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  • Major sentences

So far, we have referred to sentences without providing any definition of a sentence. The question "What is a sentence?" is more difficult than it might appear. An American linguist, C. C. Fries, counted more than two hundred definitions of the sentence. In defining a sentence, too, it is important to remember that written prose and informal spoken language are different. The sentence is the basic building block of written language. In the past, sentences were often defined according to their meaning. For example, they were said to contain "a complete thought". This raises all sorts of questions about the difference between a complete thought and an incomplete one.

A common definition today is: "A sentence is marked by a capital letter at the beginning and a full-stop at the end."

This works for many English sentences, but there are many languages, such as those in Asia, that do not use this punctuation. Also, it is possible to have written sentences without capital letters and punctuation marks.


In traditional school grammar, a sentence was said to contain a subject and a predicate: a major classroom occupation was analysing sentences into subjects and predicates. (The predicate is all the rest of the sentence after the subject.)

Subject Predicate
The cat smiled.
The cat smiled enigmatically at Alice.

This is how the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield, writing in 1926, defined a sentence:

Each sentence is an independent linguistic form, not included by virtue of any grammatical construction in any larger linguistic form.

In other words, a sentence is capable of standing alone.

  • Utterances

It is even more difficult to define sentences in speech.

 I drove it into town - and um - yeah 'cos I knew that area quite well 'cos that was the same area as I stayed in - two years ago at Point Chevalier - and then that night we - Mike made a - curry vegetable pie - we had that - and um - that was it - um - then that was the evening yeah we had a couple of nice bottles of red wine - we drank really nice red wine all weekend there - and what else did we do - Saturday we got up - and he put the fire on 'cos it was cold and stormy - quite stormy up there ...

For this reason, the term utterance rather than sentence is often used for spoken material.

  • Minor sentences

There is a small group of sentences that are called minor sentences. These tend to have a set form that is not often changed. They cannot be analysed in the same way as regular or major sentences. This book is concerned mainly with major sentences. Minor sentences, however, occur often in everyday conversation.

David Crystal, in Rediscover Grammarwith David Crystal, has suggested the following classifications of minor sentence types.

  • Formulae used in social situations:
    Thanks. Hello. Yes. No. Cheers. How do you do? 'Bye for now.
  • Interjections (emotional noises):
    Tut-tut. Hey! Ugh! Ow! Eh? Shhh!
  • Proverbs or pithy sayings (aphorisms):
    Easy come, easy go. The more the merrier. Like father, like son.
  • Abbreviated forms, used in instructions, postcards, and commentaries:
    Mix well. Once more with feeling. Wish you were here. One more lap.
  • Words and phrases used as exclamations, questions, or commands:
    Bother! Happy birthday! Nice day! The hell with it! All aboard! Oh for a drink of water! Taxi? No entry.

Some of the examples above contain finite verbs: Mix well; wish you were here. These have been included as minor sentences because elements of the basic clause structure have been omitted:

Mix it well. (major sentence)

Mix well. (minor sentence)

I wish you were here. (major sentence)

Wish you were here. (minor sentence)

Minor sentences also occur as answers to questions or depend for their meaning on a previous sentence.

PC Timms: Where are you going?

Aiden: To Greymouth.

PC Timms: When are you leaving?

Aiden: Early tomorrow morning.

PC Timms: Who's going with you?

Aiden: My brother Tim and his girlfriend Nancy.

Aiden's answers to PC Timms's questions are still sentences, but they are minor sentences. These can also be called elliptical sentences because part of their structure has been omitted (Latin ellipsis: "falling short").

A: Where are you going?

B: [I'm going] to Greymouth.

A: When are you leaving?

B: [I'm leaving] early tomorrow morning.

Minor sentences are not the same as incomplete sentences.

"I hope that you ... " Sidney choked and stopped.

"I can tell you who the murderer is! Look at the ..."

A shot rang out, and she slumped to the floor.

Early language learners may have difficulty in recognising sentences and will need guidance. They need to understand that there are different kinds of sentences without necessarily knowing the appropriate labels for them.

Sentence Types

There are four basic sentence types: statements, commands, questions, and exclamations.

  • Sentence types: statements

These are also referred to as declarative sentences or declaratives (Latin declarare: "to make clear").

Written prose is made up mainly of statements. This is the sentence type mainly used in this book and described by the forms SVO, SVC, SVA and so on, as discussed earlier in this section.

The function of statements is to convey information.

 My dog + has buried + his bones + in the lawn. SVOA

  • Sentence types: commands

These are also referred to as imperative sentences or imperatives (Latin imperativus: "proceeding from a command").

The subject of a command is usually left out, but it is understood as the second person pronoun "you".

Shut the gate. VO

Be quiet! VC

Get off the grass. VA

A gentler or more polite form of the command begins with "let's":

Let's have a party.

Commands are common in instructions:

Rub the fat into the flour. Add a small pinch of salt. Mix in the water, and work to a smooth dough. Alternatively, put all the ingredients in a blender. Whizz them until the pastry has formed into a ball. Chill for at least 2 hours before rolling out.

