Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

What is a sentence?

with 14 comments

qestion mark and exclamation mark
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Most of the time, we can ‘hear’ whether or not we have written a ‘proper’ sentence because it makes sense and it sounds right. For this reason, we can usually see that the following, for example, are not proper sentences:

  • The book on the bookshelf
  • The torrential rain
  • A very long discussion

But why are these not sentences, apart from the fact that they don’t look or sound like sentences?

Well, a sentence must always include a verb and in most cases will also include a subject.

If you are not sure what a verb is, find out more about verbs here.

What is a subject?

The subject in a sentence is the person or thing that the sentence is about or the person or thing doing something.

So, let’s see how we can make the examples above into sentences.

We can change the book on the bookshelf to:

I put the book on the bookshelf.

You can see we have added the subject ‘I’ and the verb ‘put’.

We can change the torrential rain to:

They walked in the torrential rain.

We have added the subject ‘they’ and the verb ‘walked’.

We can change a very long discussion to:

The ministers ended a very long discussion at midnight.

We have added the subject ‘the ministers’ and the verb ‘ended’.

Punctuating your sentence

A sentence always starts with a capital letter and will end with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark.

Nouns and adjectives

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14 Responses

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  1. A grammar maven asserts that something like this is a complete sentence: “A business consists of the following:” I mean, it’s got a subject, verb, and object, right? Yet it feels very incomplete….

    Michael Farrell

    26/03/2010 at 3:34 pm

    • Is this a trick question because it’s Friday afternoon? Surely a sentence has to make sense on its own to be truly a sentence? Or, as the Oxford Dictionary of English says, ‘A set of words that is complete in itself’. The example you cite is not complete. Right ingredients plus wrong recipe equals half-baked cake.

      Deborah

      26/03/2010 at 3:53 pm

      • But a grammar maven asserted it was so! I don’t know [who/whom] to trust….

        Michael Farrell

        26/03/2010 at 3:56 pm

        • I think you should trust the following:

          Deborah

          26/03/2010 at 4:03 pm

        • How about this: “A business consists of the idea”?

          Michael Farrell

          26/03/2010 at 4:07 pm

          • Or: “The villagers followed Jesus up the hill. He spoke to the following”?

            Michael Farrell

            26/03/2010 at 4:09 pm

            • Well, if — big if — the noun ‘following’ was followed by a full stop, that sentence would be fine.

              Deborah

              26/03/2010 at 4:12 pm

          • “A business consists of the idea” is definitely not a properly constructed sentence because it doesn’t have a full stop at the end.

            Deborah

            26/03/2010 at 4:17 pm

            • They don’t have full stops because I’m asking a question (of you). Add the full stops, if you wish, then let me know what you think.

              Michael Farrell

              26/03/2010 at 4:23 pm

              • …even with a full stop I don’t think ‘A business consists of the idea’ is a sentence. And even if it was, what would be the point of writing it? No one would understand what you mean.

                Deborah

                26/03/2010 at 4:32 pm

                • I’ll keep playing, then: “A business consists of the idea at its core.” [Ed: Note full stop.?.]

                  Michael Farrell

                  26/03/2010 at 4:38 pm

                  • That’s just a horrible gobbledegook-type sentence that would need re-writing.

                    Deborah

                    26/03/2010 at 4:41 pm

                    • But correct grammar and good writing are independent — like health-department scores at a restaurant and the quality of the cooking.

                      Michael Farrell

                      26/03/2010 at 4:45 pm

  2. Agreed. You can have perfect grammar yet write badly. But the opposite can never be true.

    Deborah

    26/03/2010 at 5:03 pm


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