Chapter 27: Sentences




The sentence rules in this section align with those presented in The Chicago Manual of Style.


In this chapter

The Sentence

A sentence is one or more words that express a complete thought.

“Chop your wood, and it will warm you twice.”

—Henry Ford, Sr.

Subject and Predicate

A sentence must have a subject and a predicate. The subject tells who or what the sentence is about. The predicate, which contains the verb, tells or asks something about the subject.

“The Edsel is here to stay.”

—Henry Ford II

Note: In the sentence above, Edsel is the subject—the sentence talks about the Edsel. Is here to stay is the predicate—it says something about the subject.

Understood Subject and Predicate

In formal writing, all sentences must have a subject and a predicate. However, in a command sentence, the subject “You” is often understood.

“Tell me about your day.” (The subject you is understood; tell me about your day is the predicate.)

In informal writing, either the subject or the predicate or both may be “absent” from a sentence; however, both must be clearly understood.

“What is wrong?” (What is the subject; is wrong is the predicate.)

“Everything.” (Everything is the subject; the predicate is wrong is understood.)

“Too bad.” (The subject that and the predicate is are both understood.)

The Subject

The subject is a word, phrase, or clause that tells who or what the sentence is about. It can be a noun, a pronoun, an infinitive, an infinitive phrase, a gerund, a gerund phrase, or a noun clause.

Technology has changed the way business is done. (noun)

I can get that for you wholesale. (pronoun)

To cut costs has been her primary goal. (infinitive phrase)

Finding that document will be difficult. (gerund phrase)

When your samples arrive is the time to begin calling. (noun clause)

Simple Subject

A simple subject is the subject without the words that modify it.

“The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing courage.”

—Robert G. Intersoll

Complete Subject

A complete subject is the simple subject and all the words that modify it.

The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing courage.”

—Robert G. Intersoll

Compound Subject

A compound subject has two or more simple subjects.

Decisiveness and determination are key ingredients to any successful venture.


The Predicate

A predicate is the sentence part that tells or asks something about the subject; it always contains a verb.

“Good management consists in showing average people how to do the work of superior people.”

—John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Simple Predicate

A simple predicate is the verb without the words that modify it.

“Those who give too much attention to trifling things become generally incapable of great ones.”

—Francois, Duke of Rochefoucauld

Complete Predicate

A complete predicate is the simple predicate (the verb) and all the words that modify it.

“Those who give too much attention to trifling things become generally incapable of great ones.”

—Francois, Duke of Rochefoucauld

Compound Predicate

A compound predicate consists of two or more simple predicates.

Jackie added the figures in both columns and surprised us with the astonishing total.

Direct Object

A direct object receives the action of the verb. It’s a noun or a noun substitute that answers what or whom after a verb. (See objective case.)

Please prepare the income statements.

Using Phrases

A phrase is a group of related words that lacks a subject, a predicate, or both. It functions as a single part of speech but does not express a complete thought.

will be running (verb phrase; no subject)

in the race (prepositional phrase; no subject or predicate)

Marie will be running in the race. (These two phrases plus a subject make a sentence.)

Types of Phrases

There are six types of phrases: noun, appositive, verb, prepositional, absolute, and verbal.

Noun Phrase

A noun phrase includes a noun or pronoun plus all related modifiers. It can function as a subject, an object, a complement, or an appositive.

Appositive Phrase

An appositive phrase follows a noun or a pronoun and identifies or explains it; it includes a noun and its modifiers.

Denzel, the director of our art department, has been with the company for ten years.

Verb Phrase

A verb phrase includes a main verb and the preceding helping verb or verbs.

Money orders are being issued at the bank and the post office.


Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase includes a preposition, its object, and any modifiers of the object. It functions as an adjective or an adverb.

Worthwhile projects are accomplished only with hard work. (The prepositional phrase is used as an adverb modifying the verb are accomplished.)

Luck is not a main ingredient in the recipe for success. (The prepositional phrase in the recipe is used as an adjective modifying the noun ingredient; the phrase for success is used as an adjective modifying the noun recipe.)

Absolute Phrase

An absolute phrase includes a noun or a pronoun and a participle, as well as any modifiers (including any object of the participle).

His voice rising above the noise, the manager encouraged his team. (The noun voice is modified by rising, a present participle. The entire absolute phrase modifies manager.)

Verbal Phrases: Gerund, Infinitive, Participial

A gerund phrase is a verbal phrase that includes a gerund and its modifiers. It functions as a noun.

Making rubber tires was once a hot, exhausting job. (The gerund phrase acts as the subject.)

Workers grew weary of sweating through their shifts. (The gerund phrase is the object of the preposition of.)

An infinitive phrase includes an infinitive and its modifiers. It functions as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb.

To walk outside was a welcomed break. (Acting as a noun, this infinitive phrase is the subject of the sentence.)

After the holiday rush, we wanted some time to relax. (Acting as an adjective, this phrase modifies the noun time.)

He rubbed a rough hand through his bristly white hair to jog his memory. (Acting as an adverb, this phrase modifies rubbed.)

A participial phrase includes a past or a present participle and its modifiers. It functions as an adjective.

Recalling the name of his favorite mystery writer, the man smiled. (The participial phrase modifies man.)

This laborer, retired recently, takes refuge in books. (The phrase modifies laborer.)

