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 (a very complicated example!).

  • But if we accept the witness at his word, it is ultimately a result of our own biases, due to the fact that our assessment is based on our perception of his character and not on the inherent truthfulness of his statement.

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 “accept the witness at his word.” The next subject is “it.” This is followed by the stative-verb predicate “is ultimately a result of our own biases.” The third and final subject in the sentence is “our assessment.” Its predicate is “based on our perception of his character and not on the inherent truthfulness of his statement.”

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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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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