English is arguably the most straightforward language when it comes to writing. However, you need to understand its complex underlying architecture to express ideas clearly. For native and non-native English speakers alike, one of the biggest challenges is understanding sentence structure, that is, how to order words and phrases inside sentences.
English is a mostly analytic language, which means it conveys most of its meaning through word order. This is why sentence structure is so important. Not only does it help people understand what is happening in a sentence, but it also helps them to understand the importance of every part of it. For example, the sentence “the dog bites the man” means something different than “the man bites the dog.” Yet the only difference is that the nouns have been swapped.
The other way a language can convey meaning is through inflection, which consists in changing a word to change the meaning. Languages that do this are called synthetic languages. However, no language is purely analytic or synthetic. English, for instance, generally conveys verb tense by changing the termination of a verb. Hence, the sentence “John laughs” means something different than “John laughed.”
English gives a lot of freedom when it comes to building sentences. We can swap things around to change the meaning and vary our sentences. However, there is one thing we cannot escape from. In any English sentence, there must be someone doing something. There must be a person or an object engaged in an action. If this is not the case, the sentence is grammatically incorrect and makes no sense. It’s as simple as that.
What does it mean to have someone doing something? It means that there is a WHO and a WHAT. In grammatical terms, it means there are a subject and a verb. The subject can be a noun or a pronoun while the action is a verb. In most sentences, you will also have an object. The object is part of the WHAT and is the recipient of the action.
Let’s look at the sentences mentioned earlier. In the sentence “John laughed,” “John” is the subject (WHO) and “laughed” is the verb (WHAT). There is no object in this sentence because “to laugh” is an intransitive verb and therefore contains all the meaning necessary to understand the action. You can find other examples of intransitive verbs here.
Now, if we take the sentence “The dog bites the man,” “the dog” is the subject (WHO), “bites” is the transitive verb (WHAT), and “the man” is the object (an extension of WHAT).
Sentences in English are made of clauses, which are also known as phrases, and they are divided into two different types. There are independent clauses, which make sense on their own and there are dependent clauses, which do not make sense on their own. The basic difference between the two clauses is that the independent clause has a WHO and WHAT that can act as a sentence on its own while the dependent does not.
Sentence: After he finished work, John went home.
Dependent clause: After he finished work
Independent clause: John went home.
The dependent clause also has a WHO and a WHAT. Although it is true that the clause contains a subject (he), a verb (finished) and an object (work), this sentence does not contain a WHO and a WHAT. The reason is that the subordinate conjunction “after” took away the subject and the verb’s independence. Therefore, the only WHO and WHAT in the sentence are “John” and “went home.” You can see a list of subordinate conjunction here.
Again, every sentence needs a WHO and a WHAT that can stand on its own as a sentence. This means that every sentence needs an independent clause. It is called a simple sentence. Once you have an independent clause in a sentence, you can add a dependent clause. It is called a compound sentence. You can also add another independent clause to the sentence, which makes it a complex sentence. Finally, you can have a sentence with two or more independent clauses and one dependent clause, which makes it a compound-complex sentence.
Once your sentence has a WHO and a WHAT, you can then add details to make it more interesting. This is where things get fun. Essentially, you can put whatever information is necessary to convey your message, and the order of these details may vary based on your message. While there are tons of phrases you can use to add details, my suggestion is that you remember them as WHERE, WHEN, HOW, and WHY.
Indeed, any phrase in the English language serves to express one of these questions: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, HOW, WHY. While the WHO and the WHAT are generally the independent clause, the WHERE, WHEN, HOW, and WHY are generally dependent clauses. In English, we use different types of phrases to express them.
There are 9 different types of phrases: prepositional phrases, adjective phrases, adverb phrases, verb phrases, gerund phrases, participle phrases, and absolute phrases. While they all serve the same function, which is to act as a dependent clause, they do so by beginning with the speech associated with the phrase. For example, prepositions such as “in,” “on,” and “at” to express meaning in a prepositional phrase.
Prepositional phrases: In 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born.
Adjective phrase: Tired by his term in office, Obama retreated in his home city of Chicago.
Adverb phrase: Surprisingly, Gregory made it on time for his appointment.
* Note that there are multiple types of adverb phrases. You can find a list of them here.
Verb phrase: To win, Jessica had to work all week from morning to evening.
Gerund phrase: Wishing to see his friend, Jamie took a day off work.
Participle phrase: Gregory’s most destructive behaviour is drinking too much alcohol.
* You can see more examples here.
Absolute phrase: His eyes closed, he told Sandra she would never see him again.
Let’s take some concrete examples:
Who ———— What ——————————— How ———————————————
Wilson & Smith would have grossed $4 million if Richard Mueller had not resigned.
The sentence could also be:
How ————————————— Who ———— What ————————————
f Richard Mueller had not resigned. Wilson & Smith would have grossed $4 million
Who ———— What ————————— When ————————
Wilson & Smith will have grossed $4 million by the end of the year.
This sentence could also be:
Who ———— When ——————— What ——————————
Wilson & Smith, by the end of the year, will have grossed $4 million.
When ——————— Who ———— What ——————————
By the end of the year, Wilson & Smith will have grossed $4 million.
What is important to remember when adding details to a sentence is that information comes in order of relevance. The first phrase must contain the most important information while the last must contain the least important information. When crafting a sentence, you must ask yourself what details must be emphasized.
English is relatively straightforward as a language. While daunting at first, it can be understood with the right methods. You can think about it within a logical framework which helps understand how people speak and write from the inside out.
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