What is a Sentence

In its simplest terms, a sentence is a collection of words ordered in a particular way so as to express a complete idea. ‘Complete’ suggests that the sentence does not need more information in order to be understood or to be clear. For example, saying “I want,” or “Talking is dangerous,” would be incomplete ideas. In the first example, it is because the verb ‘want’ is incomplete in its meaning if we don’t know what the subject (I) wants; in other words, the verb want requires an object. The second example is in fact a complete grammatical sentence, though it lacks meaning because it is not true, or not specific enough. To make these sentences ‘complete’ in terms of grammar and syntax (meaning derived from order), we must add information to them; “I want candy.” “Talking on your cellphone while driving is dangerous.”

A sentence must also contain, at the minimum, one essential element: the independent clause. The independent clause is what that sentence is about. Of course a sentence may have more, even a lot more, added to the independent clause; however, a sentence that does not have a clear independent clause is not a grammatically correct sentence.

A clause is a group of words that must contain a subject and a tense verb (a verb that expresses a tense—past, present, future). Most independent clauses contain the subject and the verb, as well as (an)other element(s), usually an object, a complement, an adverbial phrase, or a combination of these. Many of you will know the structure SVO as the basic sentence. However, besides SVO, you must also be aware of SVC and SVA.

The independent clause will be looked at further here. For now, let’s look at other elements of a sentence.

A sentence is a collection of parts of speech, words that have a function in the sentence and relationships to other words in the sentence. Look at the following example:

Yesterday I met my sister’s boyfriend for the first time.

Each word in this sentence has a particular form and function within the sentence.

Yesterday – this is an adverb functioning as a time expression

I – this is a pronoun functioning as the subject of the sentence

Met – this is a tense verb (past tense) functioning as the main verb

My – this is an adjective pronoun functioning as a signifier of possession

Sister’s – this is a possessive adjective that also functions as a signifier of possession

Boyfriend – this is a noun that functions as part of the direct object of the sentence

My sister’s boyfriend – this is a noun group functioning as the complete direct object

For – this is a preposition functioning as a signifier of frequency/experience

The – this is a definite article (adjective) functioning as singularity marker

First – this is an adjective functioning as an ordinal marker

Time – this is a noun functioning as an object of the preposition (for)

For the first time – this is a prepositional phrase functioning as adverbial complement to the verb met

What we have here then is a collection of parts of speech, functions, and relationships. This situation exists in all sentences and is therefore a good place to begin building our understanding of the elements of grammar. We will begin with parts of speech, then move on to the independent clause, its components, such as the subject, verb, object, etc., then look at more complex elements such as subordinate clauses, phrases, participles, punctuation, and other points.

But before we get there, you might want to see a more complex sentence dissected into its simpler parts:

“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Dream – verb. Here, it is the main verb of the sentence (imperative voice—implies the subject ‘you’). Dreams makes up the S-V pairing in the independent clause in this case.

No – adverb, used as a function of negation for the adjective small

Small – adjective modifying (in terms of scope) the size of dreams

Dreams – plural noun used as object to verb dream

For – clause marker (coordinating conjunction) introducing a reason(why)- equivalent to

‘because’ (not to be confused here with the preposition for)

They – pronoun representing the original noun, dreams. Subject of the 2nd independent clause

Have – present tense main verb of the 2nd independent clause

No – adjective, modifying the noun ‘power’

Power – noun, object to verb ‘have’

To – preposition, introducing an infinitive verb

Move – base verb (i.e. no tense). Used with ‘to’ as infinitive

The – definite article to specify

Hearts – plural noun, as object of verb ‘to move’

Of – preposition, to show possession

Men – plural noun, object of preposition ‘of’

Dream no small dreams – independent clause

for they have no power – second independent clause

to move the hearts of men – infinitive phrase, complement to ‘power’

Note: There is no grammatically correct sentence in English that cannot be so dissected. As such, there is no sentence that cannot be understood.

The Independent Clause