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Basic English Sentence Structure

by Sally Jennings

Basic word order in English [Subject --- Verb --- Object]

Mary likes Dave.
Subject=Mary
Verb = likes
Object = Dave

Word order is very important in English because there is very little "case marking" --- a subject and an object have the same form (except for pronouns).
For example, the sentence "Mary likes Dave." does not have the same meaning as "Dave likes Mary."
The Subject (the person who "likes") comes before the verb.
The Object (the person who receives the action of the verb) comes after the verb.

Some verbs are Transitive, that is they take an object. For example, the verb "to want" always takes an object. It would be incorrect to say "Mary wants." We must complete the sentence with an object: "Mary wants a ball."

The Object of a Transitive Verb may be a prepositional phrase, a noun phrase, or a sentence complement.
Prepositional Phrase as Object: Mary sleeps on the couch.
Noun Phrase as Object: Mary holds a doll.
Sentence Complement as Object: Mary wishes that Jim would come home.

A few Transitive Verbs take two Objects, a Noun Phrase and a Prepositional Phrase.
Noun Phrase and Prepositional Phrase as Object: Mary puts the purse on the table.

Basic word order in a Sentence with a Verb that does not take an Object [Subject --- Verb]

John cried.
Subject = John
Verb = cried

An Intransitive Verb does not take an object. For example, the sentence "John cried." does not have an Object. The verb "to cry" is Intransitive. English has very few verbs that are always Intransitive. The main test of intransitivity is whether the verb resists taking a prepositional phrase. Some grammar systems classify Transitive and Intransitive verbs differently than I have done here, ruling out location as a test to prove transitivity.

Many verbs may be Transitive or Intransitive.
He sang. (Intransitive)
He sang a song. (Transitive)

Basic word order with an Indirect Object [Subject --- Verb --- Indirect Object --- Object]

Mary gives John the ball.
Subject = Mary
Verb = gives
Indirect Object = John
Direct Object = the ball

Alternate word order with an Indirect Object is [Subject --- Verb --- Object --- Indirect Object]

In this sentence order, the Indirect Object must be part of a prepositional phrase. An example is the sentence "Mary gives the ball to John."
Subject = Mary
Verb = gives
Indirect Object = the ball (a Noun Phrase = Determiner "the" + Noun "ball")
Direct Object = to John (a Prepositional Phrase = Preposition "to" + Noun "John")

Word order with an Auxiliary [Subject --- Aux --- Verb --- Indirect Object --- Direct Object]

If a sentence has an Auxiliary (will, have, been, or other auxiliaries), the standard position for the auxiliary is before the verb. Examples are "Mary will give John the ball." and "Mary has given John the ball."

Word order with Negation and Auxiliary [Subject --- Aux --- Neg --- Verb --- Indirect Object --- Direct Object]

If a sentence has Negation and an Auxiliary the standard position for the negation is between the Aux and the Verb. Examples are "Mary will not give John the ball." and "Mary has not given John the ball."

Word order with Multiple Auxiliaries

If a sentence has more than one Auxiliary, the order of auxiliaries is determined by the verb form. To see a list of the verb tenses, and the future form, click here to go to my short story using the tenses "It's Sleepytime, Nighty Night, Sis"

Sentence Transformations

According to a major linguistic theory called "Transformational Grammar", all English sentences can be reduced to a structure called the "deep structure" of the sentence. The deep structure of every English sentence can by traced back to one of the four patterns above (with additions for auxiliaries or negation as necessary). Every sentence has a "deep structure" and a "surface structure." Sometimes, as in the examples above for basic structure, the surface structure of a sentence is the same as the deep structure of the sentence. When the surface structure of a sentence is different from the deep structure, the surface structure has been arrived at by moving parts of the deep structure of the sentence, "transforming" it.

A useful textbook explaining this theory is Introducing Transformational Grammar: From Rules to Principles and Parameters by Jamal Ouhalla, published by Edward Arnold: London, 1994 (ISBN 0-340-55630-7)

The clue that a sentence has a different surface structure than deep structure is a comma. (A comma has others uses too, for example, it is the clue that two structures are in parallel coordination.)

Let's look at the surface structure "This problem, I can solve." First, we see by the comma that something has been moved out of deep structure order. The deep structure is "I can solve this problem."
Subject=I
Auxilliary=can
Verb=solve
Object=Noun Phrase=this problem (Determiner=this + Noun=problem)

In the sentence "This problem, I can solve." the Object (this problem) has been pulled to the front of the sentence for the purpose of focus. This is called "fronting."

Usually a "constituent" must be moved as a whole when transforming a sentence from deep structure to surface structure. The following sentence with part of the Noun Phrase constituent moved would be incorrect (shown with the symbol *)
*Problem, I can solve this.

Grammatical errors occur when parts of constituents are separated from each other in movement, or moved to the wrong place in the word order. Sometimes the best way to untangle the sentence is return it to deep structure and re-word it.

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