A complete sentence functions by having two parts: a subject and a predicate. The subject is the grammatical focus, and the predicate is the grammatical statement about that focus. Example:
Here, the subject is My neighbor, which is the grammatical focus of the sentence, and the predicate is bit my dog, which makes a statement about that focus. The key feature that makes a predicate function–the part that states something about the subject–is the verb. In this example, the verb is bit. So the fundamental skill in understanding sentences is the ability to identify subjects and verbs.
For most students, identifying the subject is much easier after first identifying the verb. So to follow that natural progression of the mind, we will cover verbs first, and subjects second.
Everything that is stated about the subject is called the predicate, but for the purpose of identifying how a sentence works we need only to identify the simple predicate, which is essentially the functioning verb (along with any of the verb’s auxiliaries, or helping verbs). In the above example, My neighbor bit my dog, the complete predicate is bit my neighbor, but all we really need to identify is the functioning verb, which is bit.
Verbs come in the form of actions and states of being. Action verbs are words that express some performance or behavior, such as the following examples:
These are often easier to identify consciously than verbs that express states of being. However, states of being are extremely common in your own regular talk, especially the verb to be in all its forms (including contractions):
- is (’s)
- am (’m)
- are (’re)
- were (’re)
These state-of-being verbs express state of being itself, and they are also called linking verbs since they connect descriptions to subjects, such as the following examples (verbs underlined):
- He is happy.
- I am lost.
- They’re loud today.
- We were tired after the hike.
- Class was long.
Some verbs can function as actions or as states of being such as the word smell. Example (verbs underlined):
The first smell is a kind of being, but the second smell is an action. With that said, it is not necessary to distinguish between these two types of verbs; the important point is simply to know that both can be verbs.
A single functioning verb can actually comprise more than one word. This is because the verb often needs help from other words, auxiliaries, in order to express grammatical tense or condition. This, again, is common in your regular talk. You walked yesterday, but tomorrow you will walk, or you might walk. For our purposes, it is acceptable to identify the verbs in the previous sentence as walked, will walk, and might walk. Each of the following sentences has a functioning verb that comprises more than one word (verbs underlined):
- I have read his essay.
- He had told me to.
- I will give him feedback.
- He might not have liked it.
- He is going to call me tomorrow.
Also note that a sentence can have numerous verbs all connected to the same subject, as the examples below show (verbs underlined):
- College challenges your resolve and expands your mind.
- The monster screamed, fell, and died.
A couple of rules can help avoid some common mistakes in identifying the functioning verb:
- Any word with –ing added to it at the end is never the functioning verb by itself. It needs either another word in front of it (such as is or was), or it is simply not the functioning verb.
Examples (verbs underlined):
- Running away from the mob of zombies, he screamed.
- He was looking scared.
In the first sentence, running is a word that adds -ing to the end (-ing is added to run) and it has no other verb in front of it, so it cannot be the functioning verb. (In this case, it happens to be a type of word called a gerund.) The functioning verb is screamed. In the second sentence, although looking is not the functioning verb by itself, it has a verb in front of it, so the pair of words was looking is the verb.
- Any word that has to right in front of it is never the functioning verb.
Examples (verbs underlined):
- She loves to play virtual reality games.
- She wants to design them too.
In the first sentence, play has to right in front of it, so it cannot be the functioning verb. The correct verb is loves. In the second sentence, the functioning verb is wants, not design, which has to right in front of it. (In these cases, the words with to right in front are a type of word called an infinitive, which is a form of verb that isn’t functioning.)
Identify the verbs in the following sentences. Make sure to watch out for prepositional phrases (crossing them out first helps), and heed the rules above so as to avoid lone words with an added -ing and words with to right in front.
- The cat sounds ready to come back inside.
- We have not eaten dinner yet.
- It took four people to move the broken-down car.
- The book was filled with notes from class.
- We walked from room to room, inspecting for damages.
- Harold was expecting a package in the mail.
- The clothes still felt damp even though they had been through the dryer twice.
- The teacher who runs the studio is often praised for his restoration work on old masterpieces.
- Singing well takes years of training.
- To sing well takes years of training.
As stated above, the subject is the grammatical focus of the sentence, the part that the sentence makes a statement about. The general word-order in English is subject first and verb second, so subjects often appear toward the beginning of sentences, and they are often nouns or pronouns. A noun is a word that identifies a person, place, thing, or idea, such as doctor, school, cat, table, public speaking, philosophy, or monsters. A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun, such as I, he, she, it, you, they, or we.
Subjects can come in many forms, which typically fall into the following three categories:
- A common or proper noun can be a subject. Examples with the subject underlined:
- The house is empty.
- My car needs a new set of tires.
- Frogs are raining down from the sky.
- New York City faces many challenges.
- A pronoun can be a subject. Examples with the subject underlined:
- She powerlifts.
- They love pizza.
- It won’t work.
- Note that a subject doesn’t have to be just one or two words. A larger group of words can be a subject. Examples with the subject underlined:
- Seventy recent college graduates attended the premier.
- Shakespeare’s Globe Theater has an interesting history.
Implied Second Person
- We often omit the second-person pronoun “you” when we use it as the subject, but it can still be the subject even if it doesn’t appear in the sentence. Examples:
- Shut the front door.
- Apply by the end of the calendar year.
- See the related entry on person and point-of-view.
In all of these examples, the subject is the implied “you.”
- Gerunds include actions ending with –ing, which can be subjects. In many ways, when adding -ing to an action, it ceases to be an action per say and becomes more of an idea, as with a noun: a person, place, thing, or idea. Examples with the subject underlined:
- Running hurts my knees.
- Laughing burns calories.
- Showing up late reflects poorly on an employee’s performance.
- Gerunds include state of being ending with –ing, which can be subjects. Again, when -ing is added to the state of being, it functions more like an idea. Examples with the subject underlined:
- Being positive can help your performance.
- Feeling anxious is natural.
Compound Subjects: two or more subjects
- A sentence can have numerous subjects that are each connected to the same verb. Examples with the subject underlined:
- Desmond and Maria have been working on that design for almost a year.
- Books, magazines, and online articles are all good resources.
Identify the subjects in the following sentence. Make sure to watch out for prepositional phrases (crossing them out first helps).
- The gym is open until nine o’clock tonight.
- After the storm, we went to the store to get some ice.
- The student with the most extra credit will win a homework pass.
- Maya and Tia found an abandoned cat by the side of the road.
- The driver of that pickup truck skidded on the ice.
- The book is about Oprah.
- It was an engaging book.
- The people who work for that company were surprised about the merger.
- Working in haste means that you are more likely to make mistakes.
- The soundtrack has over sixty songs in languages from around the world.