Friday, 11 January 2013

Grammar for teachers (cont'd) : sentences

This blog is about a 'prescriptive' form of grammar. It won't be the 'descriptive'  type where I might be simply describing how people use language. This is about laying down the law (!) about how a particular kind of writing (not speech, please note) should be.

The core feature of the written sentence when it's in continuous prose (like these blogs) is the 'subject-verb' construction. Before we look at that, it's worth remembering that a good deal of human communication, eg a good deal of informal speech, song, poetry, advertising, a lot of writing in the digital formats (twitter, facebook, blogs, forums, etc)  doesn't necessarily follow this pattern. We should always remember that the repeated presentation of subject-verb sentences ('continuous prose')  is for particular kinds of writing - but not all writing. A good deal of this writing is 'high prestige' (legal, political, financial, literary, journalistic and so on) and so is also called the 'language of power'. For that reason, some will say that that it is the job of schools to teach all children - especially those from families who are 'excluded from power', or 'disadvantaged' - how to write as I am writing now, so that they are given the possibility of accessing this language of power.

In broad terms, I agree with that proposition. However, the two main obstacles which hinder this process are not to do with teachers unwilling to teach children. They are an exam system which demands that a percentage of children fail - even if they succeed in performing the requisite task; and a competitive ranking of schools which inevitably marks some schools as failures, even if they are not failing. So, the very system which is supposed to be giving all children access to this language of power is at the same time failing a large minority of children and students. Education is full of self-fulfilling prophecies made by parents, teachers and students whereby people mark themselves out as 'failing' or 'succeeding' and this competitive exam and school system serves as a rigid confirmation of these self-fulfilling prophecies. Put another way, children and students not only learn 'stuff' (knowledge and skills), they also learn about what kind of learners they are ie their 'perception' of themselves as successes or failures. This is learned behaviour, no matter how much the graders and markers want to claim that their tests and exams are true measures of 'intelligence' or 'ability'.

So, yes, I am in favour of children and students being taught this language of power but believe that the competitive systems militate against certain children feeling 'entitled' to take it on.

End of preamble.

In the meantime: subject-verb.

What follows is for the time being only about 'statements' - not questions, commands or exclamations. As you read, you will think of exceptions to what I'm saying. I'm guessing - but most of the exceptions may well come from speech, poetry, advertising along with questions, commands and exclamations. Please remember, what follows is only about the statements of continuous prose-writing.


The linguist Michael Halliday reminds us that the word 'subject' is available to us as a word to describe 'what we are talking about' or 'what we are writing about' or the 'topic of conversation'. It's worth bearing in mind that the grammatical subject of a sentence is quite often also the 'topic' or theme of the sentence too. Quite often this subject will come adjacent to the 'main verb' of a sentence and provided that sentence is not an exclamation, command or question, it's quite likely to come before the main verb.

'Main verb' - in the writing of formal sentences in standard English, every sentence should have a main verb. This verb will appear in a construction (called a 'clause') which will not begin with the leader words which begin 'subordinate clauses'.

Leader words for subordinate clauses

These leader words for subordinate clauses include words which, when they're used on their own,  you will by and large only use for the purpose of beginning subordinate clauses (in statements in continuous prose)  e.g.
where, why when, while, who, how, although, whereby, if, but, because, whereby,
and some phrases:
even though, with which, from whom, to whom, no matter how, no matter when, no matter where,
(Try making up some sentences using those words!)

There are also a good few leading words which you can use to lead subordinate clauses but can also be used for other purposes:

since, though, so, that.

There is a difficulty for children if you say that a particular word begins a subordinate clause, when you know that you can use it to do other things. Take 'since' for example:

'Since the house burned down, I've been rather cold'
'Since yesterday, I've been cold.'

In the first example there is a verb 'burned down', in the second example, there is no verb. In the grammar of formal prose this is asking the word to do two slightly different things. In terms of its meaning and only its meaning, you're not really asking it to do much that's different.

Main and subordinate clauses

So, you can see from this terminology, 'main' and 'subordinate',  there is an implied hierarchy: the core of a formal sentence is this main clause and then next to it and dependent on it, are subordinate clauses. An observation: grammatical terms often imply things like this but they may not necessarily be so. However, when we tell children and students these things, they may well take them literally.

I digress.