  • Sentence types: questions

These are also referred to as interrogative sentences or interrogatives (Latin interrogativus: "of a question").

There are four main types of question:

  1. Yes/no questions

These sentences expect "yes" or "no" for an answer.

Is your brother still at school?

Has anyone brought some cushions?

Does it ever snow in Christchurch?

Do you like living in Waipu?

Did someone lose this towel?

Would you like some tea?

Historically, questions could be formed with or without "do":

Dost thou say this? or Sayest thou this?

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act 1, scene ii, when Hamlet is first told about the appearance of the ghost, he asks the following questions:

Hold you the watch tonight?

Then saw you not his face?

What, look'd he frowningly?

Stay'd it long?

All these yes/no questions are formed in a way that was quite usual in Shakespeare's time. Today we would usually use the auxiliary "do":

Do you hold the watch tonight?

Then didn't you see his face?

What, did he look frowningly?

Did it stay long?

  • Wh questions

These sentences begin with a Wh word: what, which, when, who, why, where, how. They cannot be answered with yes or no.

 Why is your shirt dirty?

What do you think about casinos?

How did Dunedin get its name?

Interviewers who use yes/no questions can have difficulty eliciting much response when the person questioned just answers "yes" or "no".

 A: Are you unhappy about the verdict?

B: No.

A: Did the fact that she was a woman have anything to do with it?

B: Yes.

A questioner who wants a fuller answer must use Wh questions:

 A: What did you think about the verdict?

B: Well, I thought ...

A: Why do you think they said those things?

B: Because ...

In Chinese, yes/no questions are made by adding the particle ma at the end.

Ni xihuan xin xi lan ma? Do you like New Zealand?

You like New Zealand?

Wh questions in Chinese have the same word order as the declarative sentence.

Zhe shi shenme? (What is this?) Literally, "This is what?"

Ni zhu nar? (Where do you live?) Literally, "You live where?"

  • Alternative questions

These are very similar to yes/no questions, but they offer a choice of answer.

Did it happen on Monday or Tuesday?

Should I ring up, or should I write?

For Mãori and Samoan speakers, alternative sentences can cause trouble.

To the question "Do you want an apple or an orange?" the Pakeha teacher expects a specific answer: "An apple please." The Samoan child is more likely to answer simply "Yes", meaning he wants one or the other, and wait for the teacher to elucidate which by a further question. The housing officer who asks "Do you want this house or that?" and gets the answer "Yes" is likely to assume that his client is indifferent to which of the two he is allocated, which may not in fact be the case.

Metge and Kinloch: Talking Past Each Other

  • Tag questions

Tag questions are statements with a question tag at the end.

Tag questions, a peculiarity of English, are usually spoken rather than written.

It's a lovely day, isn't it?

He can swim well, can't he?

You wouldn't want to spoil it, would you?

It wasn't much of a film, was it?

The intonation pattern used indicates whether these are in fact genuine questions (requiring a "yes" or "no" answer) or are really statements (requiring only agreement).

She passed all her exams, didn't she? (With a rising tone on the tag, this can be answered "yes" or "no".)

It was a terrible thing to do, wasn't it. (With a falling tone on the tag, this can only be answered "yes".)

The form of tag questions is quite regular.

If the statement is positive, the tag will be negative:

He's an inspiring teacher, isn't he?

If the statement is negative, the tag will be positive:

He isn't an inspiring teacher, is he?

For learners of English, whether they are young children or non-English speakers, these tags are grammatically quite complex. This is because the tag is dependent on the preceding statement for its structure.

Young children are more likely to use lexical tags, that is, items such as OK, right, and see. These have the same function as grammatical tags, but their form does not change.

We'll take the dog with us, won't we? (tag question)

We'll take the dog with us, OK? (lexical tag)

We'll take the dog with us, eh? (lexical tag)

The effect of a tag question can also be a softening of a statement.

It was a good film.

It was a good film, wasn't it?

This way of softening a statement is called hedging. It is a bit like "hedging your bets". Other ways of hedging can be to add words like "rather" or "sort of".

Tag questions are socially important in English. It has been suggested that women use them more than men and that this use reflects underlying insecurity and a need for confirmation.

Professor Janet Holmes, of Victoria University, has shown that tag questions have an important function in conversation and that they have more functions than just asking for information. They can be used to bring someone into the conversation and to establish conversational rapport. She suggests that it is for this function that women use tag questions more than men.

  • Problems with questions and tag questions

Some non-standard varieties use "isn't it" for all tag questions. This is a feature of some Welsh dialects.

You'll be leaving us, isn't it?

Foreign learners of English often use this invariable isn't it. This is because many foreign languages have an unchanging tag expression for all tag questions. Compare these French sentences with their English translations:

Vous nous quitterez, n'est-ce pas? You'll be leaving us, won't you?

Elle les a quitté, n'est-ce pas? She's left them, hasn't she?

Ils me quittent, n'est-ce pas? They're leaving me, aren't they?

