Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Pre-sentence and Sentence-level Grammatical Elements
Oxford Dictionaries: English defines sentence to mean “a set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses.”
To understand this definition, we must know the meanings of “subject, “predicate,” “main clause” and “subordinate clause.”
A subject is “a noun or noun phrase functioning as one of the main components of a clause, being the element about which the rest of the clause is predicated.” (A noun phrase is simply a group of words that acts as a noun, naming a person, place, thing, or abstraction, such as quality”: “White House” is a noun phrase.)
A predicate is “the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject (e. g., “went home” in “John went home”; “John” is the subject). A predicate can consist of either single verb or a phrase that acts as a verb. (A verb expresses action or a state of existence.)
A main clause, also called an independent clause or a simple sentence, is a group of words that has a subject, a verb, and expresses a complete thought.
A subordinate clause, a type of dependent clause, is a group of words that has both a subject and a predicate but does not express a complete thought. “Which was fun” is a subordinate clause: “which” is the subject; “was fun” is the predicate, but “which was fun” does not express a complete thought.
Although our definition of “sentence” doesn't mention the word “phrase,” we also need to know what a phrase is to understand a sentence. A phrase is a group of words that has neither a subject nor a predicate; therefore, it cannot express a complete thought. “Under the table” is a phrase. Many phrases act as adjectives, describing nous or pronouns, or as adverbs, describing verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Many adverbs end in the letters “ly.”
There are eight parts of speech (the building blocks of language): nouns (name persons, places, things, and abstractions), pronouns (take the place of nouns), verbs (name actions or states of existence), adjectives (describe nouns or pronouns), adverbs (describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs), prepositions (words which relate one word or phrase to another word or phrase, over through a reference to space), conjunctions (words that connect other words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence), and interjections (words that express strong emotion). In addition, phrases and dependent clauses may act as equivalents of adjectives, adverbs, or other parts of speech.
The Seven Elements of Linguistic Communication
Language, as it relates to communication, has seven functions:
- To identify agents, agencies (organizations), or other actors.
- To identify deeds (actions) or objects.
- To identify time, duration (how long something takes or acts), or frequency (how often something occurs).
- To identify location or position.
- To identify manner, method, or technique.
- To identify cause, function, motive, purpose, or use.
- To identify quantity.
These seven functions are associated with questions and are accomplished by the parts of speech and by groups of words (phrases or dependent clauses) that function as parts of speech:
Part of Speech or Common Equivalent
Noun, pronoun, dependent clause
Tom (noun), Jane (noun), he (pronoun), she
(pronoun), it (pronoun), The man in the blue suit (dependent
Danced (action), went dancing (action), ball
(object): He kicked the ball.
Deed (Action) or Object
Adverb, adverbial prepositional phrase
Yesterday (adverb), Two-hour-long (compound
adjective), twice weekly (adverbial phrase), at five o'clock
(adverbial prepositional phrase)
Time, Duration, or Frequency
Adverbial prepositional phrase
Under the table
Location or Position
Adverb, adverbial prepositional phrase
Slowly (adverb), with great care (adverbial
Manner, Method, or Technique
Adverbial infinitive phrase, dependent clause
To ensure integrity (infinitive phrase), who used
it to conduct surveillance (adverbial dependent clause)
Cause, function, motive, purpose, or use
How many? Or How much?
Adjective, adjectival infinitive phrase, adverbial
Three (adjective), one-pound (compound adjective),
to fill a bushel basket (adjectival infinitive phrase), under a
gallon (adverbial prepositional phrase)
We need to define one more term before we can consider how to build sentences. A kernel sentence is “a simple, active, declarative sentence containing no modifiers or connectives that may be used in making more elaborate sentences.”
