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Sentences, Subjects, and Predicates

You probably know what a sentence is. Even if you can’t give an exact definition of one, you’re able to recognize a complete sentence when you see it. You may have heard that a sentence must contain a subject and verb (with a few exceptions), especially if you read Kate’s post on sentence construction.

You’ve probably also heard that a sentence in English has a subject, a verb, and an object, usually in that order. This is true of many sentences in English. Here is an example taken from a TOEFL Listening track:

  • You want contemporary reviews.

Not all sentences have a subject verb and object in English, though. It would be more accurate to say that sentences in English all have a subject and predicate. A predicate is the set of words that describes a subject. In the example sentence above, the predicate contains the verb “want,” and the object of “want,” the noun “contemporary reviews.”

Below, see an example of a TOEFL sentence that has a predicate, but doesn’t really have a verb-object structure:

  • These are what we call “comfort behaviors.”

Here, the subject of the sentence is “these.” The sentence’s verb is “are,” a form of “to be.” “To be” is a stative verb that describes the way the subject is instead of what the subject does. Stative verbs don’t have an object, because no object is really being acted upon. So here, the predicate consists of the verb “are” and the words “what we call ‘comfort behaviors.’”

In English, a sentence can actually have more than one subject and predicate. Here is an example of this from the TOEFL (a very complicated example!).

  • But if we see a precise balance of nature, it is largely an artifact of our perception, due to the illusion that nature, especially a complex system like a forest, seems so unchanging from one day to the next.

This sentence, like many TOEFL Reading sentences, is complex. You’ll find the sentence easier to follow if you identify all the subjects and predicates in it. “We” is the first subject in the sentence. It’s followed by the verb-object predicate “see a precise balance of nature.” The next subject is “it.” This is followed by the stative-verb predicate “is largely an object of our perception.” The third and final subject in the sentence is “nature.” Its predicate is “seems so unchanging from one day to the next.”

A subject-predicate pairing in a sentence is called a clause. A clause may be a whole sentence, or it could be a subject-predicate pair that is part of a larger sentence. Inside clauses, you’ll find smaller sets of words called phrases. In my next post on this subject, we’ll take a closer look at clauses and phrases.


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