English Sentence Structure:
Subject and Predicate

English Sentence Structure

English sentence structure is the basic arrangement of a sentence. A sentence includes a subject and a predicate. (It may include more than one.)

The subject tells who or what the sentence is about. Then the verb and the rest of the predicate give information about what the subject does or is.

It is possible to have one word sentences in English: a verbal command like “Come!” or “Listen!” In commands, the unexpressed subject of the sentence is ‘you.’

However, most English sentences begin with an actual subject (one or more nouns or pronouns, possibly with supporting adjectives) followed by a predicate (a verb or verbs and possibly modifiers, phrases, or objects.) 

Besides simple sentences, it is possible to have

  • a compound subject or verb, 
  • a compound sentence (two subject-predicate clauses combined with a comma and conjunction or with a semicolon-- see Compound Sentences), 
  • or a complex sentence (two subject-predicate clauses combined in a way that makes one subordinate to the other. See Complex Sentences.)
English sentence structure-- types of sentences. This image shows different types of simple sentences. (simple English sentence structures.
More sentence types: compound an complex sentences, illustrated with a green parrot.compound & complex sentences

Word Order in Simple Sentences

In these examples, the subject (noun or pronoun + modifiers like adjectives) is orange and the predicate is blue(Again, the predicate is the rest of the sentence-- most importantly, the verb, and sometimes also an adverb, prepositional phrase, or nouns that are objects of the verb-- see the section on direct and indirect objects near the bottom of this page.)

  • Birds sing.
  • The little birds were singing happily in the treetops. 
  • Some birds are beautiful.
  • Mary walked rapidly to the store.
  • She wanted to get home before dark.
  • We will study tonight.
  • hope for an ‘A’ on the test tomorrow.
  • Tonight, Bill and I need to study hard for the test.
  • Jim and Susan do not like homework.
  • They won't study.

English Sentence Structure in Questions

In questions the subject (S) follows the helping verb (HV) but precedes the main verb (MV) and the rest of the sentence, so the predicate is divided: HV- S- MV- rest of sentence.

To make the examples clearer, the helping verb is black, the subject is orange, and the main verb and rest of the predicate are blue.

  • Does Jeff study every night?
  • Do Bill and Jeff work together?
  • Can you swim?
  • Are they swimming right now?
  • Is Sarah going to the party?

For more on question formation, see Question Formation .See also Negative Sentences. 

Sentence Structure: Phrases

A phrase is a group of words that gives information but is not a complete clause or sentence. (In other words, it does not include both a subject and a verb.)

Prepositional Phrases are groups of words beginning with a preposition and including a noun or pronoun (with supporting adjectives, etc.)

In the examples above, ‘in the treetops,’ ‘to the store,’ ‘before dark,’ and ‘for the test tomorrow’ are prepositional phrases.

Direct or Indirect Objects

Predicates can also include direct or indirect objects.The subject does something to the direct object: The boy hit the ball.Mom bought gifts.Certain verbs can also have an indirect object:The boy gave me the ball.Mom bought us gifts.Indirect objects always precede (go before) direct objects.

Instead of using an indirect object, you could express the same idea with a prepositional phrase using ‘to’ or ‘for’ after the direct object:He gave the ball to me. Mom bought gifts for us.

Here are two examples (with explanations):

  • University students study subjects in great depth. (‘Subjects’ is the direct object.)
  • Some teachers give students a lot of homework. (‘Homework’ is the direct object; ‘students’ is the indirect object.)

Some verbs cannot take direct objects, and other verbs require them. Dictionaries will tell you if a verb is transitive (takes an object), intransitive, or both. In the first examples above, ’sing’ and ‘study’ are intransitive. But both can also be transitive: we can sing songs or study English. Other verbs like laugh or sleep are always intransitive. They cannot take a direct object at all.

Summary: What You Need to Remember

I hope you don’t feel overwhelmed by all these grammar terms. You don’t need them to speak English, but understanding English sentence structure can sometimes help with reading or writing.

When you write, it’s important to remember: .

1. Each sentence in English needs a subject and a verb.

2. The subject and verb need to agree (3rd person singular subject with 3rd person singular verb; plural subject with plural, base form, verb). Examples: I am American. You are a student (or you all are students.) He is tired.We like fruit. Mary likes bananas better than apples. Do they need a ride? Does Bob like movies? See Subject-Verb Agreement for more information

In questions and negative statements, it’s the helping verb that must agree with the subject. Also, for questions put the helping verb before the subject, and the main verb and the rest of the predicate after the subject.

For an explanation of the parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, prepositions, etc., see English Parts of Speech.

English sentence structure can get more complicated. We can combine ideas by putting two clauses (potentially separate sentences) together to form one longer sentence. See Compound Sentences and Complex Sentences.

There is also more explanation (as well as some good examples) of simple sentences on Question Formation or Negative Sentences.

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