In order to discuss what makes a good sentence, we need some shared vocabulary to discuss the function of different words. You may have learned your prepositions from your adjectives at school, but subsequently you may have forgotten which is which. Or, if you’re like me, maybe you never learned the difference between an adverb and a conjunction.
Video transcript follows below:
Someone once said, there are three steps to writing a great story:
- Write a good sentence.
- Write another good sentence.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 until finished.
But in order to discuss what makes a good sentence, we need some shared vocabulary to discuss the function of different words. You may have learned your prepositions from your adjectives at school, but subsequently you may have forgotten which is which. Or, if you’re like me, maybe you never learned the difference between an adverb and a conjunction.
Either way, this video is a wee run through some of the names there are for different words. I won’t be spending much time discussing syntax on online writing tips .com; first, because, truth told, I haven’t got a Scooby; and, second, because there are already many great resources on the web – links to some of those can be found below this video. But here’s a quick run through of some vocabulary I’ll be using at different points as we progress through the course. Whenever I need to deploy these terms, I’ll refer you back to this video.
Let’s begin with a very simple sentence:
‘Bob shouts’ has a subject and a verb, which is the minimum necessary for a sentence to be complete.
In grammar the subject is the ‘doer’ or the thing being discussed. In this sentence the subject is Bob. The (simple) subject of a sentence is always a noun (or pronoun).
‘Bob’ is a (proper) noun. Nouns are words used to name people, places, things, animals, and sometimes qualities.
Used a different way, shout can be a noun. For instance, in the sentence ‘Bob hears a loud shout.’ It’s no longer a verb because now the verb is ‘hears’.
Verbs convey an action or state. An action physical or mental – running, thinking, talking – or a state of existing – being, appearing, seeming.
Because shouts is an intransitive verb, this sentence is complete as it is. However, we could extend it if we wanted to. How about, ‘Bob shouts at his socks.’ Bob is still the subject and shouts is still the verb, but what sort of word is ‘socks’? It is, of course, a noun. Harder to define is the word ‘at’. Any idea? It’s a preposition. Prepositions aren’t easy to define – they are words that show the relationship between a noun or pronoun (in this case the noun ‘socks’) and another part of the sentence. Taken together, ‘at his socks’ is a prepositional phrase – it tells us what Bob shouts at.
His is a possessive pronoun. And personal pronouns – those that relate to people – can be masculine, feminine, or plural, and they come in four ‘cases’: there’s the subject case when the person or people are the grammatical subject, and the object case when they’re not. For instance, I do something, but you do something to me. There’s also the possessive case for indicating ownership and reflexive pronouns which, thankfully, are a lot easier to use than explain.
Within this prepositional phrase, his is also a modifier. And a modifier is a non-essential word that, well, modifies the phrase. In this case ‘his’ tells us which socks Bob shouts at, the nutter.
Let’s add in a couple more words to modify elements in this sentence. It turns out that Bob is angry at his socks because they’re smelly. Hardly the socks’ fault, but there you go. What sort of a modifier is ‘smelly’ in this sentence? Well, it’s modifying the noun ‘socks’ so it’s an adjective. An adjective is a word that modifies, which is to say gives more information about, a noun.
But ‘angrily’ doesn’t modify a noun; it modifies a verb. So what sort of modifier is it? It’s an adverb. An adverb is a word that modifies the meaning of a verb, adjective, or other adverb.
So there we have our sentence. And yet one question is still troubling me: the question of Bob. I mean, what’s wrong with this guy? Why is this bampot shouting at his socks? Let’s move our original sentence up to the top and see if we can expand on it. Bob angrily shouts at his smelly socks – comma – because he is mad.
This new bit, ‘because he is mad’ is an example of a clause. And a clause is a part of a sentence that has its own subject and has or implies a verb. In this case the subject is ‘he’ and the verb is ‘is’.
But what’s ‘because’ the word that introduces this clause? In this case it’s a subordinating conjunction. And the whole clause ‘because he is mad’ is a subordinate clause. A subordinate clause is one that doesn’t make sense on its own but needs to be connected to something else.
Here’s another example of a subordinate clause: ‘If this example goes on much longer’. That clause doesn’t make sense on its own. We need to add on an independent clause in order for the sentence to be grammatically complete. ‘If this example goes on much longer, we will all go mad.’ That’s a full sentence. And the new bit is an independent clause. An independent clause is one that makes sense all on its own, and ‘We will all go mad’ could be a standalone sentence.
So there’s our finished sentence. One last thing, if we want to join those two sentences together then we have only a few options. We could use a semicolon, or we could use a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’.
Coordinating conjunctions are magic words that can form single sentences out of independent clauses that otherwise wouldn’t fit together. There are only seven: for, and, not, but, or, yet, so. You can remember them because they spell out FANBOY.
If you made it to the end of this video then I salute you – I promise I’ll never do anything like this to you ever again. Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.
(The thumbnail image is by Daniel Silliman. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license and more of his work can be found here)