sentence structure (English grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

sentence structure
"The ability to speak or write by constructing the complex objects which are sentences is something that only humans can do. Other animals can communicate, but sentence structure is beyond them" (Nigel Farb, Sentence Structure, 2005). (RonTech2000/Getty Images)

Definition

In English grammarsentence structure is the arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence. The grammatical meaning of a sentence is dependent on this structural organization, which is also called syntax or syntactic structure.

In traditional grammar, the four basic types of sentence structures are the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the compound-complex sentence.

The most common word order in English sentences is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). When reading a sentence, we generally expect the first noun to be the subject and the second noun to be the object. This expectation (which isn't always fulfilled) is known in linguistics as the canonical sentence strategy.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Sentence Structure and Usage

Examples and Observations

  • One of the first lessons learned by the student of language or linguistics is that there is more to language than a simple vocabulary list. To learn a language, we must also learn its principles of sentence structure, and a linguist who is studying a language will generally be more interested in the structural principles than in the vocabulary per se."
    (Margaret J. Speas, Phrase Structure in Natural Language. Kluwer, 1990)

     
  • "Sentence structure may ultimately be composed of many parts, but remember that the foundation of each sentence is the subject and the predicate. The subject is a word or a group of words that functions as a noun; the predicate is at least a verb and possibly includes objects and modifiers of the verb."
    (Lara Robbins, Grammar and Style at Your Fingertips. Alpha Books, 2007)
     
  • Meaning and Sentence Structure
    "People are probably not as aware of sentence structure as they are of sounds and words, because sentence structure is abstract in a way that sounds and words are not. . . . At the same time, sentence structure is a central aspect of every sentence. . . .

    "We can appreciate the importance of sentence structure by looking at examples within a single language. For instance, in English, the same set of words can convey different meanings if they are arranged in different ways. Consider the following:
    (5) The senators objected to the plans proposed by the generals.
    (6) The senators proposed the plans objected to by the generals.
    The meaning of the sentence in (5) is quite different from that of (6), even though the only difference is the position of the words objected to and proposed. Although both sentences contain exactly the same words, the words are structurally related to each other differently; it is those differences in structure that account for the difference in meaning."
    (Eva M. Fernández and Helen Smith Cairns, Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
     
  • Information Structure: The Given-Before-New Principle
    "It has been known since the Prague School of Linguistics that sentences can be divided into a part that anchors them in the preceding discourse ('old information') and a part that conveys new information to the listener. This communicative principle may be put to good use in the analysis of sentence structure by taking the boundary between old and new information as a clue to identifying a syntactic boundary. In fact, a typical SVO sentence such as Sue has a boyfriend can be broken down into the subject, which codes the given information, and the remainder of the sentence, which provides the new information. The old-new distinction thus serves to identify the VP [verb phrase] constituent in SVO sentences."
    (Thomas Berg, Structure in Language: A Dynamic Perspective. Routledge, 2009)

     
  • Producing and Interpreting Sentence Structures in Speech
    "The grammatical structure of a sentence is a route followed with a purpose, a phonetic goal for a speaker, and a semantic goal for a hearer. Humans have a unique capacity to go very rapidly through the complex hierarchically organized processes involved in speech production and perception. When syntacticians draw structure on sentences they are adopting a convenient and appropriate shorthand for these processes. A linguist's account of the structure of a sentence is an abstract summary of a series of overlapping snapshots of what is common to the processes of producing and interpreting the sentence."
    (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution II. Oxford University Press, 2011)
     
  • The Most Important Thing to Know About Sentence Structure
    "Linguists investigate sentence structure by inventing sentences, making small changes to them, and watching what happens. This means that the study of language belongs to the scientific tradition of using experiments to understand some part of our world. For example, if we make up a sentence (1) and then make a small change to it to get (2), we find that the second sentence is ungrammatical, as indicated by the asterisk.
    (1) I saw the white house.
    (2) *I saw the house white.
    "Why? One possibility is that it relates to the words themselves; perhaps the word white and the word house must always come in this order. But if we were to explain in this way we would need separate explanations for a very large number of words, including the words in the sentences (3)-(6), which show the same pattern.
    (3) He read the new book.
    (4) *He read the book new.
    (5) We fed some hungry dogs.
    (6) *We fed some dogs hungry.
    "These sentences show us that whatever principle gives us the order of words, it must be based on the class of word, not on a specific word. The words white, new, and hungry are all a class of word called an adjective; the words house, book, and dogs are all a class of word called a noun. We could formulate a generalization, which holds true for the sentences in (1)-(6):
    (7) An adjective cannot immediately follow a noun.
    "A generalization . . . like (7) is an attempt to explain the principles by which a sentence is put together. One of the useful consequences of a generalization is to make a prediction which can then be tested, and if this prediction turns out to be wrong, then the generalization can be improved. . . . The generalization in (7) makes a prediction which turns out to be wrong, when we look at sentence (8).
    (8) I painted the house white.
    "Why is (8) grammatical while (2) is not, given that both end on the same sequence of house white? The answer is the most important thing to know about sentence structure . . .:
    The grammaticality of a sentence depends not on the sequence of words but how the words are combined into phrases."
    (Nigel Fabb, Sentence Structure, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)