English Language, Analysis & Grammar

Grammar is about how to talk, listen, read, write and think. Language has two main purposes, communication and organizing ideas. Putting your ideas into sentences helps you understand them better and think more clearly, even if you never share those sentences with other people.

English is simpler than people think. Once you know what the patterns are, you can understand most writing while using only a small set of grammar concepts. This article focuses on major concepts and makes English simple. It doesn’t cover some typical details like verb tenses or commas.

Knowing how sentences work lets you be a better thinker and learner. People fluent in English intuitively know grammar. Usually their intuition works, but when something confuses them, then they get stuck. They don’t know how to consciously analyze sentences, step by step, to get unstuck. Analysis is also easier to communicate to other people than intuition is. Clear, precise, conscious understanding, in words, gives you a powerful tool for thinking (in addition to intuition, which is also valuable).

Talking came first. Grammar rules (and writing) were developed based on how people talk. So grammar has many exceptions. English has a bunch of special cases that don’t fit the rules nicely. So remember that there are exceptions to most of what I say about grammar. But the main concepts of grammar are usually correct and still really useful.

Because grammar imperfectly describes how people talk, experts disagree with each other about some grammar rules. Sometimes I’ll teach something different than what your teacher (or a book) said. I’ve looked at many different viewpoints and, using my philosophical expertise, made judgment calls about the most useful way to think about grammar.

Part 1 covers simple sentences. Part 2 covers complex sentences. Part 3 covers a few more concepts for understanding sentences. Part 4 covers outlining and question-based analysis. Part 5 discusses organizing ideas in English and how English influences your thinking.

Part 1: Simple Sentence Grammar

There are four main steps for understanding simple sentences, and one more step for understanding complex sentences. Complex sentences involve multiple simple sentences joined together.

There are only two types of simple sentences in English. And they’re similar enough to share the same analysis steps.

Step 1 – Verb

The verb is the most important part of a simple sentence because it tells us what’s happening in the sentence. There are two types: action verbs and linking verbs. The verb determines which of the two sentence types you’re dealing with (action sentence or linking sentence).

Example actions: write, feel, sew, run, throw, eat, talk, play, think, love, hate, sit.

Linking verbs link or relate two things. They describe or rename the first thing with the second thing. They’re sort of similar to an equals sign. The most common linking verb is “be”. (“Is” is the present tense of “be” and “was” is the past tense.)

A simple sentence only has one verb. In part 1, I use the word “sentence” to mean “simple sentence”.

Example action sentence: I threw a red ball.

Example linking sentence: The house is very big.

The first step for analyzing a sentence is finding the verb. The verbs in the examples are “threw” and “is”.

An action verb answers the question, “What action happens?”. A linking verb answers “What type of linking is this?”.

Tip: If you’re not sure if a verb is action or linking, don’t get stuck worrying about it. It doesn’t make a big difference.

Step 2 – Subject

Nouns are things. They include objects, people, places and abstract things like a thought or an emotion. Example nouns: Joe, California, dog, chair, car, opinion, dream, happiness.

Step two is finding the subject. The subject is the noun that does the action or has the link. The subject is always a noun, and it’s the noun that does the verb.

If the verb is “ate”, then the subject is whatever did the eating. If the verb is “helped”, then the subject is whatever did the helping. If the verb is “is”, then the subject is whatever is something.

Subjects are normally to the left of verbs. In “John hit Fred.”, word order is the only way to know that John did the hitting rather than getting hit.

In I threw a red ball., the subject is “I”. In The house is very big., the subject is “house”.

The subject for an action verb answers the question, “What does the action?”. The subject for a linking verb answers “What has the link?”.

Warning: The “subject” does not mean the topic of the sentence. In “I like big, warm, fluffy, delicious pancakes.”, you could consider pancakes the topic. But the subject is “I” – the person doing the liking action.

Note: Some people teach finding the subject before the verb, mostly because it comes first (to the left) in the sentence. But it makes more sense to look for an actor after you know what the action is. And sentences tend to have more nouns than verbs, so starting with verbs gives you fewer things to deal with.

Step 3 – Object or Complement

Action sentences can have a “direct object” which I will call the “object”. Linking sentences have a “subject complement” which I will call the “complement”.

The object is a noun which is acted on. In I threw a red ball., “ball” is the object. The ball receives the throwing action.

In action sentences, the subject does an action to the object. Or if there’s no object, the subject just does an action. “I already ate.” is an action sentence with no object to specify what was eaten.

The complement is a noun or adjective which is linked to. (Adjectives are explained in step 4.) In The house is very big., the complement is “big”. Bigness is the thing that the house is linked to.

The word “complement” is related to the word “complete”. It’s a completer. If you said “The house is”, that would be an incomplete thought.

What’s the difference between an object and a complement? Objects go with action verbs, they’re always nouns, and there might not be an object. Complements go with linking verbs, they’re nouns or adjectives, and they’re always required.

Finding the object or complement is step three. Look to the right of the verb. Finding that there is no object is fine too.

Objects answer the question, “What is acted on?”. Complements answer “What is linked to?”.

The verb, subject and object (or complement) are the most important part of the sentence. Sometimes they’re the only words.

Step 4 – Modifiers

A modifier changes something by giving more information. It adds detail, e.g. that walking is fast or that a steak is big. Modifiers can tell you attributes or qualities of the thing they modify. Modifiers describe or limit what’s being talked about. (There are fewer “purple cars” than “cars”, so adding the modifier “purple” restricts the cars being discussed.)

Modifiers can be used with most things. The verb, subject and object (or complement) can be modified. Modifiers themselves can be modified, too.

To understand a modifier, you must figure out what it modifies. In “John throws red balls.” you need to understand that “red” applies to “balls” not to “John”.

There are two types of modifier. An adjective is a modifier for a noun, and an adverb is a modifier for anything else. The difference isn’t very important conceptually (they’re both modifiers, similar to how action verbs and linking verbs are both verbs).

Adjectives usually go left of their nouns, and several adjectives can be listed in a row. Example adjectives: beautiful, tall, thin, round, young, blue, plastic.

Let’s consider adverb examples. “Quickly” is an adverb which tells you how an action verb was performed. In “dark red ball”, “dark” is an adverb that tells you the shade of red. In “is not”, “not” is an adverb which modifies the meaning of “is”. Many adverbs end with the letters “ly”. Adverbs can be at many different locations in sentences.

Warning: Despite having the word “verb” inside it, an “adverb” doesn’t only modify verbs. Adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and more.

Finding modifiers, and figuring out what they modify, is step four for understanding a sentence. Each previous step involved only two possible questions. Modifiers answer a wide variety of questions. E.g.: “What type?”, “What size?”, “How much?”, “How many?”, “What material is it made of?”, “When?”, “Where?”, “To what degree?” or “In what manner was the action performed?”.

Figuring out what question a modifier answers can be tricky even if you know what it means. An easy one is that “cold” answers “What temperature?”. A tricky one is that “cute” answers “How does it look and/or act?”. A reasonable person could write the question differently for “cute”.

Now we’re ready to comment on every word from our example sentences. In I threw a red ball., “red” and “a” are adjectives which modify “ball”. In The house is very big., “the” is an adjective modifying “house”, and “very” is an adverb modifying “big”.

Detail: “The”, “a” and “this” are examples of a type of adjective called a “determiner” which answers “Which one?”. If I say “cat”, people won’t know which cat I mean. If I say “a cat” then I mean an indefinite, unspecified cat, “the cat” means a definite, particular cat, and “this cat” means the cat near me.

Detail: Verbs can be modified by other verbs. Modifier verbs are called “helper” or “auxiliary” verbs, not adverbs. In “I will practice grammar.”, the verb “practice” is modified by the helper verb “will” which changes it from present tense to future tense.

Prepositional Phrases

Prepositions are words like “with”, “to”, “in”, “about” and “of” which relate a noun to something else in the sentence. For example, they can indicate location (“on the table”) or time (“before midnight”).

A prepositional phrase is a type of modifier. It consists of a preposition, a noun (called the “prepositional object”) and, optionally, other modifiers. A prepositional phrase that modifies a noun is an adjective; otherwise it’s an adverb. (Phrases are explained in part 2.)

A preposition governs a noun which is normally located to the right of the preposition. Understanding the preposition requires finding its noun. “Governs” is a grammar word that basically means “has” or “uses”. A noun used with a preposition is never the subject, object or complement of the sentence. Each noun has one job in the sentence.

Prepositions express a relationship between a part of the sentence and some additional information. The additional information is always a noun plus any modifiers that the noun has. In “I set my phone on my desk.”, the preposition “on” tells us the relationship between the action “set” and the additional information “my desk”. (“My” is an adjective modifying “desk”.) The type of relationship is “on”, which tells us that the desk is the location for the setting action. The preposition “on” also indicates the top of the desk (not “in”, “under” or “beside” the desk, which are different prepositions than “on”).

Prepositional Phrase Examples

Example full sentence analysis: John looks at stamps. Action verb: looks. Subject: John. Object: none. Preposition: at. Preposition’s noun: stamps. The prepositional phrase “at stamps” is an adverb modifying “looks”. It tells us what John is looking at.

In “John whispered his secret to Sue.”, the preposition is “to” and its noun is “Sue”. The prepositional phrase “to Sue” is an adverb modifying “whispered”. It tells us who the whispering was to.

In “John sat in his chair.”, the preposition is “in” and its noun is “chair”. The prepositional phrase “in his chair” is an adverb modifying “sat”. It tells us what John sat in.

In “John wanted to learn about the science of orbits.”, there are two prepositions. The first is “about” and its noun is “science”. The second is “of” and its noun is “orbits”. The prepositional phrase “about the science of orbits” is an adverb modifying “learn”. It tells us what the learning is about. The second prepositional phrase, “of orbits”, is an adjective modifying “science”. It tells us what type of science. The second prepositional phrase is a modifier inside of the first prepositional phrase.

Simple Sentence Analysis Example

This analysis demonstrates everything covered so far.

The man with dark brown hair excitedly threw a little rock at the target.

Action verb: threw.

Subject: man.

Object: rock.

“Excitedly” modifies “threw”.

The first “the” modifies “man”.

“A” modifies “rock”.

“Little” modifies “rock”.

Prepositional phrase: “with dark brown hair”. This functions as an adjective which modifies “man”. The preposition is “with” and it governs the noun “hair”. It relates hair and man by telling us that the man has hair. It also tells us the type of hair (dark brown).

“Brown” modifies “hair”.

“Dark” modifies “brown”.

Prepositional phrase: “at the target”. This functions as an adverb which modifies “threw”. The preposition is “at” and it governs the noun “target”. It relates throwing and the target by telling us that the throwing was directed towards the target.

The second “the” in the sentence modifies “target”.

Conclusions: The sentence is about a man throwing a little rock. The throwing was excited. The man had dark brown hair. He threw the rock at the target.

Simple Sentence Patterns

I now present the two simple sentence patterns:

  • Subject + Action Verb + Object (noun or nothing)
  • Subject + Linking Verb + Complement (noun or adjective)

Both patterns allow for modifiers to be added anywhere.

There are minor exceptions to these patterns, e.g. in the command “Walk the dog.” the subject (you, the person being spoken to) is implied instead of stated. The basic pattern is still there: there’s a verb (walk), subject (you) and object (dog).

There are also exceptions which change the order of words. In “There sits a poet.”, the poet does the sitting action, so the word “poet” is the subject even though “poet” is to the right of the verb (“there” is called an expletive). In the question, “Are you a philosopher?”, the subject (you) is to the right of the verb (are), but the pattern of verb, subject and object (or complement) is still used.

Conclusion of Part 1

We’ve now covered enough grammar to analyze simple (one verb) sentences. You should practice doing it. Practicing will let you test whether you understood the steps correctly (can you actually do them?). If you have difficulty with something, look it up or ask for help.

A good place to get sentences to practice on is a young adult novel. Books aimed at young people use simpler writing. Alternatively, get some grammar practice worksheets.

Practicing the steps will make them fast and intuitive. After you practice enough, reading this way won’t take much effort or attention. That means your attention will be free to focus on the topic instead of the grammar. At that point, you can do analysis on just the sentences that you find confusing. You can also use analysis to explain sentences better when someone else is confused or when there’s a disagreement about what a sentence means.

For each sentence you practice, follow the steps. Find the action or linking verb, then the subject, then the object or complement. Then find the modifiers and figure out what each one modifies. For prepositions, find their noun and figure out what the whole prepositional phrase modifies. Finally, after you understand the individual parts of the sentence, consider what the whole thing means.

Here are some sentences to get you started practicing:

  • John is wise.
  • John quickly drank milk.
  • John likes big, fast cars.
  • John went to the new store.
  • The ferocious dog chased three cats over the chair.
  • Clever John carefully ate the very juicy steak.
  • John thought hard about chemistry.
  • John put the toy soldier in the compartment in the box on the shelf in his room.
  • The delicious cake with berries unfortunately fell onto the dirty floor from the table.

Part 2 – Complex Sentence Grammar

A complex sentence contains multiple simple sentences in one sentence. Simple sentences follow the patterns learned in part 1: verb, subject, object or complement, and modifiers. The most common way to combine them is by using a conjunction, which is a word like “and” that can join things together.

Analyzing a complex sentence has one new step. You’ll analyze each simple sentence using the four steps from part 1. And you’ll also analyze how the simple sentences are connected together.

The next section explains the general concepts for how words are grouped together in English, then conjunctions are explained after that.

Grouping

The words in sentences are organized in groups. A group is stuff which can also be viewed, together, as one thing. Groups can contain other groups.

Examples of groups: “My lunch” is a group with a sandwich, soup, and a drink. “Soup” is a group with broth, chicken, rice, and carrots. “Sandwich” is a group with bread, meat, tomatoes, pickles, mustard and mayo. “Pickles” is a group with five individual pickles. And an individual pickle is a group of atoms.

A group can be viewed as one thing, one unit. I can talk about the sandwich as a whole. The parts of a group can also be discussed separately. Grouping lets us condense information. We can’t think about hundreds of things at once, but we can think about three groups at once, even if they’re big groups (a pickle has over a billion trillion atoms, but it’s still easy to think about as one thing).

A sentence is a group of words. You can talk about the individual words or about the whole sentence. There can also be groups of words inside a sentence, like “the red ball” is a group of words that work together to express one idea.

English has two types of word groupings within sentences. A clause is a group of words that express a complete thought. A phrase is a group of words that express an incomplete thought.

A complete thought (clause) means a simple sentence. ”Clause” is the grammar word for “simple sentence”.

An incomplete thought (phrase) generally means a noun, verb, adjective or adverb, plus modifiers. It takes at least two phrases to make a sentence (a verb and a noun, the subject).

Note: A phrase can be a single word. It’s not wrong, and sometimes convenient, to say that the subject of a sentence is always a “noun phrase” (a phrase which functions as a noun) because there’s nothing wrong with groups with only one thing in them.

Phrases

Most phrases have a main word (a noun, verb, adjective or adverb) and zero or more modifiers. We’ll call phrases by the type of their main word, e.g. “big, red car” is a noun phrase because it’s a noun (“car”) with modifiers. A noun (or verb, adjective or adverb) phrase functions as a noun (or verb, adjective or adverb) and can be used anywhere a noun (or verb, adjective or adverb) would be used.

A prepositional phrase has a preposition and a noun phrase. As a whole, it functions as an adjective or adverb. FYI, other types of phrases exist too.

Let’s look at the phrases in an example sentence:

The unusually cute cats very quickly ate kibble during the day.

The sentence’s verb is a verb phrase, “very quickly ate”. The phrase’s main word is the verb “ate”, and it has one modifier, “very quickly”.

“Very quickly” is an adverb phrase consisting of the main word (“quickly”, an adverb) and the modifier “very”.

The subject is a noun phrase, “the unusually cute cats”. The main word is the noun, “cats”, and the modifiers (adjectives) are “the” and “unusually cute”.

“Unusually cute” is an adjective phrase. The main word is the adjective, “cute”, which is modified by the adverb “unusually”.

The verb’s object is the noun “kibble”, which has no modifiers.

“During the day” is a prepositional phrase. The preposition “during” governs the noun phrase “the day”. As a whole, “during the day” functions as an adverb which modifies the verb. It tells us when the eating took place.

“The day” is a noun phrase consisting of noun “day” and its modifier “the”.

Note: Phrases can go inside other phrases, e.g. “unusually cute” is an adjective phrase inside the noun phrase “the unusually cute cats”.

Detail: It’s ambiguous whether “during the day” modifies the verb “ate”, the whole verb phrase “very quickly ate”, or the whole clause (“cats ate kibble” plus modifiers). This ambiguity is typical of adverbs at the ends of clauses. However, it doesn’t matter. The sentence means the same thing regardless.

Warning: Standard terminology uses the term “verb phrase” to mean “predicate”: the verb plus its object or complement, plus modifiers. It’d be reasonable to use “simple verb phrase” to mean a verb plus the adverbs modifying it.

Clauses

Clauses are the “simple sentences” that I’ve already explained. Let’s look at a couple examples in complex sentences:

John likes cats, but Sue likes dogs.

The clauses are “John likes cats” and “Sue likes dogs”. “But” is a conjunction which joins the clauses together into one sentence.

If it’s a weekday, I relax after I snore through school.

The clauses are “it’s a weekday”, “I relax”, and “I snore through school”. They are connected by the conjunctions “after” and “if”.

Note: Conjunctions aren’t always in between the clauses they join. “Conjunction + clause 1 + comma + clause 2” is a common sentence pattern. It means “clause 2 + conjunction + clause 1”. E.g. “While you sing, you should dance.” means “You should dance while you sing.”

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are joiner words. They “conjoin” things (phrases or clauses) together. They connect or relate things.

Coordinating conjunctions join equally important things. You can remember all seven with the FANBOYS acronym (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Coordinating conjunctions can join phrases or clauses together.

Subordinating conjunctions join something less important with something more important. They often have to do with time or reasoning, e.g.: “after”, “before”, “although”, “because”, “while” and “if”. Subordinating conjunctions can only join clauses, not phrases. Example: “I sing while I drive.”

Only phrases of the same type can be joined, e.g. two nouns or two adjectives. The result is a single phrase of the same type. In “I want a cat or a dog.”, the conjunction “or” joins the noun phrases “a cat” and “a dog” to make the noun phrase “a cat or a dog”. Conjunctions can join a list of more than two phrases, e.g. “I plan to buy milk, butter, steak and waffles.”.

Conjunctions can join phrases in simple sentences. You’ll need to keep that in mind when doing the four steps from part 1. For example, the subject could be “Joe and Sue” or the object could be “glass and aluminum”.

“And” is the most basic conjunction; it tells you two things are connected. Other conjunctions give more information about the relationship. “But” tells you that there’s a contrast between the two things. “Because” tells you that the second thing is a reason for the first. “After” tells you that the first thing happens later in time than the second.

Conjunctions that join clauses are more complicated than conjunctions that join phrases. First, you should know when not to use them. A sentence should express one thought. Only join two clauses in one sentence when they’re part of the same thought. Don’t use conjunctions to join unrelated things.

Now let’s look at how to analyze an example sentence with two clauses:

I want pizza because I am hungry.

First, look for the verb as usual. When you see two separate verbs (“want” and “am”), you know it’s probably a complex sentence. That means you should look for clauses and conjunctions. Conjunctions usually go between clauses.

Once you find the clauses (“I want pizza” and “I am hungry”) and conjunctions (“because”), analyze the clauses as individual simple sentences. Then consider the combined meaning of the clauses and the conjunction. This sentence tells us three things. First, it tells us about wanting pizza. Second, it tells us about being hungry. Third, it tells us the hunger is a reason for wanting pizza.

Communicating What’s Important

When you write a paragraph, not everything is equally important. You have some main points and some helper points. It’s important to communicate to the reader which are which. There are four main ways to do this. They’re imperfect and have exceptions. The fourth one is what to do when the first three don’t work well enough.

First, use the verb, subject, object and complement for main points. Use modifiers for helper points. Modifiers are subordinate to (less important than) the words they modify.

Second, put main points in main clauses, and put helper points in subordinate clauses. Clauses are automatically main clauses by default. They become subordinate only if there’s something to make them subordinate, such as a subordinating conjunction in front of the clause.

Detail: Relative pronouns can also make subordinate clauses. I won’t cover them, but I’ll give one example. In “John, who is a mechanic, loves restoring cars.”, “who” is a relative pronoun. It creates a subordinate clause that functions as an adjective that modifies “John”.

Third, writing is always full of hints. Readers can usually pick up on what you think is important based on the words you use and by trying to understand your point. You can give extra hints with italics and by where you put words (the start and end are generally more important locations than the middle).

Fourth, you can just plain tell the reader, in words, what’s important. You can say things like “My main point is”, “Detail:”, or “The idea about phones is a tangent.”. This is often useful in non-fiction, which tries to clearly communicate ideas, but it’s generally too inelegant for fiction.

Subordinating Conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions are important for letting your reader know which clauses are helper clauses rather than main points. Helper clauses are generally more important than modifiers (which don’t have a complete thought) but less important than main clauses.

The subordinating conjunction always goes immediately in front of the clause it subordinates. In front of a main clause is either no conjunction or a coordinating conjunction.

Compare “I ate my steak after I cooked it.” to “I cooked my steak before I ate it.”. People fluent in English can intuitively tell the difference. In the first one, eating the steak is more emphasized. In the second one, cooking the steak is more emphasized. The main clause has the main point of the sentence.

Optional Detail: There is a second way to interpret subordinating conjunctions which I don’t recommend. I’m only mentioning it because most other grammar materials do, so I want to explain what’s going on. In this alternative view, “subordinating conjunctions” are misnamed; they aren’t conjunctions. Instead, they go before a clause to make it function as an adverb. In “I sing after I eat lunch.”, the italic part is an adverb clause nested inside the main clause and there is no conjunction. That sentence is just verb, subject and adverb. Most grammar materials unclearly teach a confused, contradictory mix of both views. They say “after I eat lunch” is an adverb clause and say “after” is a conjunction and say that the main clause is only “I sing” without the adverb that modifies “sing”. That’s wrong. A subordinating conjunction can either be viewed as a conjunction or it can be viewed as governing a clause which it converts into an adverb by relating that clause to another part of the sentence, but not both at once. As long as you don’t mix them, either viewpoint can analyze sentences successfully. I recommend viewing subordinating conjunctions as conjunctions because it organizes sentences better. And a subordinate clause is a complete thought, which is more important than a mere modifier.

Subordination Example

Writing without subordination doesn’t work well. Let me show you:

Joe went to the zoo. Joe wanted to see elephants. Elephants are cool. Elephants are big. Elephants are gray. Elephants have faces. Elephants have trunks. The zoo had otters. Joe watched the otters. The otters swam. Joe got tired of walking. Joe sat on a bench.

This doesn’t tell us which things are more important or less important. It’s also 12 sentences, which is too many things to think about at once. Here’s a better version with only 4 sentences:

Joe wanted to see elephants, so he went to the zoo. Big, gray elephants are cool because they have trunks on their faces. The otters swam while Joe watched. After Joe got tired of walking, he sat on a bench.

Each conjunction (in italics) reduces the number of sentences by one because it allows two clauses in one sentence. “So” is a coordinating conjunction; the other three are subordinating conjunctions. For example, the subordinating conjunction “while” tells us that the clause “Joe watched” is less important than the clause “the otters swam”. The conjunctions also tell us the relationships between the clauses they join, e.g. that wanting to see elephants is the reason for going to the zoo.

The new version tells us that elephants having trunks is a reason they’re cool, rather than presenting trunks and coolness as facts in general. And it doesn’t present elephants being big and gray as reasons they’re cool (it’s important to know which facts actually are unrelated).

I subordinated three sentences by turning them into modifiers, not conjoined clauses. That’s because they were minor points that didn’t need a whole clause. “Elephants are big.” was replaced with the adjective “big” without any clause. “Gray” got the same treatment. “Elephants have faces.” was changed to the prepositional phrase “on their faces”. When you can replace a clause with a modifier without changing the meaning, you usually should, unless you want to emphasize that point. Modifiers are generally more subordinate (less important) than subordinate clauses are (though sometimes a modifier, like “not”, makes a big difference).

I removed the sentence “The zoo had otters.”, without any replacement, because the existence of otters at the zoo is implied by them swimming.

Conclusion of Part 2

You now know enough to start practicing analyzing complex sentences. When you see two verbs, split the sentence into clauses and conjunctions, and note which clauses are main or subordinate. Then analyze each clause using the four analysis steps. Then consider how the clauses and conjunctions work together to create an overall meaning.

Here are some sentences to get started practicing with (hint: two aren’t complex):

  • I work hard and I play hard.
  • Farting or belching is mildly impolite.
  • I went to a fancy university, yet I’m still quite ignorant.
  • I write because I like good ideas.
  • The bully hit my buddy and me pretty hard.
  • I seriously think that Ayn Rand was wise.
  • Don’t chew quickly while your mouth is open.
  • My daughter likes big dogs, but my son likes adorable cats.
  • If universities are full of uncurious professors, don’t attend one.
  • After you throw a small, red ball, while you sing, you should stamp your feet loudly, and you should clap your hands energetically, if it’s still daytime.

Part 3: Verbals, References and Implied Words

We’ve now covered how sentences work and most of what goes in sentences. Next we’ll cover three more things commonly found in sentences. Then we’ll be done with grammar concepts. You can study details elsewhere if you want to; I’m only covering the key ideas that are useful for everyone.

Verbals

Verbals are words which are based on a verb but aren’t a verb. For example, “sewing”, “to eat”, and “broken” are verbals. Because they come from verbs, verbals have some features of verbs, e.g. they can have an object or complement. However, verbals don’t have a subject.

There are three types of verbals:

A gerund: is noun based on a verb. It has “ing” on the end. In Playing is fun. the gerund “playing” is a noun. In Playing sports is fun. the gerund “playing” has an object, “sports”, which receives the playing action.

A participle is an adjective based on a verb. In Help me find an interested party to buy my interesting book., the participle “interested” is an adjective modifying “party” and the participle “interesting” is an adjective modifying “book”.

An infinitive is the form of a verb that can have “to” in front of it. “To sit” and “to be” are infinitives. Infinitives can be used without “to” and can play a variety of roles in English. In I want to sit., “to sit” is a noun infinitive and is the object of “want”. In I made a request to see John., “to see” is an adjective infinitive which modifies “request”, and “John” is the object of “to see”.

Tip: When you’re trying to find the verbs in a sentence, the verbs won’t be words ending in “ing” or words with “to” in front. Those are verbals, not verbs.

References

People often write something that means something else. The written words somehow refer the reader to some other words. There are four main types of references: pronouns, reference adjectives, abbreviations and explanations.

Pronouns are common words, like “he”, “me”, “myself”, “it” or “that”. They refer to other words (usually previously stated). Pronouns are always nouns. In John went to the store because he wanted milk., the pronoun “he” refers to “John”. In I wanted an iPhone so I bought it., the pronoun “it” refers to “iPhone”.

Reference adjectives are similar to pronouns, but they’re adjectives like “my”. In “John liked his job.”, the adjective “his” refers to “John” and means “John’s”. (These adjectives are also possessive.)

Abbreviations include acronyms like “BTW”, which means “by the way”, and contractions like “don’t”, which means “do not”.

Explanatory references use words to explain to the reader what you want to refer to. For example, “the thing you said yesterday about cats” is a reference to something said previously. It explains what it’s referring to by giving clues: “you” said it, it was said “yesterday”, and it’s “about cats”. Be careful with explanatory references because they’re often unclear. When in doubt, it’s better to give extra information than give too little information. Reading a few extra words is a minor downside; being unable to figure out what a reference means is a major downside (and misunderstanding the reference as referring to something else is even worse).

To fully understand a sentence, you must find every reference and figure out what it refers to.

Implied Words

Writers and speakers often leave out some words. It’s your job to figure out what they didn’t say. It’s often somewhat ambiguous, so you’ll have to make reasonable guesses that make sense.

Perhaps the most commonly omitted word is “that”. The sentence “I think Joe is smart.” means “I think that Joe is smart.”.

People leave out words that seem obvious. In “The house has big windows in front.”, what are the windows in front of? It doesn’t actually say, but we can guess it means big windows in the front of the house.

An “indirect object” is a shortcut involving an implied word. They are nouns that come after verbs and have an implied “to” or “for” in front. In “I threw her the ball.”, “her” is an indirect object which means “to her” (which is a prepositional phrase modifying “threw”). In “I built him a house.”, “him” is an indirect object which means “for him” (which is a prepositional phrase modifying “built”).

Implied words are common with conjunctions because people don’t want to repeat themselves. Consider “Trees often have acorns under them, and dirt.”. I wouldn’t recommend writing it that way, but sometimes people do, so you should be able to read it. It means: “Trees often have acorns under them, and trees often have dirt under them.“ The comma before “and” indicates that “and” is joining a whole clause instead of a phrase, so repeating the verb and subject is implied (a verb and subject are needed to make a clause). I also read the modifiers “often” and “under them” as repeating by implication (that’s a judgment call, not a grammatical necessity).

I’d read “The first book is around 25 thousand words and the second is 135 thousand.”, as meaning “The first book is around 25 thousand words and the second book is around 135 thousand words.”. Each implied word was used before the conjunction “and”.

Some words aren’t really implied, but you can pretend they are to make a sentence clearer. The sentence “I eat steak and lobster.” means “I eat [group of nouns].” It has a group (or “compound”) noun as the object of “eat”. No words are missing. However, you can read it as “I eat steak and I eat lobster.” in order to make the meaning extra clear. As long as you don’t change the meaning, you’re not doing something wrong.

Tip: Look for implied words whenever you’re confused. If you’re having trouble, there could be an implied word which will help clarify.

Note: Formal writing leaves out fewer words because it’s used for complicated ideas. Understanding complicated ideas is hard enough without also guessing a bunch of unwritten words. Informal writing says simpler, easier stuff, so it can get away with more shortcuts.

Sentences Analysis Examples

After lunch, after John sings, he loves playing games.

This complex sentence has two clauses and a conjunction, the second “after”. FYI, the word “after” can be a preposition or a conjunction (the first use is a preposition).

There is one main clause, “he loves playing games”. Action verb: loves. Subject: he (which refers to John). Object: playing games.

“Playing” is a gerund: a noun based on a verb. “Games” is the object of “playing”, which tells us what the playing action is done to. Together, the words “playing games” form a gerund phrase which functions as a noun.

“John sings” is a subordinate clause with verb “sings” and subject “John”.

The second “after” joins the two clauses. It tells us they’re connected and what the relationship is: the game playing happens at a later time than the singing.

“After lunch” is a prepositional phrase. It functions as an adverb modifying “love”. You can also interpret it as modifying the main clause or the whole sentence.

Summary: John loves playing games given two conditions. First, it’s after he sings. Second, it’s after lunch. (Note: It does not say that he doesn’t love playing games at other times. That’s not implied.)

I want to learn lots of interesting grammar.

Action verb: want. Subject: I. Object: to learn lots.

“To learn” is an infinitive. It’s based on a verb (learn). It has an object, “lots”, which says what the learning action is done to. The whole infinitive phrase functions as a noun.

“Of interesting grammar” is a prepositional phrase modifying “lots”. “Of” is a preposition and “grammar” is its noun.

“Interesting” is a participle based on the verb “interest”. It functions as an adjective modifying “grammar”.

Summary: Learning is something I want, given one condition. The learning has to be about interesting grammar. And I want a large amount of that kind of learning.

Conclusion of Part 3

After you practice the material from part 3, you’ll be able to analyze many sentences from books and blog posts. Below are some sentences to begin your practice with.

Tip: If you have trouble analyzing a sentence, start looking up words from it using multiple dictionaries. Check what parts of speech (e.g. noun or conjunction) the words can be and what their meanings are for each part of speech.

  • Running fast isn’t fun.
  • I don’t want to stand on my porch when it’s wet.
  • Swimming after work is too tiring.
  • John gets sweaty when he does his exercise routine.
  • I gave him gifts.
  • I love to throw boomerangs to myself.
  • When a movie is boring, I stop watching.
  • I like reading non-fiction books out of order.
  • My broken speakers don’t work for making sound.
  • FYI, working at the CIA is cooler than the FBI.

Part 4: Sentence Outlining and Question-Based Analysis

This part covers two techniques to help you understand sentences.

Sentence Outlining

When analyzing long sentences, it helps to look at shortened versions. A sentence outline only includes the essentials, so you can understand the sentence while having fewer things to worry about. Outlines also may replace references with what they refer to, e.g. replacing “he” with “John”.

Outlining also uses symbols to make it easier to understand the sentence. Square brackets indicate a paraphrase or modification, like normal. Use curly brackets to show clause groupings and angle brackets to show phrase groupings.

It’s up to you to decide what type of outlining is useful. You can shorten a sentence, add grouping symbols, or both.

What’s essential? Verb, subject, object, complement.

What’s inessential? Most modifiers. But sometimes a modifier, like “not”, is too important to leave out. You have to use your judgment.

What about conjunctions? When a conjunction joins two clauses, keep both clauses in the outline by default. You can leave a clause out (and the conjunction that joined it) if you judge that it’s an inessential detail.

When a conjunction joins phrases, you can paraphrase the group. “Joe and Sue” can be outlined as “[People]”. You can also outline it as “[Joe]” in order to simplify while figuring out what the sentence means, then apply it to Sue later. For more complicated groups, you can sometimes outline them as “[stuff]”, figure out what the rest of the sentence means, then apply the meaning to the actual stuff.

Feel free to leave things out and analyze a simpler version of a sentence. That makes it easier to get started. Once you understand a version of the sentence, you can add the other parts back in one at a time. You can outline a clause as “[part 2]” and ignore it until later (this makes sense when it’s important, so you don’t want to leave it out, but you want to focus on understanding part 1 first). You can also outline a clause as “[part 1]”, after you understand it, so that it’s easier to focus on part 2.

Outlining can be done at various levels of detail for various purposes. When you treat “red ball” as “ball” you’re using an outline (summary, paraphrase, short version) of a phrase. Outlining each phrase in a clause creates an outline of the clause. Outlining each clause in a sentence creates an outline of the sentence. Similarly, you can get an outline of a paragraph by outlining each sentence inside the paragraph. When outlining a paragraph, you’ll find some clauses (and even whole sentences) are inessential to the paragraph’s meaning, so you can leave them out even though you would have kept them when outlining an individual sentence. The higher level thing you’re outlining, the more detail you’ll leave out. Outlining paragraphs helps you see a short version of them and understand their meaning as a whole. Paragraph outlines also make it easier to think about multiple paragraphs at once so that you can understand the overall meaning of that group of paragraphs.

Tip: As a writer, try to write text which is easy to outline. The fewer changes are required to get a nice outline (at every detail level), the easier the text is to read and understand. It helps if you minimize how much you put groups inside other groups (called “nesting”). A phrase inside a phrase is fine, but a phrase inside a phrase inside a phrase can get confusing, and even more nesting is worse.

Outlining Examples

John quickly threw the large, dark red ball after he ate a large lunch.

None of the modifiers are especially important, so the outline is:

{John threw ball} after {[John] ate lunch}.

Marking the clauses with curly brackets makes it easier to see how the sentence is organized. Here’s another way to outline it which focuses on the organization but not the meaning:

[main clause] after [subordinate clause].

Marking clauses and phrases in the full sentence can also be helpful for seeing the sentence’s organization:

{John <quickly threw> <the large, <dark red> ball>} after {he ate <a large lunch>}.

The adjective phrase “dark red” is nested inside the noun phrase “the large, dark red ball”. It’s a modifier for ball, not a separate thing. Note that “dark” is an adverb which modifies “red” not “ball”. If everything modified “ball”, there wouldn’t be a phrase nested inside a phrase.

Ignoring nested phrases, each clause normally has two or three phrases: a verb, a subject and an optional object or complement. They fit the standard sentence pattern from part 1. Those phrases can often be outlined with one word each, allowing a clause to be outlined in 2-3 words.

Sometimes clauses have more than three phrases because a modifier isn’t next to what it modifies or because it modifies the whole clause. When something is split from its modifier, you can move the modifier to get a nicer outline.

I hit the ball with the sticker fast.

Here, “fast” is an adverb which modifies “hit”. If you mark the phrases (including one-word phrases for extra clarity), you’ll find four non-nested phrases:

<I> <hit> <the ball <with the sticker>> <fast>.

There’s a verb, subject, object and an extra phrase. Extra phrases are OK, but for outlining purposes you can rearrange the words:

<I> <hit fast> <the ball <with the sticker>>.

With this word order, there are no extra phrases. We can clearly see that the sentence has just the usual three parts, verb, subject and object.

The phrase “with the sticker” is part of a larger phrase, “the ball with the sticker”, which functions as a noun. Due to being inside the noun phrase which is the object, it doesn’t add an additional phrase to the main structure of the sentence. It’s a modifier which modifies the object; it’s part of the object rather than being a separate thing.

You can also rearrange clauses as convenient. Consider “After I ate my lunch, I threw a ball.”. You can outline that as, “{I threw ball} after {I ate lunch}”. It’s sometimes more intuitive and clear to begin with the main clause which has the sentence’s main point.

Question-Based Analysis

You can ask a series of questions, one answered by each word in a sentence, to help figure out what the sentence means. For each clause, ask the questions in the usual order (verb, subject, object or complement, modifiers).

The point is to figure out what the main piece of information provided by each word is. Many words (all verbs and most nouns) also provide secondary information. You can ask additional, secondary questions when you find them useful.

The main information provided by the verb “learned” is the learning action. It also provides secondary information about when the action happened (in the past).

The main information provided by the noun “cats” is the type of thing (a cat). It also provides secondary information about how many cats (more than one). Most nouns have singular and plural forms.

Answers to questions are commonly partial, not complete. E.g. the word “big” answers the question “What size?” but it gives only a partial answer. It gives some information about size, but not the exact size.

Every word you read is a clue (or hint) about what the writer means. It’s your job to put all the clues together to guess the meaning. Going through a sentence with a series of questions will create a list of each piece of information that the sentence gives you. Every word has a purpose (unless the writer made a mistake), so don’t ignore words. Don’t interpret a sentence as meaning something which contradicts even one clue (word).

The best way to explain how to do the questions is with an example.

Example Question-Based Analysis

John quickly threw the large, dark red ball after he ate a large lunch.

What action happened? Threw. (An optional second question is “When did the throwing happen?”. The answer is in the past.)

Who threw? John. (The more generic question for subjects is “What does the action?”, which is also fine to use.)

What was thrown? Ball. (The more generic question for objects is “What is acted on?”, which is also fine to use.)

How was the throwing performed? Quickly.

What color ball? Red.

What type of red? Dark.

What size ball? Large.

Which ball? The. (That means it’s a definite (particular) ball, rather than any ball. The ball would normally have been specified in a previous sentence.)

When was the throwing? After. (An alternative way to deal with conjunctions is to ask “What else happened?”, ask questions for the second clause, then ask “How are the two actions linked?”)

After what action happened? Ate.

Who ate? He = John. (It’s good to say what references refer to. You could also ask a second question like “Who is he?”)

What was eaten? Lunch.

What size lunch? Large.

Which lunch? A. (It’s an indefinite (unspecified) lunch, not a definite lunch.)

We’ve now identified the main purpose of each word in the sentence. This helps us think it through and provides a list we can refer to. Without doing this, we might misunderstand a word without even realizing there was a problem.

Tip: It’s best to phrase questions so they don’t have a yes-or-no answer. I don’t recommend questions like “Was lunch the thing that was eaten?” or “Was the size of the lunch large?”.

Tip: It works well for questions about the the subject and object (or complement) to include the verb. E.g. “Who threw?” asks about the subject and includes the verb “threw”. For modifiers, it works well for the question to include the thing being modified, e.g. “What size lunch?” instead of “What size?”.

Conclusion of Part 4

Every word in a sentence provides information. It’s useful to know the purpose and meaning of each word. You can review this as a series of questions and answers.

Besides having individual meanings, words are organized in groups. Outlining helps us see and understand those groupings.

Outlining also helps us consider what’s essential (important) or inessential (minor detail) at a particular level of detail or for a particular purpose. (If your goal is to learn about how rockets get into orbit, you can mostly ignore off-topic text because it’s not relevant to your purpose.) The essential ideas make a short outline, and shortening lets us think about more at once.

For these practice sentences, first mark clauses and phrases (using curly and angle brackets), then make a short outline, then write and answer a question for each word. You may need to do research to figure them out, especially the last two.

  • John pet his dog and cat with vigor.
  • Seeing isn’t believing.
  • I like philosophy because it involves thinking methods.
  • Some people don’t love truth or honesty.
  • John and Olivia enthusiastically sang their favorite song on the stage, but singing well wasn’t enough for the actors pretending to be judges.
  • While you’re having a discussion, never misquote anyone.
  • I think that nuclear power is safe.

Part 5: The English Language

This part discusses how English organizes and influences our thinking.

Organizing Words

Thoughts and words can be organized using groups, topics and sub-topics.

English groups words into phrases, clauses and sentences. Sentences are grouped into paragraphs. Paragraphs are grouped into sections, chapters, articles and books.

Each paragraph should have one small topic. Each sentence has one idea which contributes to its paragraph’s topic. The first sentence of each paragraph should be a topic sentence, and the other sentences should add to that topic. A list of only topic sentences should form a somewhat understandable outline. The more understandable writing is when reading only the topic sentences, the easier to read and clearer that writing is.

When writing a group of many paragraphs, it’s often good to begin with a topic paragraph. It’s an introduction which tells readers what the paragraphs are about. It can say why the topic matters, give an outline of what will be covered, and/or say what the conclusion will be (so that, as they read it, readers can understand how each paragraph builds towards that conclusion). You can also end a group of paragraphs with a conclusion. Longer writing can have introductory or conclusory sections or even chapters.

As a reader, try to understand the topic, purpose or theme of each paragraph, and understand how each sentence adds to that topic. The same applies at a higher and lower level. At a lower level, try to understand the topic of a sentence, and understand how each word adds to that topic. At a higher level, try to understand the topic for a group of paragraphs, and understand how each paragraph adds to that topic.

The basic way to structure writing is by figuring out what your main point (or main topic) is and what sub-points (or sub-topics) will work together to make it. Then figure out what sub-sub-points you can use to make each sub-point, and what sub-sub-sub points will help the sub-sub-points. When do you stop having lower levels? When you get down to small enough points to explain in one paragraph. Be careful: the more levels you have, the harder it is for anyone to understand. If it gets too complicated, try to find simpler ways to understand your ideas.

English Influences How You Think

The English language, combined with the culture of English speakers, including grammar educational resources, is a powerful force in people’s thoughts. I’ll call it “English” for short even though it involves culture, not just language.

English tells us what is a complete thought and what isn’t. It tells us that complete thoughts must have a verb and a noun. It tells us the patterns that thoughts follow (the simple and complex sentence patterns). It gives us a specific way of looking at the world (primarily in terms of verbs, nouns and modifiers). This influences how we think.

Words are conceptual units that we use to think. English tells us how to categorize our thoughts (e.g. verbs, nouns and modifiers) and how those words may be combined into higher level conceptual units like phrases, clauses, sentences or paragraphs. It also tells us what order to think of words in (e.g. subject before verb).

English tells us to think of noun-modifiers (adjectives) as a separate category than other modifiers (adverbs). I’ve mostly talked about modifiers, rather than adjectives and adverbs separately, because I don’t think this distinction is very important.

English tells us to think of linking verbs as a separate category than action verbs. I see some value in this distinction, but not enough to merit separate sentence patterns. An earlier draft of this article presented only one sentence pattern, not two; it didn’t distinguish between objects and complements. I changed it based on feedback; it confuses people to deviate too much from the standard English view.

English tells us to think of modifiers as separate from the things they modify. We see “big house” as two things, a noun and a modifier, instead of as a single concept meriting its own single word. People who are used to English (and other languages that agree on this point) often don’t even realize that any other way of thinking is possible.

You may feel like you can say whatever you want in English, like you’re totally free to decide what information to share and how to say it. But we’re not that free. English tells us that each thought must have a verb, a subject and, usually, an object or complement. English tells us to separate our complete thoughts, one per sentence, unless we use a special tool (e.g. a conjunction) to allow multiple thoughts in one sentence. Our freedom is in choosing which verbs and nouns to use, like we’re filling in the blanks in the standard sentence patterns, not like we’re designing something from scratch. We have more freedom for modifiers – we get to decide how many to use in addition to which ones. But English influences (partly by what words exist) what information we think of as a detail that should be a modifier word and what information should be given as a verb or noun.

Overall, I’m a big fan of English. The way English tells us to think is pretty good. It largely makes sense. It’s helpful. It’s useful. It’s effective. But people should be more aware of what’s going on. Studying English can help you understand your own thoughts better.

Details English Directs You to Consider

The primary purpose of this section is to give examples of how English influences details of your thinking and communication. The secondary purpose is to teach a little more about grammar.

Verb Tense and Aspect: Verbs require a tense and aspect, such as past simple, present perfect, or future progressive. Tense tells you when the action happens and aspect tells you whether it’s completed, continuing or neither. When you use English, you’re required to consider this for every verb.

Restrictive modifiers: English requires you to understand whether every modifier is restrictive (limits the meaning of the thing it modifies) or non-restrictive (merely provides additional information).

Count and Amount Nouns: English divides nouns into two categories: count nouns and amount (or degree) nouns. Count nouns can be counted or numbered: you can have one, two or twenty of them. Ice cubes are counted while ice is not. Grains of sand are counted while sand is not. Questions, cats, thoughts and pixels are counted. Happiness, stress, thinking and correctness are not counted. If you can put “a” before a noun or talk about “fewer” of them, then it’s a count noun. English makes people learn this distinction and look at the world in terms of it. (This applies to you even if your knowledge of countability is intuitive rather than conscious.)

Singular and Plural Nouns: When you think about count nouns, English requires you to think about how many things there are: one (singular) or multiple (plural). “Cat” is a different word than “cats”. Specifying the number of a noun could have been optional or could have been done differently (e.g. with a separate word that means two of a noun). English influences us to think about counting in a particular way.

Required determiners: In English’s opinion, you can talk about cats in general, but if you want to talk about one cat, then you must give some information about which cat you mean. The minimum information is putting “the” or “a” before “cat” to indicate a definite or indefinite cat. The general rule is that you must include a determiner to answer “Which one?” if a noun is both singular and count.

Modifier Word Order When modifying a noun with multiple adjectives, English has rules for what order to put the adjectives in. Most people follow these rules intuitively without consciously knowing they exist. There are also rules for adverb order.

Sentence Types: English teaches us to categorize sentences (and therefore our thoughts) into types like declarative (statement, gives information), interrogative (questions) and imperative (commands).

This is not a complete list. English also has other non-optional details which are built into the language (and therefore are part of your thinking), such as pronoun case, commas, verb mood and verb voice.

Learning More

You can find educational materials with google. E.g., search for adverbs and a bunch of pages will come up. Try other searches like learn adverbs or adverbs grammar to find more. Searching for a “list” or for “examples” sometimes helps. Or try a more specific search like adverb word order or types of adverbs. Most individual pages are mediocre, but you can look at several pages and get a few ideas from each.

Actively looking around at a variety of resources is the best way to learn. Checking multiple dictionaries (e.g. Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Cambridge, Webster’s 1828 and Webster’s 1913.) and Wikipedia can help. You can also find books, videos and courses.

If you’re interested in seeing what very advanced, technical grammar materials are like, try The status of function words in dependency grammar: A critique of Universal Dependencies (UD). It has interesting discussion, high quality arguments (in my opinion), and citations to other papers. You can also use it to find the right terminology to use in searches.

For learning more grammar in general, I particularly recommend Leonard Peikoff’s Grammar Course. See also my notes on Peikoff’s course and video on the first exercises (those were made when I knew less about grammar). If you practice the material in this article, you will know enough to begin Peikoff’s course.

I generally recommend goal-based learning instead of learning things that you may or may not use in the future. If you have difficulty with a sentence, you can look things up with the goal of learning just enough to understand the sentence. I don’t advise trying to learn a million things about grammar which you might use later. A goal guides and focuses your learning; it tells you what’s relevant and what’s unnecessary. Trying to use an idea also gives you feedback on whether you learned it well enough to use it successfully, which is good to test soon after learning.

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Conclusion

Understanding words, and their patterns and groupings, is one of the first steps towards being a good thinker. It helps build towards understanding what you read, thinking logically, and other philosophical skills. I hope this shows you that it’s possible for you to understand how things work. English may look hard and complex, but you can learn it in a clear way, not merely as a vague approximation. Other topics, besides English, can also be broken down into small parts, practiced, and learned clearly.

Keep practicing analyzing sentences. And practice understanding higher level organization. Try rereading this article but only reading the first sentence of each paragraph (you may want to skip analysis sections). When you read things, try to understand and write down what is a main point, what’s a sub-point, what’s a sub-sub-point, and so on.

By Elliot Temple, June 2019. Read more articles or sign up for my newsletter.