The Essential Minimum

What would be the very first things to know if we wanted to begin a practical review of English grammar? Learning a skill involves both theory and practice, but too often we’re ready to get practicing without an understanding of what we’re doing and why. Here are five points that can give direction to our study of writing and language.

The Three Elements. There are three basic elements in language: word, phrase, and clause. We combine these three elements, along with a few marks of punctuation, to build sentences and express our thoughts, no matter how simple or complex. Writing clearly ultimately depends on thinking clearly, and we do that when we make distinctions, when we put the right words to the ideas we have in mind. Every word, phrase, and clause we write must count, without exception.

Subject and Predicate. The first and most important distinction we make in communicating our ideas is between what we are talking about and what we are saying about it. What we are talking about—the idea we have put down for discussion and wish our reader to pay attention to—is called the subject. What we are saying about the subject—what we want our reader to understand—is called the predicate. So in the sentence Chicago has many beautiful parks, the word Chicago is the subject and has many beautiful parks is the predicate. The predicate always contains the verb. When we join a subject with a predicate like this, we produce a thought.

Clause and Phrase. A group of words with a subject and a predicate is called a clause. Every clause expresses one thought, because every clause combines a subject and a predicate. By contrast, a group of words without a subject and predicate is called a phrase. A phrase, like a word, merely expresses an idea, not a thought. It suggests or implies something, but because it does not include a verb that explicitly says something, it cannot express a thought. So simply to say Chicago or many beautiful parks is not really to say anything at all. Each points to an idea, of course, but without a verb, that’s right where we stay—in the world of ideas.

Sentences. A sentence is a complete statement that is made up of at least one clause. A simple sentence has one and only one clause. A compound sentence has two or more clauses. So we can say that the statement Chicago has many beautiful parks is both a clause and a simple sentence. If we wish to expand the statement by adding another clause to express another thought, we create a compound sentence: Chicago has many beautiful parks, and we often bike the trails there in the summer. This compound sentence has two clauses and is therefore stating two thoughts.

Parsing. To analyze the grammatical structure of a sentence is called parsing. It is customary simply to place a vertical bar between the subject and its predicate; this is the essential analysis, because it isolates the two fundamental parts of a thought. It can also be helpful to bracket the verb and parenthesize phrases. A verb is the controlling force of a clause, and identifying where it stands gives us a point of reference from which to determine whether the other components of the statement are in the right place. Phrases, like individual words, act as specific parts of speech; seeing clearly where a phrase begins and ends makes it easier to decide if it’s in the correct position. A very simple analysis of a compound sentence, then, (and often a simple and quick analysis is all that is needed to help sort out a statement) looks like this: Chicago | [has] (many beautiful parks), and we | often [bike] the trails there (in the summer). We’re now ready to continue with a deeper analysis should we need to.

These five points make up the bedrock of our study to improve our use of language, both as we speak it and write it to describe and explain our ideas to others. Technically, this kind of language is called expository prose, and so it’s right to put such an emphasis on thought as we analyze it: expository prose explains, demonstrates, makes clear—the way we use language most of the time. And although there are other, less analytical (and some say therefore higher) ways to compose language (poetry and song, for example), expository prose is the primary means we use to live the day and build the world. The better we understand how it works, the clearer our thoughts and ideas will be to ourselves and others.


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