Let's break this definition down. “Simple” means that the sentence consists of only a subject and a predicate: “John slept,” “Jose eats,” “Maria will graduate.” A kernel sentence does not include any modifiers (adjectives, adverbs or grammatically equivalent phrases or dependent clauses). “Active” means that the subject is acting (doing something), so the verb will be an action verb: “John slept,” “Jose eats,” “Maria will graduate.” “Declarative” means the sentence makes a statement, or indicates that a certain state of affairs existed, exists, or will exist. If we write “John slept,” we are declaring that he was performing a particular action at a previous time: he was sleeping. If we write “John eats,” we are declaring that he is performing a particular action right now: he is eating. If we write “Maria will graduate,” we are indicating that she will perform a particular action in the future: she will graduate. A modifier is a word, such as an adjective, an adverb, or an equivalent phrase or dependent clause that describes, limits, or otherwise changes the meaning of a noun, pronoun, or other part of speech, so, basically, in other words, a kernel sentence doesn't contain any adjectives or adverbs. “Connectives” refers to words that connect each other or connect words with phrases, dependent clauses, or independent clauses, so, basically, in other words, kernel sentences don't contain any conjunctions or prepositions. Let's rephrase our original definition to read:
A kernel sentence is “a simple, active, declarative sentence” without any adjectives, adverbs, or conjunctions, or propositions. A kernel sentence can help us write longer, more detailed, more involved sentences.
Using the chart that shows the seven functions of language, as it relates to communication, the questions to which these functions are associated, and the related parts of speech and their common phrase and clause equivalents and the information about kernel sentences, we can easily control our the writing of our sentences. As a result, we'll be able to write rhetorically effective, grammatically correct sentences.
Let's try a few examples. Let's say we are writing about a movie that changed the way we thought about something. First, let's collect our thoughts. Which movie do we have in mind? Let's start with its title, in italics (because the title of long works are italicized):
(See? That was easy!)
We've identified the subject of our sentence. Now, in one word—an action verb—what is the main idea we want to express about Tombstone? If our thought about the topic includes the idea that Tombstone does something to someone or something else, we will also need to add a direct object after the verb at some point. If that's the case, keep the object in mind. However, begin with a kernel sentence consisting of nothing more than the subject and the action verb. Lets' list some action verbs that could express our idea about our subject, Tombstone:
Suppose we selected “celebrates” from our list:
Celebrates what? we think. “What” is on our chart!
Part of Speech or Common Equivalent
Deed (Action) or Object
Danced (action), went dancing (action), ball
(object): He kicked the ball.
According to our chart, the question “What?” is associated with the linguistic element of deed (action) or object. If we ask “celebrate what?” we know we are thinking of an object, because an object receives the action of a verb. What is the movie Tombstone celebrating?
Maybe our first thought is gun fighting, since many of the characters, including the protagonist, Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and their friend, Doc Holliday, are gunfighters. However, as we think further about it, we remember that the movie's antagonists, the outlaw gang led by Curly Bill Brocius, are also gunfighters. However, Curly Bill and his gang, the Cowboys, use their guns to kill innocent people, to threaten and intimidate the townspeople, and to otherwise break the law. They shot and killed almost an entire wedding party, including the priest, and Curly Bill shot and killed the town's marshal, Fred White. According to the movie, Wyatt has killed only one outlaw in his life, and, although Doc has used his gun to rob people and is a notorious gunfighter, he usually obeys Wyatt, who keeps him mostly in check. Wyatt's brother Virgil, is, like Wyatt, a former lawman, and he is concerned about how the Cowboys run roughshod over the townspeople, endangering their lives. The youngest brother, Morgan, has joined Virgil o enforce the law in Tombstone. As the movie portrays them, the Earps and, to a lesser extent, Doc, are law-abiding men who use their gun-fighting skills to enforce the law and protect others. It's not gun fighting that the movie celebrates, but the courage that the Earps and Holliday display. Now, our sentence reads:
Tombstone celebrates courage.
That's a start, but does it celebrate anything more? The Earps and Holliday are willing to risk their lives to protect other people who lack the skills they have as gunfighters. In other words, they put the welfare of other people above their own. They are willing to sacrifice their own safety and their own lives, if necessary, to enforce the law and protect the citizens of Tombstone. With this in mind, we can extend our sentence to read:
Tombstone celebrates courage and altruism.