A Closer Look

Be careful to place participial phrases next to the nouns or pronouns they modify so that you don’t create a dangling or misplaced modifier.

Panicked by the turbulence, I reminded my seatmate to breathe deeply. (This misplaced modifier is confusing: Is it I or my seatmate who is panicked?)

Panicked by the turbulence, my seatmate needed to be reminded to breathe deeply. (Clear)


Using Clauses

Independent Clause

An independent clause has both a subject and a predicate and expresses a complete thought; it can stand alone as a sentence.

Smartboards fill walls, and smartphones fill palms.

Note: The above sentence has two clauses; each independent clause can stand alone as a sentence.

Dependent Clause

A dependent clause cannot stand alone. It can, however, add important detail to a sentence.

While some people watch movies on their phones, others check email on their TVs.

Adverb Clause

An adverb clause answers how, where, when, why, how much, or under what condition. Adverb clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction.

When I read a book with my phone, the screen shows the text.

Adjective Clause

An adjective clause is used to modify a noun or a pronoun by answering the questions what kind or which one.

A parent of mine who shall remain nameless reads books with his phone by shining the flashlight on the page.

Noun Clause

A noun clause functions as a noun and can be used as a subject, an object, or a complement.

What unites screens big and small is their ability to deliver information.

Using Sentence Variety

Function of Sentences

Writers use sentences of varying functions, including statements, questions, commands, exclamations, and conditionals.

Statements (Declarative Sentences)

Declarative sentences simply state information about a person, a place, a thing, or an idea.

“Consumers are the most merciless, meanest, toughest market disciplinarians I know.”

—Edwin S. Bingham

Questions (Interrogative Sentences)

Interrogative sentences ask questions.

Why do some people flit from one job to another, while others stay for decades?

Commands (Imperative Sentences)

Imperative sentences give commands or make requests. Often the subject (you) is understood.

Never rely on your memory—or a computer’s.

Command Sentences


Exclamatory sentences express strong emotion.

Always have a backup plan! Always!


Conditional sentences show that one situation depends on another or express conditions contrary to fact.

“If Patrick Henry thought that taxation without representation was bad, he should see how bad it is with representation.”

Old Farmer’s Almanac


Structure of Sentences

The structure of a sentence is simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex. This depends on the relationship between the independent and dependent clauses in it.


A simple sentence has only one clause, which is independent; thus, it has only one subject and one predicate. The subject and/or predicate may be single or compound.

My dogs bark. (single subject; single predicate)

My dogs and my cat fraternize. (compound subject; single predicate)

Their barking and yowling can startle and annoy. (compound subject; compound predicate)


A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses without any dependent clauses. The clauses are most often joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, so, but), by punctuation, or by both.

The dogs get weekly baths, so what is that smell?

It can’t be the cat; Missy is a fastidious self-groomer.

Note: Correlative conjunctions are also used to join the clauses in a compound sentence.

Either the dogs got into the garbage, or Missy’s been mouse hunting.

In addition, semicolons and conjunctive adverbs can be used in compound sentences.

Cats and dogs can be “friends”; still, there are certain limitations.


A complex sentence has only one independent clause (in red) and one or more dependent clauses. Dependent clauses usually begin with relative pronouns or subordinating conjunctions.

When the weather is nice, I walk the dogs for several miles. (one dependent clause; one independent clause)

When we get to the parkway, and if there are only a few people around, Felix and Hairy can run free. (two dependent clauses; one independent clause)


A compound-complex sentence has two or more independent clauses (in red) and one or more dependent clauses (in blue).

If I’m feeling spunky, I run, too, but I can never keep up with the dogs. (one dependent clause; two independent clauses)

A Closer Look

In general, varying sentence structure will enhance your writing style, making it more interesting and engaging. Remember, though, that clarity is still the single most important quality of good writing.

Arrangement of a Sentences By arranging words in a particular way, the writer creates a point of emphasis. These arrangements may be classified as loose, cumulative, periodic, or balanced.


In a loose sentence, the point of emphasis comes at the beginning. Explanatory material is added as needed.

The press release is a vital tool often used to increase public visibility, to create a positive image, and to market services or products.


A cumulative sentence places the point to be made in the main clause and gives it emphasis with modifying words, phrases, or clauses placed before it, after it, or in the middle of it.

While double-checking the facts for accuracy, press-release writers look for the critical information, the newsworthy data, the new answers to old questions.


A periodic sentence begins with specific examples and ends with the main idea.

With the editor lopping lines here and there and cutting off the end of the news release to make it fit the space, you will soon see the wisdom of putting critical information in the first paragraph.


A balanced sentence features a parallel structure that emphasizes a similarity or a contrast between two or more grammatically equal parts (words, phrases, or clauses).

When writing a press release, start with the most important information and end with the least important data.

Note: Parallelism means “putting elements of equal value into similar constructions.” Parallelism can make your sentences especially clear and add emphasis to your ideas.

His first full-time job meant the end of impossible budgeting, with an easier life ahead. (Unparallel)

His first full-time job meant the end of impossible budgeting and the beginning of an easier life. (Parallel)

Be careful when working with sentences. It's very easy to fall into the trap of writing run-on or rambling sentences. A short, clear sentence beats a long, wordy one every time. (See also natural expressions and plain language.)

Keeping Subjects, Verbs, and Objects Together

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