We’ll begin with the essential part of any English sentence. The independent clause is the part of the sentence that contains that sentence’s main idea; in other words, it tells us what the sentence is about. The clause, I want, has both a subject and a verb, yet it is incomplete. This is because ‘want’ is a verb type (called a transitive verb) that must have an object to be complete. Other verb types (such as the ‘be’ verb) also need extra information to be complete. With these types of verbs (linking verbs) we do not use an object, but rather a subject complement, which is a word or phrase that completes the meaning of the subject. For example, if we say “Tom is.” we may mean that Tom exists. In this case the sentence is complete and correct. However, if you want to express something other than Tom’s existence, you must complete the idea of what he is: “Tom is a doctor.” This sentence expresses information about Tom.
When your sentence needs to express other information you can add a phrase to provide that information. For example, “I go” has both a subject and a verb, yet is an incomplete idea. To complete it, you need to add information such as where, how, when, etc. You can do this by adding a complement such as a prepositional phrase, ‘to the store’, ‘on foot’, ‘by bus’, or an adverbial, ‘every day’, ‘regularly’, and so on (these phrases are also known as adverbial phrases); or you may add a gerund, ‘I went shopping.’ In other words, every independent clause that needs more than just a subject and verb in order to have a complete meaning will require a complement, whether it be an object, subject complement, or adverbial.
Clauses and phrases come in different forms and types and will be looked at further in their own sections. For now, let’s review the simple form that is the independent clause:
SVO – Subject – Verb – Object: In this form, it is important to remember the function of the object. The direct object will answer the question “what? or “whom?” about the verb. In other words, what or who ‘received’ the verb (e.g., action or description)?
Linda plays tennis
Linda plays what? she plays tennis. Tennis answers the question what? about plays.
Jack kissed Jill?
Jack kissed whom? He kissed Jill.
The indirect object will answer the question “to/for whom?” or “to/for what?” (in relation to the direct object which completes the meaning of the verb).
Jack asked his teacher a question.
Jake asked what? a question. (direct object)
Jake asked a question to whom? his teacher. (indirect object)
Keep in mind that direct objects come in different forms. So do subjects. We will discuss subjects here.
SVC – Subject – Verb – subject Complement: Here too, the complement will answer the question “what?” It is very important to remember, however, that the complement answers the question what? about the subject, not the verb. We use the complement with ‘be’ verbs as well as copular (also called linking) verbs (these are verbs that have no action, like feel, seem, look (appearance), sound, etc.). The easiest way to understand this is to think of these verbs as an equal sign (=).
Tom is a doctor. – Tom = doctor
You look happy. – You = happy
Be careful with copular verbs, though. They make the sentence appear to have the equal sign grammatically, yet unlike be verbs, the equal sign is in question. In other words, if someone says “You look happy,” this suggests that the speaker thinks you are happy, but you need to confirm or deny this idea. We will look at all verb types in more detail here.
SVP – Subject – Verb – Phrase: As we have seen above, a direct object and a complement answer the question what? about the verb or subject. An indirect object answers the question to/for whom/what? about the verb. Questions such as how? why? where? and others are answered by different types of phrases. Phrases, unlike clauses, have no subject or tense verb. They are sometimes also thought of as complements to the verb (unlike the subject complements we saw above), because sometimes it is a one-word complement.
James takes his sister to school every morning.
James takes whom? his sister (direct object)
He takes her where? to school
He takes her when? every morning
I study alone
I study how? alone
The most important point to remember when analyzing a sentence is what is being completed—if it is the verb and the question is what? or whom?, we use an object. If it is the verb and it answers when?, or how?, or where?, etc., we use a verb complement or phrase. If it is the subject, we use a subject complement. But, don’t forget that what is really necessary is the subject and verb and these two alone CAN be a complete sentence. For example, if someone asks me what I do (for a living, i.e., my occupation) I can simply answer “I teach.” This is a correct sentence with a complete idea. Of course, I can add information to make the idea more specific:
“I teach English.” (SVO)
“I teach Mathematics at the University.”(SVOP)
“I teach new immigrants how to complete the necessary forms for different governmental agencies.” (SVO(indirect and direct);C (to forms)). In this case, the indirect object is new immigrants, and the direct object is how to complete the necessary forms
And so on. These examples demonstrate that English sentences may be structured in a variety of ways, but that certain basic elements must appear in any and all sentences.
All this is important to understand because it makes us aware of the verb we are using, or need to use, and it makes us aware as well of the complete idea we are trying to express and whether or not we have successfully done so. Of course, identifying the subject or object is sometimes the difficult part for non-native English users. In the next section we will look at the different types of subjects, objects, and complements that we can construct, as well as a review of verbs.