(“Altruism” means “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.”)
The simple question “What?” has helped us think our way through a good deal of the content, or action, of the movie to identify specifically and exactly what we want to address in our essay. Refining our thinking has helped us to think about the events of the movie and the implications of the characters' actions. Many of the ideas we have considered might be used to help support and develop our thesis, once we have written it.
(By the way, a question can be repeated as often as repeating it may prove effective. As we move from one thought to another, it may be beneficial to us to repeat one or more questions about emerging aspects of our topic or implications arising from it we hadn't seen or considered before.)
Referring to our chart, we answer the other questions:
WHO? Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday; Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury.
WHAT? Shootout at the O.K. Corral; Vendetta Ride
WHERE? Tombstone, Arizona, and its environs;
HOW MANY or HOW MUCH: Not relevant to this particular topic
“Why?” can be a difficult question to answer, but, once again, our chart helps us. Since our topic concerns human behavior, we will focus on motive, rather than cause, function, purpose, or use. In other words, we will concern ourselves with why Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday are willing to risk their own lives to protect the citizens of Tombstone. As we think about the movie, we remember scenes in which some of the characters showed how they felt about the Cowboys' treatment of others. Virgil was disgusted when he saw a Cowboy nearly run down a child in the street and saw the scar on the cheek of the boy's mother, which may have been caused by the gang's abuse of her. He also told Wyatt that he felt ashamed to stand idly by while the Cowboys terrorized the townspeople. He said he was a lawman. Morgan became a deputy because he respected Virgil, probably because of his older brother's views. Doc said he fought alongside Wyatt because Wyatt was his friend and Doc didn't have “lots of friends,” like others. He seems to risk his life not for strangers as much as for Wyatt. Although Doc is himself something of an outlaw, his longstanding friendship with Wyatt motivates him to join forces with the Earps against the Cowboys. Wyatt seems to join the others because his brothers are kin and because Doc is his friend. However, like Virgil, he is also a former lawman, as he demonstrates in arresting Curly Bill after the outlaw leader kills Fred White. They respect the law, which implies they believe in justice. Wow! In considering the “WHY?” question, we have not only refined our ideas about our topic, but we have also generated a lot of material that may be helpful in writing our paper. With our answers to the questions WHEN?, WHERE?, HOW?, and WHY? in mind, we can now further add to our sentence:
Set in Tombstone, Arizona [WHERE], in 1888 [WHEN], the movie Tombstone [TOPIC] celebrates courage [WHAT] and altruism [WHAT], showing that devotion to justice [WHY], admiration for one's kin [WHY], and respect for friendship [WHY] can defeat—
Oops! Defeat WHAT?
No need to panic. “What?” is on our chart. It directs our thoughts to deeds. What deeds do the Earps and Holliday “defeat” or stop? To what types of actions do they put a halt? We know they fight Curly Bill, Johnny Ringo, Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury. What kinds of deeds have these outlaws performed? Thinking again of individual scenes involving the actions of these characters, we can generate a list:
- retaliatory murders of a wedding party and a priest (Cowboys)
- dangerous gun play while under the influence of opium (Curly Bill)
- shooting of Tombstone's Marshal Fred White (Curly Bill)
- shooting up a theater during a performance (Curly Bill and his men)
- menacing Doc Holliday in a saloon
- menacing the Earps and Holliday on the street
- nearly running down a boy in the street (one of the Cowboys)
- refusing to turn in their guns upon entering Tombstone (Clantons and McLaurys)
We have eight examples now. If we watch the movie again, chances are we can add more examples.
