Sentence Structure 101

The most basic units in writing are, of course, letters, which are strung together to make words. If you want to communicate on a more effective level than a toddler, though, you need to be able to combine words into meaningful phrases and clauses, phrases and clauses into effective sentences, sentences into coherent paragraphs, and paragraphs into. . . well, you get the idea. Since you already know lots of words (even if you can’t use all of them in polite conversation), we’ll start our study of composition with clauses and sentences.

Sentence Structure 101

Clauses Define Sentences

Sentence types are classified according to the clauses that make them up. If you took our Elements of Effective Writing I: Grammar & Mechanics workshop, you already know about the different types of clauses.

But here’s a quick refresher, just in case:

All clauses have (at the very least) a subject and a predicate (if they are missing one or the other or both, they are phrases). The subject is the noun or the pronoun the clause is “about”; the predicate gives information about the subject. The predicate always includes a verb; it may also contain objects, adjectives or other parts of speech.

Clauses that can stand as complete sentences all by themselves are called independent clauses. Those that cannot stand alone are called dependent (or subordinate) clauses . Here are some examples:

  • Independent Clause (can stand alone as a complete sentence):
    The dog barks. (“dog” is the subject; the verb “barks” is the predicate)
    The dog is barking. (“dog” is still the subject; “is barking” is the predicate, made up of the verb “is” and the gerund “barking,” which serves as an adjective in this sentence)
  • Dependent or Subordinate Clause (not a complete sentence):
    If the dog barks (again “dog” is the subject, and “barks” is the predicate, but this is obviously not a complete sentence; the culprit is the subordinating conjunction “if,” which sets the expectation for more information to follow).
  • Phrase:
    the barking dog (“barking” is also an adjective here, but there is no accompanying verb to form a predicate; remember, without a predicate and a subject, you cannot have a clause)

This partial lecture came from the course Form and Composition


  • How to fix common sentence problems (sentence fragments, run-on sentences, dangling and misplaced modifiers).
  • How using sentence variety can make your writing interesting.
  • How to build paragraphs, sentence by sentence, to write engaging prose.
  • How to polish your prose to write an original composition.

Learn More About our Form and Composition Workshop!

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