Grammar Series #1: What is a sentence? (Revised)

Welcome to the long-awaited (or maybe just long-procrastinated) first official post in my summer grammar series! I looked at my introductory post recently and was slightly shocked to realize that I wrote it on May 10th. I suppose it was party fueled by that familiar feeling of overwhelming freedom and possibility that comes after every finals week. I apologize.

In spite of the delay, I believe it’s not too late to make something useful out of this series. Before we get going, though, I want to be clear that this series is not intended to make me sound smart or superior. I’m hoping to learn as much from this as the next person.

My goal is to make grammar more accessible and easier to understand (and hopefully remember!) by exploring some common grammar and usage difficulties. Like most things we learn in elementary school, grammar requires a refresher course now and then to keep things sharp. In a strange way, I even find grammar a little fun, so I’m looking forward to this; I hope you are too!

Without further ado, I thought we’d start off with the basics. I’ll ask you a question that my Editing professor asked the class early last semester. It’s the kind of question that everybody thinks they know the answer to until they actually have to articulate an answer for it; at least, that’s how it was for me.

What is a sentence?

Seems simple enough. This is a question everyone should know the answer to; after all, we use sentences every day. I, however, struggled to find words to answer this question, as did many of my classmates. I grasped onto the most common answer that had been drilled into me in grade school: “A sentence is a complete thought.” This phrase probably sounds familiar. However, my professor was not satisfied.

“Okay,” he said. “What’s a complete thought?” I didn’t know. Nobody had ever explained that to me. Nobody had even thought to ask.

My professor began writing on the chalkboard. He stepped away and read aloud what he had written: “Dog food! Isn’t that a complete thought?” I suppose that’s debatable; the point is, defining a sentence as a complete thought begets confusion rather than clarity. To get clarity, we’re going to have to get technical.

In her book, Understanding English Grammar, Martha Kolln explains:

“All complete sentences contain one or more clauses, but not all clauses are complete sentences.” – p. 7


 “A sentence is a word or group of words based on one or more subject – predicate, or clause, patterns; the written sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with terminal punctuation.” – p. 182

More simply put, all sentences are independent clauses.

This, of course, raises the next question: what is an independent clause?  Let’s cover more ground by also looking at the other type of clause: dependent clauses, perhaps foggily labeled as “fragments” but more clearly termed “subordinate clauses,” and you’ll see why.

*subordinating conjunction: “connects clauses of unequal grammatical rank. The conjunction introduces a clause that is dependent on the independent clause.” – Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. p. 256

Examples: until, because, since, if, that, before, after, although, while, whenever…(a Google search is probably your best bet here)

Independent clause joined to subordinate clause: 

Follow this road until you reach the highway.

Color coded!



In Brief…

A sentence is an independent clause. An independent clause contains or implies a subject and predicate and can be as simple as a single word (Help!) or as complicated as, well, as complicated as you can make it.

A sentence is NOT, nor can it ever be, a subordinate clause. A subordinate contains subject and predicate but begins with a subordinating conjunction, and therefore “depends” on attachment to an independent clause in order to have meaning.

On my revision: I had previously written that a subordinate clause “does not contain a proper subject and predicate.” After thinking about it more, however, I decided that I had inadvertently done what I find to be a common cause of grammar difficulty: I had used imprecise language. What did I mean, “does not contain a proper subject and predicate?” It felt confusing. It was also wrong. If you look at the examples above, you’ll see that a subordinate clause very well can contain a subject and predicate: “until you reach the highway” is subordinate, but it contains a subject (you) and a predicate (reach the highway). What makes a subordinate clause subordinate is the presence of the subordinating conjunction.


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