Next, we can characterize these actions, grouping our examples, as appropriate:
- retributive murders (wedding party and a priest) (Cowboys)
- dangerous or fatal disregard for the safety of others: dangerous gun play while under the influence of opium (Curly Bill), shooting up a theater during a performance (Curly Bill and his men), accidental shooting of Tombstone's Marshal Fred White while under the influence of opium (Curly Bill), and menacing Doc Holliday in a saloon and menacing the Earps and Holliday on the street
- violations of local law: refusing to turn in their guns upon entering Tombstone (Clantons and McLaurys)
With these more general categories of the Cowboys' actions in mind, we can finish our sentence:
Set in Tombstone, Arizona [WHERE], in 1888 [WHEN], the movie Tombstone [TOPIC] celebrates courage [WHAT] and altruism [WHAT], showing that devotion to justice [WHY], admiration for one's kin [WHY], and respect for friendship [WHY] can defeat outlaws [WHO] who commit retributive murders [WHAT], show a dangerous or fatal disregard for the safety of others [WHAT], and violate a local law [WHAT].
Further reflection on the thesis may make us realize that we're not writing as much about the values that certain men have as we are writing about the men themselves who hold these values. This important distinction can be made by adding a couple of words to our sentence:
Set in Tombstone, Arizona [WHERE], in 1888 [WHEN], the movie Tombstone [TOPIC] celebrates altruistic men [WHO] of courage [WHAT], showing that their devotion to justice [WHY], admiration for one's kin [WHY], and respect for friendship [WHY] can defeat outlaws [WHO] who commit retributive murders [WHAT], show a dangerous or fatal disregard for the safety of others [WHAT], and violate a local law [WHAT].
For topics concerning which quantity is an important element to consider, we would also ask ourselves one more question: HOW MANY? or HOW MUCH? For Tombstone, we found this is not a relevant issue, so we did not ask this question about this topic.
The questions on our chart helped us to think purposefully about our topic, considering specific scenes and characters with a point in mind, and select details useful to the development of a thesis sentence and its support and development. Our sentence is clear, specific, explicit, has a plan of development, makes a claim of our own about the topic, and is grammatically correct. Understanding what a sentence is, what it does, and how to construct one, starting with a kernel sentence to which we apply the seven linguistic elements (or as many as apply to the topic in hand), can help us to write purposeful, well-planned sentences. It is a process applicable to not only thesis sentences and topic sentences, but each sentence we writer. Using it, we will develop meaningful sentences, paragraphs, and entire essays that are rhetorically effective and grammatically accurate, one word, phrase, and clause at a time.
Now, let's try the process again, using the same movie, but with a different topic in mind. Let's say, this time, we are responding to a writing prompt provided by the instructor:
Is Wyatt Earp morally justified in leaving his common-law wife, Mattie, for the actress Josephine Marcus? Why or why not. Give reasons, and provide examples from the plot of the movie Tombstone to support and develop your thesis.
As we carefully consider the writing prompt, we realize that it suggests we need to focus on WHAT—Wyatt's act of leaving Mattie for Josephine—and we must decide WHY his action is morally justified or not. Therefore, we should answer these questions first, since they will shape our sentence.
We start with our kernel sentence. This time, the instructor has assigned us our topic:
Wyatt Earp feels.
Feels WHAT? Justified.
Wyatt Earp feels justified.
Feels justified about WHAT?
Wyatt Earp feels justified in leaving Mattie.
WHO is Mattie? we may further ask. (The same question can be applied as many times as appropriate.) Our answer: Wyatt's common-law wife.
Wyatt Earp feels justified in leaving Mattie, his common-law wife.
We have already answered two of our questions:
WHO? Wyatt Earp; Mattie Earp; Josephine Marcus
WHAT? Justification for leaving Mattie for Josephine Marcus
Now, we answer the rest of our them:
WHERE? Tombstone, Arizona
HOW? Wyatt runs away with Josephine.
WHY? Wyatt believes that Mattie will never change, preferring her addiction to laudanum to the excitement, romance, and adventure that Josephine Marcus offers him.
