Sentence types

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In discussing sentence and clause types, we can consider the basic syntactic forms of simple sentences, and then proceed to more complex types of sentences. These exist not just as grammatical categories or rules, but more importantly, for various communicative and pragmatic functions.

1 Formal sentence patterns

Simple sentences are those that consist of a single main clause [주절, 主節]. There are about seven basic grammatical patterns for simple sentences. These consist of subjects (S), verbs (V), objects (O), complements (C), and adjuncts (A). A complement is a word in the predicate [the verb phrase; 술부, 述部] that completes the meaning or description of a subject or object; an adjunct [부가사, 附加詞] is an additional, optional element that adds further information, such as an adverb or a prepositional phrase (but the sentence would be grammatical and would make sense without it). Longer simpler sentences are built on the same patterns.

Type Example #1 (simple) Example #2 (longer)
1. SV Janice smiled. The petite blond was grimacing.
2. SVC Janice is tall. A new hard drive would be a great addition.
3. SVO Janice bought a car. The incompetent repairman dropped the new hard drive.
4. SVOC Janice made her neighbor angry. The stupid repairman made the customer very upset.
5. SVOO Janice gave her neighbor a present. The stupid repairman had to give the customer a refund and an apology.
6. SVA Janice left yesterday | in a hurry. The evil scientist, who was experimenting with unspeakable and horrible projects, was chased | out of town | an angry mob.
7. SVOA     Janice gave them a present | rather unexpectedly. The angry mob burned down the lab of the mad scientist | with torches and kerosene | in the middle of the cold, frosty night.

In writing courses and in sentence grammar, we often distinguish the following types of clauses, which then form different types of sentences.

type definition discourse function
Main or independent clauses subject + verb
(+object / predicate) - SVO
Can exist by itself as a sentence
Foregrounds a main idea
Subordinate (dependent) clauses sub. conjunction + SVO
Cannot exist by itself as a sentence
Backgrounds information, making it secondary to that of the main clause
Participle clauses participle (adjectival form of verb) with objects / adjuncts, modifying a noun in the main clause Backgrounds information that is additional, descriptive, explanatory, indicating results, etc.

2 Basic clause-sentence types

Subordinate clauses that background information mainly include what are sometimes called adverbial subordinate clause. There are other types of subordinate clauses: relative clauses, for modifying nouns, and complement clauses for expressing complex ideas by embedding one clause into a higher clause as a subject or object of the higher clause (e.g., I know what you are thinking, I know that you are planning something).

These types of clauses can form the following sentence types.

type definition example function
Simple one main clause The iguana ate the rodent. Foregrounds activities and ideas
Compound or coordinate two main clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction The iguana at the rodent and the cheetah chases the zebra. Foregrounds two clauses equally in sequence
Complex main clause + subordinate clause Zebras hate cheetahs because they always try to chase and eat them. Backgrounds one idea to a main idea
Compound-complex two main clauses + subordinate clause
(or main clause + two subordinate clauses)
Some mammals hibernate in winter, but others simply adapt to cold weather, because they have evolved to adapt to and to exploit their niches differently. Juxtaposes two foregrounded ideas with a backgrounded idea, e.g., for explanation

A subordinate clause might go before a main clause to present secondary information leading up to the content of the main clause; or a subordinate clause could come after the main clause, to provide further explanation, evidence or support for the idea of the main clause.

  • Because they always try to chase and eat zebras, zebras hate cheetahs
  • Zebras hate cheetahs because they always try to chase and eat the zebras.

There are also non-finite clauses or phrases, such as participle phrases, and verbless clauses with be omitted (for modification).

  • Having finished all my research writing, I decided to take a vacation.
  • He talked about the different patients he was treating, many of them mentally ill.

2.1 Discourse functions

Dependent (subordinate, adverbial) clauses can be used with flexibility to express a particular flow and nuance. If the subordinate clause is placed at the beginning of the sentence, it can form a cohesive, organizing link between the text and/or ideas immediately before the clause and the new information that follows. On the other hand, dependent clauses at the ends of sentences provide expansion of the information in the main clause. For example,

This ability to influence public opinion and mobilize the entire nation against a particular deviant activity ... illustrates the vast power of the mass media in defining deviance and mobilizing support for strong social control. Because they need to capture the public interest, the mass media often sensationalize crime and deviance. (Thompson & Hickey, 2002, p. 183)[1]

In this excerpt, the sentence-initial position of the because clause connects the information in the preceding sentence to that in the main clause (e.g., public opinion—public interest, the mass media—they, and vast power—capture). Specifically, adverbial clauses at the beginning of sentences play the role of connectives and transitions between ideas and information in keeping with the-old-information-first-and-the-new-information last pattern. Some researchers have found that the majority of all initial clauses consist of if-conditionals that have the function of organizing discourse and establishing and maintaining topics (Ford & Thompson, 1986). The following example shows how the subordinate clause (adverb clause) expands on the preceding idea in the main clause by providing further examples or support.

The annihilation of a minority may be unintentional, as when Puritans brought deadly diseases that Native Americans had no immunity to (Thompson & Hickey, 2002, p. 237).

3 Canonical verses non-canonical sentences

Canonical sentences are basic SVO sentences for normal foreground-background flow. Other types of sentences are used in academic writing, narrative writing, and informal types of writing. See also the separate page on inversion.

type definition example function
Passive The object becomes the subject; the agent, cause or performer of an action may optionally be expressed with by + noun A mixture of 4% acetic acid was prepared, enhanced with ground resins and aromatic compounds, and added to the salad; it was referred to as balsamic. Focus or attention is on the subject, and what happens to it, rather than what it does
Inversion An adjective, adverbial, or prepositional phrase moves to subject position, and the subject comes after the verb.
The farmer entered the chicken coop, not suspecting the chickens would revolt against him. As he started to prepare their feed pellets, in the corner there appeared a large angry rooster with a knife, ready for hand-to-hand combat. Makes a transition from one topic scene or topic to a related topic – a smooth topic shift or scene shift

The following sentence types are informal, colloquial, or conversational.

type definition example function
Cleft It’s the X that... A: The program comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Would you like the 32-bit?
B: It’s the 64-bit version that I need.
emphasis and contrast, between alternatives
Wh-cleft (pseudo-cleft) What [clause] is... A: We only have the 32-bit in stock.
B: What I need is the 64-bit version.
emphasis and contrast, between alternatives
Preposing (preposed object),
object or phrase moved to sentence initial position; VSO sentence She prepared several gifts for the committee members. One of these gifts was a toy phaser for the Trek fan; another was a little Tardis for the Dr Who fan.

A: Can I get a muffin? B: We’re out of muffins. A bagel I can give you. Or an omelette. A: Okay. B: So, a bagel you want?
I think he was Russian. No, Ukranian he was.

highlighting or emphasis (often said with emphatic intonation);
sometimes used for repairs and echo questions.
Left dislocation Object moved to subject position, with corresponding pronoun in the predicate Bronchitis is manageable. But pneumonia, you have to go to the hospital for that. Amplifies a new item or topic in the discourse.
Extraposition (extraposed subject) Complement clause moved out of subject position, with a dummy pronoun left behind That I overslept was regrettable. →
It was regrettable that I overslept.
Avoiding complex complement clause in subject position, which is harder for listeners to process
Like-cleft It’s like... I’ve tried the experiment three different ways. It’s like, I don’t know what to do. Highlights or emphasizes the following clause, and can also soften or qualify it (some like as if)

4 See also

  1. From Hinkel (2004:247-248).

4.1 Links