Syntax refers to the ways in which we order specific words to create logical, meaningful sentences. While the parts of speech are all the different types of words that we can use, syntax is the set of rules, patterns, or processes by which we can put them together.
Because English is such a flexible language, it can be difficult to understand all the specific nuances that govern these rules and patterns. However, we have some basic building blocks that help us identify the hierarchy of how the language is structured.
We’ll briefly look at the parts that make up this hierarchy of structure. Go to the individual sections to learn more about each.
The Hierarchy of Grammatical Structure
Subjects and Predicates
The basis of all syntax really begins with the subject and the predicate, both of which are required to form a complete and logical statement. The subject is the person or thing that performs or controls an action in a sentence, while the predicate describes that action.
Put in the simplest terms, the subject is at least a noun (or a pronoun representing a noun), while the predicate is at least a verb. However, the subject can also include any words that add meaning to the noun or pronoun, such as determiners or other modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, or phrases acting like them).
Take, for example, the following sentence:
- “My father drives a car to work each day.”
The subject here is not just father (the noun), but also the determiner my. This specifies which father is controlling the action of the verb drives.
Likewise, the predicate includes any words that add meaning to the verb, such as modifiers, objects, or complements. Let’s look at that sentence again:
- “My father drives a car to work each day.”
Here, the predicate is the entire phrase drives a car to work each day. In addition to the verb drives, it also contains the phrases a car (the direct object of the verb), to work (a prepositional phrase that modifies the verb), and each day (an adverbial phrase that also modifies the verb).
Modifiers are words, phrases, or even clauses that add descriptive meaning to another word; they are categorized as being either adjectives or adverbs.
Modifiers can appear anywhere in a sentence, and they can be a part of either the subject or the predicate. For example:
- “The red car went too fast.”
In this sentence, we have three modifiers. The adjective red is modifying the noun car and is part of the subject. The adverb too is an intensifier modifying the adverb fast; together, they modify the verb went as an adverbial phrase.
The modifier red in this sentence is known as an adjunct, because it does not provide essential information to the sentence; if we were to remove it, the meaning would not change in any significant way.
The adverbial phrase too fast, on the other hand, is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Without the phrase, it would read “The red car went.” This is still a complete sentence, but the intended meaning is completely changed. Modifiers that are necessary to the meaning of the sentence are known as complements, and they are always part of the predicate.
Phrases are groups of two or more words that do not contain both a subject and a predicate. They are formed when a determiner, modifier, or complement is used to describe or complete the meaning of another word. It is also common for a phrase to be made up of smaller phrases. For example:
- “The bright red car is mine.”
The subject the bright red car is all a single phrase. It is considered a noun phrase with the noun car at its root (sometimes referred to as the “head” noun). The phrase is also made up of the determiner the and the adjective phrase bright red (the adjective red plus its own modifier, the adverb bright).
Likewise, the predicate of the sentence, is mine, is a verb phrase made up of the verb is and the possessive pronoun mine.
Because phrases can be part of both the subject and the predicate, they are often a constituent part of clauses.
All of the information contained in the subject and the predicate function together to form a clause. As such, all clauses are, by definition, a group of two or more words containing both a subject and a predicate. Depending on its structure, a clause can be either dependent or independent.
A dependent clause (also called a subordinate clause) is unable to stand on its own. It is marked by certain kinds words (commonly called dependent words) that connect it to an independent clause, which it relies on to have a complete, logical meaning.
Independent clauses, on the other hand, are able to function as sentences on their own. They do not depend on the information from other clauses to be considered complete.
Take these two examples:
- “when they were younger”
- “Mark and Betty often traveled together”
Both examples have a subject—they in the first example and Mark and Betty (a compound subject) in the second—and a predicate—were younger and often traveled together.
However, the first example is a dependent clause because of the word when. This subordinating conjunction tells the reader that more information is required for a complete thought.
The second example, on the other hand, is an independent clause—it has everything in it that the reader needs to know. We must always have at least one independent clause when we are forming a sentence.
A sentence is considered the most complete unit of syntax in English. It is always made up of at least one independent clause, and, because of this, it always contains a subject and a predicate.
A sentence that only contains a single independent clause is known as a simple sentence, such as our example from earlier:
- “Mark and Betty often traveled together.”
We can also attach a dependent clause to the beginning or end of an independent clause to add more information or elaborate upon the meaning of the sentence. This forms what’s known as a complex sentence, as in:
- “Mark and Betty often traveled together when they were younger.”
- “When they were younger, Mark and Betty often traveled together.”
It’s also common to join two or more independent clauses together, either by using a coordinating conjunction and a comma; a conjunctive adverb, a comma (usually), and a semicolon; or just a semicolon. These are known as compound sentences. For example:
- “Mark and Betty often traveled together, and they have been to many different countries.”
- “Mark and Betty often traveled together; as a result, they have been to many different countries.”
- “Mark and Betty often traveled together; they have been to many different countries.”
If we link a complex sentence to a simple sentence or another complex sentence, we form what’s called a compound-complex sentence:
- “Mark and Betty often traveled together when they were younger, and they have been to many different countries.”
In addition to the four categories of structure (simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex), there are several categories of sentences based on their purpose. We’ll look at those more closely in the chapter on Sentences.
Exercise 1 What is the function of the subject of a sentence?
- To identify the person or thing performing an action
- To describe an action that a person or thing performs
- To identify the person or thing receiving the action of a verb
- To describe another word in a sentence
Exercise 2 Which of the following must a clause always contain?
- A modifier
- A subject
- A predicate
- A & C
- B & C
Exercise 3 True or false: Modifiers can only appear as part of the predicate.
Exercise 4 Which of the following types of clauses can function alone as sentences?
- Dependent clauses
- Noun clauses
- Independent clauses
- Adverbial clauses
Exercise 5 Which of the following types of sentences can be made of one independent clause and one dependent clause?
- Simple sentences
- Compound sentences
- Complex sentences
- Compound-complex sentences