a word cannot be said to be functioning as an adverb. Rather, `really' is itself an adjective. It has exactly the same function as `very', or any other degree/intensity-setting qualifier of an adjective: He is very/dangerously/etc. ill. (For some reason that is not at all easy to identify, Traditional Grammar tends to call these qualifiers `adverbs of degree'. We suggest that `adjectives of degree' is by far the more perspicacious term.)
Critics of the observation that there is no adverb in a copula sentence have proposed that sentences such as:
refute that observation. These critics rely on the erroneous assumption that `really' is by nature an adverb. Well, it is not, as we noted in the sentence `He is really ill'. Just as in that sentence `really' pertains to the predicate adjective `ill', so in the above sentences `really' pertains to the noun `John'. And, pertaining to a noun, it is necessarily an adjective. `Is' in these sentences effects the occupation by the complement `really John' of the two vacant subjects `It'. (The semantic template is obviously not `the is-ing John'; it is `the really John'.)
The copular verb looks like a verb, and, like the verb, it denotes an activity. But otherwise, it behaves like a copula because it does not have an object. In the copular-verb sentence, the subject does not act upon the object, for it has no object; it has a complement. (A subject acts upon the object only when the sentence is a verb sentence.) A verb is not copular in its own right. Rather, it is copular when it has a complement that determines something about the activity it denotes:
1. The complement locates the place of the subject’s act.
In the sentence:
He rested in bed,
there is no object: Rather, the subject’s act `rested’ is located by the noun-phrase complement `in bed’. Simply, `in bed’ names the place where the subject `he’ performed the act denoted by the copular verb `rested’. Some other place-namer functions of the complement are illuminated on this grid:
2. The complement identifies the existential character of the subject’s act.
Whether the existential character of the subject’s act is named prosaically:
The girl left in a hurry,
The girl left in high dudgeon,
it is a fact that the complement specifies the character of the subject’s act by naming its identity. The identity of `left' in the foregoing sentences is the `in a hurray’ or `in high dudgeon' version of the act denoted by `left’. Other identity-namers of the act denoted by `left' might be `in a leisurely manner’, `without regret’, etc. These identity-namers of the subject’s act are nouns for the simple reason that they name. (A further discussion of why they are not properly classified as adverbs occurs in the Chapter `The Parts of Speech’, under the heading `Noun Case’.)
3. The complement identifies the direction of the subject’s act.
When the copular verb itself identifies its own character, as in this sentence:
The pair raved about the trip,
its orientation (or `direction’ or `bent’) is further identified by a noun-phrase complement. The same reasoning informs the analysis of the sentence `He talked of morality’. The subject’s act, denoted by the copular verb `talked’, is said to have an `of morality’ bent, just as the subject’s act, denoted by the copular verb `raved’, is said to have an `about the trip’ bent. In exactly the same way, the complement identifies the bent of the subject’s act with an -ing ending noun:
I went fishing. / We go dancing.
Without the direction-naming service of the nouns `fishing’ and `dancing’, the copular verbs `went’ and `go’ would not be capable of denoting an activity.
4. The complement names the context of the subject’s act.
In this sentence:
The comment was uttered in jest/on the spur of the moment,
there is no activity at all. There is instead a locating of the subject `the comment’ in an `uttered-in-jest’ and an uttered-on-the-spur-of-the-moment context. It is clear in these sentences that the point made about the subject `the comment’ is not that it perpetrated an act. The point is that the act was perpetrated in a particular context. That context is named by the noun phrases `in gest’ and `on the spur of the moment’:
5. The complement names the content of the subject’s act.
In the sentence:
The bushman predicted that there will be a storm
the noun-phrase `that there will be a storm’ names the content of the act `predicted’ of the subject `the bushman’. It was an act of storm-prediction. The other sentences on the grid also have compound-noun templates like `storm-prediction: `war-prophecy’, `revenge-threat’, `nonsense-talk’.
6. The complement names the purpose of the subject’s act.
I live to please you
They shouted to warn him
are all too easy to mistake for verb sentences in which `live to please’ is the verb phrase, `I’ the subject and `you’ the object. That the subject does not act upon the object is made clear in their passive-voice cast:
To please you is why I live
Nothing attests more clearly than this cast that `to please you’ and `to warn him’ are noun phrases. And the `why’ component of both sentences attests to the purpose-naming role of the noun phrases. Purpose-naming roles are performed also by `for’-headed noun phrases, as the grid shows:
7. The subject and complement depict their genitive relationship.
The soldiers had orders,
there is no activity. There is only the depiction of a genitive relationship between the subject `the soldiers’ and the noun complement `orders’. The relationship depicted here has the meaning-template `soldiers’ orders’. In the other sentence on the grid, the meaning template is `the child’s doll’.
8. The complement joins the copular verb to describe the subject.
In both these sentences:
there are the predicate-adjective complements `crisp’, `lyrical’ and `indignant’. Being predicate adjectives, they necessarily describe the noun subject `the chicken’ and pronoun subject `he’. In neither sentence is the subject described by the predicate adjective alone. That is, the subject `the chicken’ is not described merely as `crisp’; it is described as `crisp fried’. And the subject `he’ is not described only as `lyrical’; it is described as `waxed lyrical’ and `waxed indignant’. In this sense, the copular verb is part of the description that a predicate-adjective complement makes of the subject.
