By Scott Biddulph
One of the mysteries, at least to me, about the great writers of the past and present is their innate ability to form strong, vibrant sentences. I`m often amazed at the way some writers can say so much with so few words. They are masters at concise communication. I think they were born with syntax and grammatical chips in their brains. I doubt that Mark Twain, E.E. Cummings, or James Patterson ever diagrammed a sentence to check for grammatical qualities; however, they were and are great writers.
Although I`m not a fan of Noam Chomsky in political terms, as a grammarian he is one of the most cited experts in modern history. His theories on Generative Grammar are quite interesting. Some readers may be familiar with his famous sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The sentence is grammatically correct, yet it is semantically incoherent: (Colorless green ideas (subj) + sleep (Vi) + furiously (adverb of manor).
The sentence has a noun phrase subject followed by an intransitive verb that is modified by an adverb of manor.
For those of us who were not born with the genius of writing, but rather had to learn, there is still hope. Never give up. Take some time to study a few simple rules about verbs and the different sentence patterns and you can become a stronger writer.
There are a number of grammatical theories and explanations of sentence structures but my personal favorite is Max Morenberg`s Doing Grammar (Oxford University Press, 2010).
If you`re having trouble with sentence structure, one of the keys to all sentences is the type of verb you use in the predicate. We will look at four main verb types for the purposes of this post. Knowing and recognizing sentence structures by their verb type will make you a stronger writer, editor, and reader. Grammar time!
The Intransitive verb: Intransitive verbs are verbs that do not need to point to a direct object. In fact, they can end a sentence. An example sentence would be as follows: The dog ran. In the example sentence the dog is the subject and ran is the intransitive verb. Some intransitives require an adverbial to make the sentence coherent: The dog acts mean. In this example acts is an intransitive verb; however, it requires an adverb to make the sentence coherent. You can`t say the dog acts and have a coherent sentence, yet, the verb acts is intransitive. In conclusion, intransitives can end a sentence or may be followed by an adverb or adverbial phrase.
The Transitive Verb: The transitive verbs will always point to a direct object in the sentence: Karen baked a cake. This is a very simple sentence but it shows a simple subject + verb + direct object sentence structure. The transitive verbs have three patterns: a simple direct object, a VG (verbs that gives) two place transitive, and a VC (verb of consideration) two place transitive structure.
VG: Janet gave tom a birthday card. In this sentence, birthday card is the direct object and Tom is the indirect object—what did Janet give? To whom did Janet give it?VC: The verbs of consideration will always be a two place transitive with a direct object and an adverbial, noun phrase, or an infinitive phrase that acts as an object compliment: The Republicans considered the Democrats crooked.
The BE verbs (is, are, was, were, be, being, been): The “BE” verbs will always have a predicate noun, a predicate adjective, or a predicate adverb following them: John is funny. In this sentence, the subject John is described as funny—funny is a predicate adjective (also a subject compliment). This brings up the simple reminder that you can usually identify a verb by what follows to its right. Let me add another nugget for those of you that have a terrible time with passive voice sentences: a passive voice structure will have a form of the auxiliary verb “BE” and a past participle form of the main verb.
Example: The boy was followed home. I know our English teachers wanted to hit us over the head when we used a passive sentence structure; however, they are useful when the action that takes place is more important than the subject of the sentence. If you need to get rid of the passive voice and make the sentence active voice, just remove the auxiliary “BE” and use a singular verb: Someone followed the boy home. Do you notice how much more curiosity or drama is conveyed in the second sentence than in the first? In the first sentence, “The boy was followed home,” there isn`t much curiosity about the scene this sentence creates in the mind; however, in the second sentence the reader becomes curious as to the identity of or reason for someone following the boy home.
The Linking or Helping Verbs: Linking verbs are a small group of verbs that will always be followed by either a predicate noun or predicate adjective (one word or a phrase). One way to identify a linking verb is the “linking verb test.” My professor taught me this little nugget in advanced grammar class in college. If you can replace the main verb with a form of the verb “BE” or the word “seems” than you have a linking verb.
Example: The coffee tastes horrible—The coffee IS horrible—The coffee SEEMS horrible. The word “tastes” is a linking verb because it passes the linking verb test.
If you find that a sentence is awkward or doesn’t sound right, look at the main verb, identify what type of verb you’re using, and follow the rules of what should follow that verb to its right. This will make for clearer and smoother writing. Compound sentences that have sentence modifiers and relative clauses are simply larger structures that follow these same rules.