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How to Make a Sentence

I’ve started getting some submissions to the writing activity (Woohoo! Keep them coming!), and I’ve noticed that some people are having problems with run-on sentences and sentence fragments. If you did the activity a few weeks ago about finding your problem areas in grammar, you’ve already at least touched on this topic.

First of all, let’s review what a sentence is at the most basic level. In English, every sentence needs to have a subject and a verb. That’s all. There are two exceptions to this—interjections (“Ow!” “Whee!”) and commands/imperatives (“Go!” “Come on!”)—but you probably won’t use them on the TOEFL. The subject is a noun (dog, democracy), pronoun (I, you, we) or gerund (driving, sweeping). Of course, since this is English, your sentence will probably have more than two words, even if it’s a very basic one, because you’ll probably need an article and/or a verb that is made of more than one word.

Here are some of these very basic sentences:

We dance.

The dogs are howling.

Now, not all verbs fit into such a simple sentence. Many verbs take direct objects and indirect objects.

I (subject) gave (verb) Tony (indirect object) a gift (direct object).

The possum (subject) was eating (verb) pasta (direct object).

You can further expand your sentences by adding prepositional phrases, adverbs, and adjectives.

Prepositions are the words that show relationships between nouns; they often have to do with location or movement. To, on, for, toward, from, aboard, upon, and besides are all prepositions. A preposition always has a buddy: a noun, pronoun, or gerund. This buddy is called the “object of the preposition” or the “prepositional object.”

I (subject) gave (verb) Tony (indirect object) a gift (direct object) for (preposition) his birthday (object of the preposition).

The possum (subject) was eating (verb) pasta (direct object) with (preposition) peppers (object of the preposition).

An adjective is any word that modifies, or adds information about, a noun. An adverb, confusingly, doesn’t only modify verbs, although it can. In fact, adverbs can modify any non-noun word.

The wild (adjective) dogs (subject) are howling (verb) loudly (adverb) at (preposition) the full (adjective) moon (object of the preposition).

Unbelievably (adverb), we (subject) dance (verb) constantly (adverb) until (preposition) early (adjective) morning (object of the preposition).

We could keep on doing this for a while (ok, forever), but not very easily. To reaaaaalllly stretch your sentences, you need to start stringing them together with conjunctions like “and,” “but,” and “or.”

I gave Tony a gift for his birthday. He didn’t give me anything for mine.

I gave Tony a gift for his birthday, but he didn’t give me anything for mine.

I’m wearing a silly hat. I don’t want to go outside.

I’m wearing a silly hat, and I don’t want to go outside.

As you can see, the first sentence in each of these examples is made of two complete sentences, or independent clauses. They can be combined with a comma and a conjunction.

You can turn an independent clause into a dependent clause by taking away the subject. For this to work, both clauses have to have the same subject.  Take this example again: I’m wearing a silly hat. I don’t want to go outside.

To turn the second sentence into a dependent clause, I simply remove “I” from it. I can combine my new dependent clause with the first sentence with a conjunction—no punctuation needed.

I’m wearing a silly hat and don’t want to go outside.

Tony got a gift from me for his birthday but didn’t get me anything for mine.

Those are the basics of making a grammatically correct sentence. Stay tuned for a look at what happens when you do it wrong, and how you can avoid it.

 

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