Chapter 30: ELL Sentences



English Language Learner (ELL) Sentences

This chapter focuses on the sentence issues that are most challenging for learners of the English language.


In this chapter

Basic Sentence Structure

Structure 1: Subject + Verb

In English, the order of words indicates their use in the sentence. Subjects generally come before verbs; indirect and direct objects generally follow verbs. In the pattern below, the subject is connected to an intransitive verb—smiled. An intransitive verb is complete without any objects.

Structure 2: Subject + Verb + Direct Object

In the pattern below, the subject is connected to a transitive verb—positioned. A transitive verb requires a direct object to be complete. (Honorato positioned what? The camera.) The direct object receives the action of the verb.

Structure 3: Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object

In the pattern below, the transitive verb gave is completed by an indirect object and a direct object. The direct object receives the action of the verb. (Honorato gave what? An engagement ring.) The indirect object tells to whom or for whom the action was done. (Honorato gave an engagement ring to whom? His girlfriend.)

Basic Sentence Patterns

Advanced Sentence Structure

Structure 4: Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Object Complement

In the construction below, the direct object Lupita receives the action of the verb named. The object complement then renames or describes the direct object. This construction is rare, occurring usually with verbs for nominating someone (named, elected, appointed, nominated, called).


Structure 5: Subject + Linking Verb + Subject Complement

In the construction below, a linking verb (such as is, are, was, were, will be, seems, appears) connects the subject president with the subject complement Doctor Allan Schnieder. A subject complement either renames or describes the subject.

Structure 6: Linking Verb + Subject + Subject Complement

In the construction below, the linking verb comes before the noun, signaling that the sentence is a question.

Structure 7: Helping Verb + Subject + Verb + Direct Object

To form a question with an action verb, the sentence below begins with a helping verb followed by the subject and then the main verb.

Structure 8: Expletive + Linking Verb + Subject

In the construction below, the expletive there signals that the subject is delayed until after the verb. (The word here is also an expletive.)

Conditional Sentences

Some sentences express a situation that depends on a certain condition’s being met. One clause presents the condition (the conditional clause) and the other clause presents the situation (the main clause). Different conditionals are formed differently.

Factual Conditionals

A factual conditional refers to an actual situation in the present or past tense. The conditional clause starts with a word such as if, when, or whenever, and the verb in the clause matches the tense of the verb in the main clause (both past tense or both present tense).


Predictive Conditionals

A predictive conditional refers to possibilities. The conditional clause starts with the word if or unless and uses a present-tense verb. The main clause uses a modal (will, can, should, may, might) and a present-tense main verb.

Hypothetical Conditionals

A hypothetical conditional begins with if and refers to a situation that is contrary to fact or is unlikely to happen.

Errors with Repeated/Omitted Words

Some languages allow double subjects or double negatives. Others allow subjects to be omitted. These structures aren’t permitted in Standard English.

Double Subjects

Avoid repeating the subject of a sentence or clause.

Incorrect: My friend, she enjoyed the movie.

Correct: My friend enjoyed the movie.

Double Negatives

Avoid using two negatives when forming a negative statement. Two negatives actually cancel each other out, making the sentence positive.

Incorrect: I didn’t never get my paycheck. I didn’t get no paycheck. I hardly never got paid.

Correct: I didn’t get my paycheck. I didn't get any paycheck. I never got paid.

Omitted Words

Some languages allow the subject of the sentence to be omitted, but in English, most sentences must have a stated subject. In a command, the subject you can be implied. Wash the car. (You wash the car.) All other sentences must have a stated subject.

Incorrect: Is in the garage.

Correct: It is in the garage.

Also, make sure not to omit the expletives there or here.

Incorrect: Is a bucket on the shelf.

Correct: There is a bucket on the shelf.

Repeated Object

In an adjective dependent clause, do not repeat the object.

Incorrect: I need the book that I lent it to you.

Correct: I need the book that I lent to you.



An idiom is a commonly used expression whose meaning is different from the meaning of the words in the expression. Here are some common idioms.




add fuel to the fire

make a bad situation worse

Criticizing your brother for getting upset will only add fuel to the fire.

an arm and a leg

a great deal of money

That sleek new convertible costs an arm and a leg.

an axe to grind

a dispute with someone

The author had an axe to grind with the critic who disliked his book.

back-seat driver

someone who criticizes without being directly involved

I make all the decisions and take all the responsibility, while you’re just a back-seat driver.

bad apple

someone who causes trouble in a group

That team has a bad apple who is destroying morale.

ball in your court

the next act or decision is yours

After we made our proposal, the ball was in the other company’s court.

beat around the bush

avoid getting to the point

Don’t beat around the bush. Tell me what you really think.

