Simple Sentence Patterns

We’ve already discussed how native speakers of English have an unconscious knowledge of the language’s grammar – this is true of native speakers of all languages.

Nonnative speakers and English language learners have to learn the grammar, and they invariably study that of Standard English, the variety that is in power and used in academia and the professions. However, despite common prejudice, other varieties are not “sub-standard,” but have their own consistent syntax and rules for usage, such as verb forms.

Our unconscious knowledge is the reason native speakers can recognize the following two sentences as being grammatically correct even if we do not know the meaning of the words or if the sentences do not make sense:

The rumfrums prattly biggled the pooba.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

And why we know right away that this sentence is not grammatically correct:

Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

As discussed in the post What is grammar?, in an English sentence, word order, as well as word form and function, makes a difference.

We have looked at the usual word order (Subject – Verb – Object). In English, Brutus killed Caesar means something different from Caesar killed Brutus; whereas in Latin, it’s not word order, but word forms (inflections or endings) that are the signals to the word’s function in a sentence. Thus, Brutus interfecit Caesarem means the same as Caesarem interfecit Brutus.

Some English sentences have a different order. These are sentences that are questions, emphatic, and that begin with the word there:

Usual Word Order

Ethnographers can write the history of a culture.

Question Word Order

Have ethnographers described your culture?

Emphatic Word Order

Rare is the unstudied culture.

There Word Order

There are resemblances between our cultures.

Simple Sentence Patterns

A sentence is sometimes defined as a word group (or clause) that contains a subject and a verb and gives a sense of completeness. (Sometimes the subject is understood as it is in commands: [You] Go away!)

A simple sentence us a word group consisting of only one clause. The sentences in the examples in this post are all simple sentences. (Simple sentence can contain more than one subject or more than one verb, but these are known as compound subjects and compound verbs.)

Simple sentences have several patterns:


Subject — Action Verb


Subject — Action Verb —> Direct Object


Subject — Action Verb — Indirect Object —> Direct Object


Subject — Linking Verb <— Subject Complement

Pattern I. Subject — Action Verb

The first pattern is the basic pattern of Subject + Verb, but this is an action verb as in this bare bones sentence Dogs bark. As we saw in the post Parsing the English Sentence, a simple sentence does not necessarily mean a short sentence: the bare bones sentence Dogs bark can be expanded by adding modifiers to create this sentence: All the dogs in my neighborhood near the college bark during the day at bikers and joggers.

Pattern II. Subject — Action Verb —> Direct Object.

Some action verbs cannot stand alone, but take an object. This creates the second type or pattern, which is Subject — Action Verb —> Direct Object. Also called a transitive verb, these verbs require an object to express a complete thought. Subjects usually perform the action of the verb, but the object receives the action. Here are some examples:

The dog sees the squirrel. (squirrel = object)

They sent a birthday card. (birthday card = object)

The direct object can usually be identified by asking who or what of the verb:

What did the dog see? The squirrel.

What did they send? A birthday card.

Pattern III. Subject — Action Verb — Indirect Object —> Direct

Some transitive action verbs can be used with both a direct object and an indirect object, which give us the third sentence pattern: Subject — Action Verb — Indirect Object —> Direct Object. While the direct object receives the action of the verb, the indirect object names the person or thing that benefits from the action:
They sent Katie a birthday card. (Katie = indirect object)

He read his daughter a story. (daughter = indirect object)

The indirect object can usually be identified by to whom or for whom of the verb:

To whom did they send a birthday card? To Katie.

To whom did he read the story? To his daughter.

A verb that does not require an object, that can stand alone is also called an intransitive verb.

Some verbs may be used both ways, as intransitive or transitive. Consider these two sentences:

Subject — Action Verb (intransitive)

Connie sings in the choir.

Subject — Action Verb —> Direct Object (transitive)

The choir sings carols. (carols is the direct object)

Pattern IV. Subject — Linking Verb <— Subject Complement

The fourth pattern for a simple sentence is one whose main verb is a linking verb. We talked about linking verbs in several posts including one on subject-verb agreement, which deals with number, and the other, Woe is I, which deals with case. (Linking verbs can result in what purists call errors because the traditional rule is that linking verbs agree with the subject—and not the subject complement—in number and case.)

Linking verbs are those verbs that do not show action, but rather link or connect the subject with the subject complement, or the word that completes or describes the subject. Subject complements can be either nouns or adjectives (also called predicate nouns and predicate adjectives).

Linking verbs can convey a sense of being (be), relates to the senses (taste), or indicate a condition (grow). Be is the most common of the linking verbs, and it has eight forms: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being, which we discussed in the post on verb forms. A linking verb is comparable to an equals sign, which accounts for the traditional agreement rules mentioned above. (As I have asserted throughout this blog, the “rules” are not necessarily the way English works or is practiced, as seen in the common expression “woe is me” vs. the “correct” expression “woe is I.”)

Let’s look at some examples of this fourth pattern of Subject — Linking Verb <— Subject Complement:

My favorite fruits are apples and oranges.

You look happy.

John seems upset.

The soup tastes delicious.

Understanding the different simple sentence patterns can help you recognize them in your writing. Once you identify them, you can decide which sentence patterns work in your piece. In a future blog, we’ll examine the other sentence types or structures, such as compound and complex sentences.

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