Je le quittais, n'est-ce pas? I was leaving him, wasn't I?

It can be tricky for foreign learners of English to respond to tag questions. This is a problem, for example, for native speakers of Polynesian languages. A negative statement followed by a positive tag is not necessarily a straightforward yes/no question. It can be a question that requires the listener to agree.

 It never snows in Auckland, does it? (Surely not!)

No (you're right). (indicating agreement)

Yes (it does snow sometimes). (indicating disagreement)

Speakers of some languages tend to use "no" and "yes" the opposite way round.

 Yes (you're right).

No (it does snow sometimes).

Similar misunderstandings can arise with replies to negative questions:

 Didn't you like the film? (I don't think you did.)

No, I didn't. (confirming the questioner's belief)

Yes, I did. (contradicting the questioner's belief)

Again, speakers of some languages will say "yes", meaning, "Yes, it's true that I did not like the film," where a native English speaker would say "no".

 Didn't you like the film?

English speaker: No (I didn't).

Polynesian speaker: Yes (I didn't like it).

Asking and answering questions for Mãori and Samoan speakers:

Native speakers of English have a habit of asking negative (and double negative) questions that require a fair bit of unravelling before answering: for instance, "You don't want that, do you?"; "You don't want to lose your coat, do you?"; "You don't have a brother, do you?" To complicate matters, Pakeha ideas of whether to answer such questions with "yes" or "no" are often the exact reverse of what comes naturally to Maoris or Samoans. A Pakeha would say: "No, I don't want that", "No, I don't want to lose my coat", and "Yes, I do have a brother", where Maoris and Samoans would say: "Yes, I don't want that", "Yes, I don't want to lose my coat", and "No, I do have a brother", giving assent or dissent to the whole proposition.

Metge and Kinloch: Talking Past Each Other

  • Sentence types: exclamations

These are also referred to as exclamative sentences or exclamatives (Latin exclamare: "to call or cry out").

These are used to express strong feelings.

They can begin with "what" or "how":

 What a naughty dog he is!

What an amazing game that was!

How well everyone played!

Sentence Types and their Functions

In this book, we use the terms statement, command, question, and exclamation for the main sentence types rather than the terms declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamative, which are given as alternatives. We chose to use these terms because they are more familiar and are probably the most suitable at primary school level.

However, strictly speaking, terms like statement, command, question, and exclamation are the "end results", or functions, of using a certain kind of sentence. In other words, the sentence "Are you coming to town?" has the function of asking a question. But there are sentences with the structure of a statement that actually ask a question:

 "I want someone to tell me what happened." The form is a statement, but the end result, or function, is a question.

Linguists use the terms declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamative for the syntactic forms, and they use statement, command, question, and exclamation for the functions - the end results. Thus, declarative sentences usually have the function of making statements, interrogative sentences usually ask questions, and so on.

Sometimes a sentence of a given kind has a different function from the usual one.

Declarative sentences:

 The race will start at three o'clock. (statement)

All competitors must be in position by 2.55. (command or instruction)

I want to know the answer! (question)

Interrogative sentences:

 What time will Sharon get here? (question)

Could you open the window? (command or request)

Wasn't the band great! (statement)

Isn't he handsome! (exclamation)

So the same function can be fulfilled by sentences of more than one type. For example, the following sentences could all be used to make the same request:

 You're making far too much noise. (declarative)

Could you keep the noise down? (interrogative)

What a terrible din! (exclamative)

Be quiet. (imperative)

Pour me a cup of tea, please. (imperative)

I'd love another cup of tea. (declarative)

Is there any more tea in that pot? (interrogative)

How I'd love another cup of tea! (exclamative)

It is part of a native speaker's knowledge of the language and language use to understand the purpose of these different sentences. "Is there any more tea in that pot?" has the form of a yes/no question, but the answer "Yes" would be considered inappropriate.

Making Sentences More Complex

So far, we have described only simple sentences.

 Frank burned the toast.

The sun melted the snow.

Many sentences are more complex than these.

 Frank burned the toast while he was on the phone.

The sun melted the snow, and in an hour it had vanished.

These sentences are like two sentences joined together.

The technical term for each of the two parts of these sentences is clause.


The sun melted the snow, and in an hour it had vanished.
(clause) and (clause)

The terms sentence and clause can be a little confusing because a simple sentence is the same thing as a clause.

My car had a puncture

This is both a simple sentence and a clause.

When we describe the structure of a simple sentence (such as SVO), we are also describing the structure of a clause.

A clause must have a verb. A clause can also have a subject, object, complement, and adverbial element.

We keep the term sentence for the unit that is standing alone.

The term clause is used when there are two or more clauses inside a complex sentence.

It would be rather boring if we only ever used simple sentences, as in this example:

 Karen left the house. She saw the bus coming. She ran after it. She missed it. She was late for school again.

One way of making the text more interesting and cohesive is by joining some of these simple sentences together. As Karen left the house, she saw the bus coming. Although she ran after it, she missed it, and so she was late for school again.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009