Seats and sets


When you speak or write a sentence, you’re sharing a feeling. That English word sentence is just a Frenched version of the Latin word sententia, which means ‘feeling’. Sententia is the noun version of the verb sentīre ‘to feel’. So a sentence is literally a feeling.

Feelings come to us more naturally than just about anything else. So it comes as no surprise than when you state your feeling in a sentence, the sentence just bubbles out of you without much thought. Actually, though, whenever you speak or write a sentence – a correct one, anyway – you’re building something from two parts: a subject and a predicate. The subject is what does the action of the sentence, and the predicate is the action itself. Put another way, the subject is what you’re talking about, and the predicate is what you’re saying about it. You can think of a sentence as a marriage between those two partners, subject (husband) and predicate (wife).

The subject is a noun phrase. It could be one word long (“Bears live in forests”) or several words long (“Huge brown grizzly bears live in forests”), but at its heart is a noun. It makes sense for the subject to be a noun: without some person, place, or thing to do an action, there can be no action.

The predicate is a verb phrase. Like the subject, it can be one word long (“Sharks swim”) or several (“Sharks swim swiftly across the sea”), but at its heart is a verb. That makes sense, too: since a verb is an action word, there can be no action without one.

To have a sentence, it isn’t enough just to have a noun and a verb. The verb has to be finite. To understand what finite means, think of its opposite, infinite. Infinite means unlimited. That’s because the Latin word fīnis means ‘limit’. Finite, then, means limited.

But limited how? How can a verb be limited? Remember that a sentence is a marriage between a subject and a verb. It’s possible for a verb not be be married to a subject, just as it’s possible for a woman not to be married to a man. Single verbs are called nonfinite, and they’re useful because besides being verbs, they also act like another part of speech at the same time. A finite verb, because it’s married to a subject, is locked into one role: the heart of that subject’s predicate. The same way a wife wears a ring to show her union with her husband, a verb may wear a suffix to show its union with its subject. For example, in the sentence “The bear catches a fish,” the verb catches wears the suffix -es to match two features of her husband, bear: his third person and singular number. At the same time, her suffix also shows off a feature of her own: her present tense.

A finite verb is a married verb, but her “ring” is not always visible. In the sentences “I catch a fish,” “You catch a fish,” and “Bears catch fish,” the verb catch has the same form even though it’s paired with three different subjects. But catch is still changing its person and number to match each subject’s, even though we can’t see it happening. In the first sentence, catch is first person singular; in the second sentence, it’s second person singular or plural; and in the third sentence, it’s third person plural. The verb gets those two features, person and number, from the subject. The subject limits the verb by assigning her those features. For that reason, we can tell that catch is a finite verb even without a visible suffix like -es.

Any union of a subject and a finite verb is called a clause. A clause may or may not be a sentence. A clause that can stand on its own as a full sentence is called independent; a clause that can’t form a sentence without leaning on an independent clause is called dependent or subordinate.

Every finite verb is the root of a clause. That verb may take up the whole predicate herself, or she may share it with some noun or adjective phrases. Those phrases, which the verb brings with her like luggage, are objects and complements. The predicate of a clause, then, is the verb plus any objects or complements.

To see how these parts fit together, imagine a clause as a table with several chairs. We’ll call that table a wordset. There’s a chair for the subject, three chairs for objects, and two more chairs for complements. All those chairs are wordseats. Together, there are six wordseats, but they’re never all sat in at once; in any wordset, some are left empty. Four of the wordseats can be filled only by nouns, but two of them – the complements – can be filled by nouns or adjectives.

There are five possible wordsets, varying by which seats are filled:

Set 1: S AV

This is the simplest kind of clause; it has only a subject and an action verb: “Fish swim,” “Birds fly,” “Trees grow.” All those verbs, swim, fly, and grow, depict an action that you could watch happening.

Set 2: S AV DO

This set adds a direct object, a noun that undergoes the action of the verb: “Kids fly kites,” “Bears catch fish,” “Rain waters fields.”

Set 3: S AV IO DO

To Set 2, Set 3 adds an indirect object. This wordset is reserved for sentences about giving gifts and doing favors. The subject is the giver, the direct object is the gift, and the indirect object is the receiver: “I gave my sister a present,” “Farmers grow us food,” “Kendall teaches me grammar.”

Set 4: S AV DO OC

Set 4 starts like a Set 2 but adds an object complement, a noun or adjective that completes the direct object (complement = thing that completes) by telling what that object is turned into by the action in the verb: “Lullabies make babies sleepy,” “Kids drive their parents crazy,” “King Arthur made Sir Lancelot a knight,” “Parents think their children angels.” Note that in the first two sentences the complement is an adjective, while in the last two it’s a noun.

Set 5: S LV SC

Where Sets 1–4 have an action verb, Set 5 alone has a linking verb, which functions essentially as an equal sign. A linking verb – usually some form of be, but possibly a sensory word like seem, sound, feel, or taste – links the subject to a subject complement that completes the subject’s identity: “Trees are tall,” “Bread smells delicious,” “Trees are plants,” “Bread is a staple food.” What object complements are to direct objects, subject complements are to subjects. Both kinds of complement can be either a noun or an adjective.

Needless to say, besides its seats, a wordset may also have several modifiers that tell more about the words in the seats. One modifier is a prepositional phrase, which includes the sixth wordseat, the object of a preposition. Modifiers are lovely decoration, but when you’re figuring out which wordset a clause represents, you can safely ignore them and focus on the seats themselves.

Now that you know the five wordsets, every clause you see, practice identifying which set it is and what its seats are!