bend over backward

do anything in order to help

The sales staff bends over backward for customer satisfaction.

between a rock and a hard place

between two bad alternatives

The couple could declare bankruptcy or get a second mortgage: They were between a rock and a hard place.

bite your tongue

don’t say what you want to say

My brother didn’t take my advice to get his oil changed. When his engine seized up, I bit my tongue.

break the ice

get a group to interact

Let’s play a party game to break the ice.

chew out

verbally scold

When I showed up late for work, my boss chewed me out.

chip on your shoulder

challenging, looking for a fight

My neighbor was never friendly; he always had a chip on his shoulder.

chow down

eat heartily

At the buffet, the whole team chowed down.

crack up


When I saw the photo of the dancing dogs, I cracked up.

cross your fingers

wish for a positive outcome

Tonight is the vote on the important law. Cross your fingers!

cup of joe

cup of coffee

I can’t ever focus in the morning until I have a cup of joe.

cut to the chase

get to the point

Cut to the chase: What happened when the police showed up?

dime a dozen

common, easy to acquire

Bad renditions of Christmas carols are a dime a dozen.

drive someone up the wall

annoy someone extremely

The constant dripping from the faucet drove me up the wall.

feeding frenzy

an aggressive group attack

The actor’s drunk driving arrest set off a media feeding frenzy.

get over it

move beyond something troublesome

I know the sales report depressed you, but you have to get over it.

get up on the wrong side of the bed

have a bad attitude, feel grumpy

When he slammed the door, I knew he had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.

give someone the cold shoulder

ignore someone

I’m always friendly when I see her, but she gives me the cold shoulder.

go for broke

gamble everything

At first I was afraid to ask her out, but I decided to go for broke.

go out on a limb

take a chance, take a risky position

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that you stop dating people like him.

head over heels

joyful, thrilled, in love

She was head over heels about her new boyfriend.

heart on your sleeve

express emotions openly or obviously

You always know how Pedro feels; he wears his heart on his sleeve.

hit the hay/sack

go to bed

I’m exhausted. I think I’ll hit the sack.

hit the nail on the head

do or say something exactly right

When you said we need a new car, you hit the nail on the head.

in the bag

completely certain

After preparing for two weeks, I knew my audition was in the bag.

in your face

aggressive, confrontational

The car sales person was really in your face.


diagonally across from

The donut shop is catty-corner to the gas station.

know the ropes

understand a procedure or location

After a week in the restaurant, I really knew
the ropes.

let sleeping dogs lie

avoid stirring up an old conflict

Don’t remind your brother about losing his necklace: Let sleeping dogs lie.

let the cat out of the bag

share a secret

Before I could tell Mom about my job, Dad let the cat out of the bag.

lose face

suffer embarrassment

So as not to lose face, I quit before they could
fire me.

lose your head

go crazy, lose control

When the snowplow blocked my driveway, I lost
my head.

off on the wrong foot

starting a relationship badly

I spilled my drink on my blind date. We got off on the wrong foot.

off the hook

released from a tough situation

When the talent show was canceled, I was off
the hook.

on pins and needles

anxious or excited

Before our first date, I was on pins and needles
all day.

on the fence


I’m on the fence about voting Republican or Democrat.

on the same page

in agreement

We’re on the same page about the new tax: We’re against it.

out of the blue

without warning; unexpectedly

We couldn’t pay our bills. Then out of the blue,
I got a job.

over the top


The complaint letter was scathing and over the top.

piece of cake

easily accomplished

I’m good at math, so most equations are a piece
of cake.

pig out

eat greedily; eat much

At Thanksgiving dinner, the whole family
pigged out.

pipe down

quiet down; shut up

You’d better pipe down. People are tired of your complaints.

pull your leg

tease, kid, or trick someone

When he said that you won $100, he was pulling your leg.

put your foot in your mouth

say something embarrassing

When I criticized the painting, I didn’t know I was talking to the artist: I put my foot in my mouth.

ride shotgun

sit in the front passenger seat

You can drive, and I will ride shotgun.

save face

recover from embarrassment

Paying for the repairs to the pool table helped me save face.

start from scratch

do something over from the beginning

We threw out the original files and started from scratch.

the last straw

a small burden causing a big breakdown

When my neighbor blocked my drive, that was the last straw.

tongue in cheek


The comedy provided a tongue-in-cheek view of corporate finance.


an unclear situation or result

After all the bids were in, it was a toss-up who would get the contract.

under the weather


The talk show host with a scratchy voice seemed under the weather.

when pigs fly


You can expect me to help you move when pigs fly.

zero tolerance

punishing even the smallest crimes

The athletics department has a zero-tolerance police for steroid use.

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