We continue to build our sentence, expanding it as we add the answers to our questions:
In 1888, while living in Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt Earp leaves Mattie, his common-law wife, running away with Josephine Marcus, because he believes that Mattie will never change, preferring her addiction to laudanum to the excitement, romance, and adventure that Josephine Marcus offers him.
As we reflect on our sentence, we realize that the way it is stated does not address the question in the instructor's writing prompt. The prompt asks us to answer the question as to whether Wyatt is mortally justified in leaving Mattie; it does not ask us what Wyatt believes. His belief may or may not be valid. That's what we must decide. Reading the prompt again, we see the words “Why or why not.” Thinking about this question may make us realize something else: If we agree with Wyatt, we agree that his action (leaving Mattie) is justified, for the same reasons Wyatt himself does. All we need to do is to revise our thesis slightly so it indicates our point of view, rather than Wyatt's perspective:
In 1888, while living in Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt Earp leaves Mattie, his common-law wife, running away with Josephine Marcus, believes, rightly, that his action is morally justifiable, because Mattie will never change, preferring her addiction to laudanum to the excitement, romance, and adventure that Josephine Marcus offers him.
By adding “rightly,” we imply that we agree with Wyatt's belief that his action in leaving Mattie is morally justified and for the same reasons he offers: Mattie will never change, preferring her addiction to laudanum to the excitement, romance, and adventure that Josephine Marcus offers him. Now, the sentence is about what we believe, not just what Wyatt believes.
Maybe we wonder whether the time and place of the movie is all that important to the topic we're concerned about—whether or not Wyatt's leaving Mattie for Josephine? If not, we should revise our sentence, omitting these elements and changing the sentence structure to maintain grammatical accuracy:
Wyatt Earp, who leaves Mattie, his common-law wife, running away with Josephine Marcus, believes, rightly, that his action is morally justifiable, because Mattie will never change, preferring her addiction to laudanum to the excitement, romance, and adventure that Josephine Marcus offers him.
Once again, our technique has helped us think through our topic, address all its pertinent and significant aspects, and develop a sentence that is clear, specific, explicit, has a plan of development, makes a claim of our own about the topic, and is grammatically correct. Our approach may also help us to zero in on specific scenes in the movie that we can use as examples to support our own reasons for our claim that Wyatt is morally justified in leaving Mattie for Josephine. We might jot down the scenes on which we want to focus. maybe watching them a second and third time, as we take notes:
- Mattie asks for, and receives, laudanum from Morgan's wife, after having drunk all of her own
- Mattie refuses to seek help for her addiction after Wyatt encourages her to do so, saying she does not have a problem with the drugs (alcohol and opium)
- Mattie often seems to be in a drug-induced stupor and behaves at times in an inappropriate manner, as she does when she laughs at Wyatt in their hotel room when he is in earnest as he speaks to her
- Josephine and Wyatt are strongly attracted to each other from the moment they first see one another
- Josephine wants adventure, excitement, and romance, and she seeks a man with whom she can share her pursuits no longer only for “a while,” but for life (this comes across clearly in the scene in which she and Wyatt ride their horses down a steep hillside)
- When Wyatt asks Mattie whether she would like to “live on room service,” as Josephine had characterized her own desire for adventure, excitement, and romance, Josephine has no idea what he means and is obviously intoxicated—again; Wyatt seems to know there is no longer any hope for their relationship
Again, our approach has helped us to pinpoint specific parts of the movie to revisit, consider in detail, and mine for examples to support our thesis. Whether we are generating our own thesis, based on our own interests and ideas, or we are writing in response to a particular writing prompt provided by the instructor, this method of using the chart that shows the seven functions of language, as it relates to communication, the questions to which these functions are associated, and the related parts of speech and their common phrase and clause equivalents and the information about kernel sentences pays big dividends in helping us both to think about our topic and to write sentences that are well thought out, precise, detailed, and on topic. Our constant revisions and reflections on not only what we have written, but also why we wrote it and how it might be improved results in well-written sentences, paragraphs, and papers and is useful in the development of any type of paper for any type of topic.