What is the difference between a main clause and a subordinate clause in formal prose? The difference is the 'stand alone' principle. Main clauses stand alone, subordinate clauses sound as if they need something else.

Simple example:

'When it rains, I stay indoors.'

Try writing, 'When it rains.' (ie with capital letter and full stop.) The only way this works is an answer to a question. BUT - writing like this is 'informal' prose, and, according to prescriptive grammar, not allowed. On the other hand, 'I stay indoors', can work as a 'stand-alone'.

However, common to both main and subordinate clauses (in formal grammar statements) is the fact that the verb must be a 'finite verb'.

Finite verbs

What is a finite verb? Think back to the blog I wrote about verbs. I 'conjugated' verbs using I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they. A finite verb is one that will fit that table. One or other of those pronouns will work if you put it in front of it.

'When the computer broke down...' Can I write: 'it broke down'? Yes, it's a main verb.

So, surely all verbs are finite? Well, not really. Because we can break verbs up into different parts, we can use those parts in sentences and expressions.

'Going out in the rain is crazy.' ('Going out' here is not a finite verb.)
'Having eaten a big meal, we made our way to the vomitorium.' ('Having eaten' here is not a finite verb)
'To be or not to be, that is the question.' ('To be' and 'not to be' are not finite verbs).

So, if you look through what I've written in this blog, prior to this sentence, can you spot some 'main clauses' and subordinate clauses'?

Here was my opening sentence:

" The core feature of the written sentence when it's in continuous prose (like these blogs) is the 'subject-verb' construction. "

What a mess!

Instead of nice neat construction like 'When it's sunny, I go out', I've written a sentence that seems to interrupt itself twice.

I'll show you:

The subject-verb construction is this one:

'The core feature of the written'

Where I've put  the three dots ('ellipsis') '...'  are two interruptions:

1. 'when it's in continuous prose'
2. '(like these blogs)'.

The first of these two has a verb in it (hidden in 'it's'  ie 'is').
The second has no verb in it, and so (in one system of terminology) is a 'phrase'.


Now what of this 'subject'? In the neat, simple examples given in text books, the subject is often a pronoun like 'I' or 'she' or 'you', or a simple construction like 'The apple'.

Mine, though, is 'The core feature of the written sentence'. Old grammar would say that the 'true' subject of the sentence therefore is 'the feature', everything else in that phrase is descriptive of it. Newer grammar tends to put it all together as a 'noun phrase' or 'NP'. Perhaps a little confusingly, this term is used even if the subject is a single word like 'you' or 'cars'. They're all 'noun phrases'.

The point though is that the subject of a formal prose main clause and/or a  subordinate clause - so long as it's not an exclamation or command -  is a noun phrase.

Exclamation: 'What a load of rubbish!' or 'Damn!'
Command: 'Get out!' or 'Go away!')


A sentence that is a statement in formal prose writing needs to include:
a finite verb
a subject

As anyone reading this knows, it will also need a capital letter at the outset and a full stop at the end.

A sentence that is a statement in formal prose writing can also include one or more subordinate clauses. There are many different kinds of subordinate clauses. They will include:
a leading word or phrase
a finite verb

Subordinate clauses can appear before main clauses, after them, or even interrupting them.
Main clauses 'stand alone'.
Subordinate clauses do not stand alone.

A subject will always be a noun phrase.
There are many kinds of noun phrases ranging from a single word to complex phrases and clauses. We haven't explored these yet.

A finite verb is not always easy to spot or create. One test is to see if you can put a pronoun in front of it and when doing so, it 'sounds right'. I can see that this not very precise, particularly if you are a non-native speaker of English.

We use parts of verbs all the time in many different ways.


I have not fully explored 'transitive' and 'intransitive' verbs.
These are ways of looking at verbs in relation to what comes after them.

'I'm cleaning my teeth.'  'am cleaning' here is being used 'transitively - the 'am cleaning' verb points forward to the thing(s) being cleaned.

'I'm going.' 'going' is 'intransitive'. It doesn't point forward to something else. The verb 'am going' is not acting on anything else.

The pronoun 'sound right' test for 'finite verbs' will include thinking about whether the verb in question is being used transitively or intransitively. The finite parts of the verb 'to be' (am, are, is, was, were, am being, are being, is being, was being, were being etc) are considered to be a special case.