What's it all for?
Why do we need to know about the three basic-sentence procedures `verb basic sentence', `copula basic sentence' and `copular-verb basic sentence' and their habits? The good reason is that we cannot know how the parts of sentences work to make sense if we do not know what those parts are. Each of the basic-sentence procedures raises a subject, but each has a characteristic way of saying something about it. The ability to understand those ways is the first and the essential step in learning to analyse sentences. And it is only by analysing sentences that we are able to determine whether they are soundly constructed and therefore competent to make unambiguous sense.
Like any analytical procedure, sentence analysis is not a matter of hard-and-fast rules. Like the procedures of reasoning in every discipline, reasoning about sentences leads to conclusions that differ significantly. This is nothing short of excellent, for therein lies the activity that keeps a discipline alive and active. Here is one example of two grammarians drawing different conclusions about the procedures of the same sentence. The sentence is:
Grammarian `1’: This is a verb basic sentence in which the subject `Its main character’ acts upon the object `Morris's novel’ to put it into the state named by the noun phrase `eminently suitable for adaptation to film by this talented young script writer’.
Grammarian `2’: This is not a verb sentence in which the subject perpetrates an act upon the object. That is obvious: its statement is not that `its main character made Morris's novel’. Neither is it the verb-sentence type in which the subject acts upon the object to put it into a particular state. This again is obvious: logically, the subject `Its main character’ did not perpetrate, and by nature could not have perpetrated, any act upon `Morris's novel’, let alone an act that could put it into any `state’. Rather, this is a sentence in which the subject `Its main character’ is described as one that `made Morris's novel eminently suitable for adaptation to film by this talented young script writer’. In other words, the subject is described by predication. In true copular-verb manner, made is part of the sequence that effects the description. So this is a copular-verb basic sentence.
There is, in fact, nothing sinister in this divergence of opinions: Both points of view are tenable because both engage in a quest to describe how a sentence makes sense. Indeed, disagreement is what makes syntactic analysis fun. It should be indulged freely. (And it is: brawls among grammarians are common.) The rules of engagement are simple:
EXERCISE 1 is appropriate here.
There are only four styles of sentences that make statements. These styles are infinitely accommodating and flexible. They do not limit our self-expression any more than does the fact that all our reasoning procedures are either inductive or deductive. (People who think they can reason `laterally' are kidding themselves!) It is a writer's way of thinking about what he wants to say that determines the style in which each of his basic sentences will extend their scope for saying something.
The following is a sample of the four sentence styles. The basic sentence in each is underlined, and the verb, copula or copular in each is rendered in bold italics:
The simple sentence is any basic sentence. It is `simple’ because no complex or compound operations happens in it. A few inter-planted adverbs and adjectives do not make a complex sentence of it.
The book is a justifiably angry polemic.
This is a copula basic sentence in which the subject `book’ is assigned the definition `a polemic’ by the copula `is’. The adjective phrase `justifiably angry’ describes the noun `polemic’.
The complex sentence is formed when a basic sentence is embedded by phrases with a variety of syntactic functions.
Reopening their battle on the eve of the election, they warned that all candidates will be challenged to oppose the proposed defence cuts.
This complex sentence has a copular-verb basic sentence that specifies the content of the act `warned’ of the subject `they’ with the noun phrase `that all candidates will be challenged to oppose the cuts’.
The compound sentence conjoins two or more simple sentences by means of logical operators.
It is an annoyance that their writers play historian because there is no more in these stories than ordinary romance.
This compound sentence contains:
This is compounded by the logical operator because to:
A composite sentence is made up of several sentences that are capable of being spliced by commas.
We insist on fresh vegetables, they like strong spicing, their children will eat only chips, so choosing a restaurant is always a problem.
This sentence contains:
This is spliced to:
This is spliced to:
This is spliced by a comma and `so' to:
EXERCISE 2 is appropriate here.
The dependent sentence does not construct its own subject-object/complement unit. It borrows that unit, and the sense it makes, from the independent sentence that precedes it. The dependent sentence is a staple feature of texts that represent dialogue:
`Margaret was married yesterday.'
`You will miss her.'
Both the sentences `I know’ and `Yes’ depend on the sentences that precedes them: It is only because the sentence `Margaret was married yesterday’ precedes it that `I know’ can make the sense `I know that Margaret was married yesterday'. And it is only because the sentence `You will miss her’ precedes it that `Yes’ can make the sense `I will miss her'.
The next sentence is not a model of the basic sentence: `The tall girl’. Yet it raises the subject `girl' and describes her as `tall': Doing this, it should be acknowledged as a copula basic sentence. But it is not: The description is not effected by the copula: The adjective `tall' is an attributive adjective, not a predicate adjective. Given its text, this sentence reveals itself to be the verb basic sentence `The tall girl is flying to the moon tomorrow':
The dependent sentence is in no way an inferior sentence. In some texts it is much more appropriate than the independent sentence. Indeed, the writer or speaker who uses independent sentences in contexts that prefer dependent ones is irritating enough to provoke protest along these lines: