Revisiting the English Sentence

An earlier post on parsing the English sentence played on the definition of parse (pars) v. tr. 1. To break (a sentence) down into its component parts of speech with an explanation of the form, function, and syntactical relationship of part. 2. To describe (a word) by stating its part of speech, form, and syntactical relationships in a sentence. (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition)

We’ve discussed sentences in several posts on this website; for example, when we talked about sentence fragments, comma splices or run-on/fused sentences, and sentence construction and rhythm. This post takes another close look at the sentence and its constituent parts.

The sentence is the basic unit of thought, and its grammar consists of words with specific forms and functions arranged in specific ways.

In an English sentence, word order makes a difference. But word form and function also make a difference in how we use a word and its meaning in a sentence.

If you’re a native speaker, or if you can speak and write English, you already know a great deal about the structure of an English sentence. To make sentences grammatically and rhetorically effective, you need to know more about the basic parts.

The traditional term for these basic components is parts of speech, although many grammarians and linguists have problems with the terminology and prefer to call the components word classes or grammatical categories or even devise their own unique or idiosyncratic terminology. Without going into the history or politics of the name debate, I like to stick to the old label parts of speech because most people are familiar with it.

Many English words regularly function as more than one part of speech.

Look at the use of the word book in each of the examples below:

a. book a plane flight

b. take a good book to the beach

c. have book knowledge

Not all parts of speech are equal; in fact, linguists divide them into two groups,

major word classes and minor word classes.

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs belong to the major word class group. Pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, and articles all belong to the minor word class group.

One characteristic that differentiates these two groups is their numbers: the major word classes have a great many members, while the minor word classes have few members. For instance, there are hundreds of thousands (and growing) nouns while there are only three articles (a, an, the), seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), and about seventy prepositions.

Another distinguishing characteristic is that the major word classes have meanings that are easily captured in dictionary-type definitions. They have reference to actual things and can be shown ostensibly by pointing to an example in the world; for example, using the word horse for a particular animal.

Minor word classes on the other hand do not have referential meanings; rather, their meanings are derived from their grammatical function.  For example, prepositions are small words which are connecting words that show relationship, such as connecting a noun or pronoun to another word in a sentence: the avenue past the stoplights.

Finally, major word classes are “open” word groups, while minor word classes are “closed” ones. To be “open” means to be receptive to new members. Think of the new nouns, verbs, and adjectives that have entered English in recent years, often originating in technological (worldwide web; to boot up), slang (cool, awesome), or casual contexts (like as a conjunctive adverb). Closed classes, on the other hand, are not receptive to new members.

There has been very little change in these word groups in the last five hundred years or so of Modern English. One small change has occurred with pronouns: thee, thou, thy, and thine were once commonly used in speech, but now they are no longer viable. As a language changes to reflect a changed culture, old words die, and new words are introduced, but again these new words will belong to the category of major word classes (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs).

Perhaps this review of the English sentence and its constituent parts has been helpful in understand a bit how our language works and why there are certain “rules” in putting our thoughts and ideas into words and sentences to communicate them to others.

(Some material derived from works in Resources: Little, Brown Handbook; English 3200; The Everyday Writer; LeTourneau, English Grammar)

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