Dan Kurland's    www.criticalreading.com
Reading and Writing Ideas As Well As Words

Questions/ Comments      Home Page

How the Language Really Works:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing
Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Inference
Choices
Ways to Read
Grammar


.

A Model Of English Sentence Structure

Simple, Compound, and Complex Sentences

Review: Sentence and Predicate Modifiers

Examples

Implications For Reading

Implications For Writing

Sentence and Predicate Modifiers

At times when reading, we come away with little, if any, understanding. We see the trees, but not the forest.

We may miss the meaning for a number of reasons. We may not know the meaning of certain words or the concepts to which they refer. Even when we understand the words, we may come away with little understanding because the writing itself is particularly complex. In this latter instance, it is often helpful to apply grammatical analysis, to consciously attempt to break the sentence into meaningful units.

A Model Of English Sentence Structure

All English sentences follow the same basic formula. All speakers of the language are familiar with that formula, and yet this model is rarely if ever taught. (1) The discussion here lays that formula out.

The discussion of noun phrases demonstrated the need to recognize grammatical constructions as complete units. There we were concerned with a single grammatical construction irrespective of where it appeared within a sentence.

This section looks more broadly at the sentence as a whole. It identifies various positions or slots within the sentence and discusses how constructions appearing within these slots shape the meaning of the sentence as a whole. In so doing, the discussion shows you how to make sense of complex sentences when you come across them in your reading, and how to construct them in your own writing.

Simple, Compound, and Complex Sentences

Simple sentences contain a subject and predicate--a topic and a statement about that topic. More complicated sentences can be formed by stringing elements of a simple sentences together to make compound sentences or by adding other elements to make a complex sentence . These pages focus on three ways of expanding a simple sentence into a complex sentence: For background discussion of simple and compound sentences, see Simple Sentences .

Review: Sentence and Predicate Modifiers

We read all sentences with a dual awareness of both meaning and structure. We break each sentence into meaningful chunks and figure out their grammatical relationships:

Recall our three model sentences:
1. The boy ate the apple in the pie.
2. The boy ate the apple in the summer.
3. The boy ate the apple in a hurry.

We can now see how we analyze these sentences differently to find meaning. �� Using the notation above, we now see the following structures:

����������������������������������������������������� 1. The boy ���������� ate ���� the apple in the pie.

    *      

2. The boy ate the apple �������� [ in the summer.

�����������

3. The boy ����������������������� ate the apple { in a hurry }

To understand each sentence, we must analyze the relationship of its parts. That process is made easier with a knowledge of and a feeling for the various possible relationships: here noun modifiers, sentence modifiers, and predicate modifiers.

Remember the sentence

He did not marry her because he loved her.

The two meanings stem from two equally legitimate analyses. In the analysis

He did not marry her ������������ [ because he loved her

they are not married. The phrase

because he loved her

is in the end sentence modifier slot that modifies the remainder of the sentence. We can test this by shifting the final construction from the end to the front slot.

He did not marry her ���������� because he loved her

Because he loved her , ���� ��� he did not marry her ����������������

Note the addition here of the comma when the front slot is filled.

In the analysis

He did not marry her ���������� because he loved her

they still might be married for other reasons. The phrase

because he loved her

is determined to be in the predicate modifier slot, indicating a reason for marrying.

He did not marry her ���������� { because he loved her }

Examples

Other instances of grammatical ambiguity typically appear in headlines, as the following.

Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms

We can now read this as a reference to a certain disease

Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms

     *      

Female mushrooms have cancer! �� Or as an event

Lung Cancer in Women �� Mushrooms

     *     

Cancer in women is increasing�obviously the intended meaning!.

Analyze the following yourself.

         Reagan Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead

         Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

         Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter

         Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

         Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

         Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

Other examples can be found in "The Lower case" section of the Columbia Journalism Review : (5) :

Thai Hospital Admits Starving Refugee Babies �����

The Cambodia Daily , 2/26/98

Salad still good after 50 years ������������������������

Tribune-Star (Terra Haute, Ind.) 3/11/98

Transportation department to hold public meetings on I-49

The Times (Shreveport, La.) 3/19/98

MEDIA: Some Fear Coverage Reflects Judgment ������ �����������

Los Angeles Times 1/29/98 ���

Can you distinguish between ambiguity of word meaning and grammatical ambiguity?

Implications For Reading

What does the above analysis do for us? �� To find meaning in a sentence, we must break it into meaningful parts, and we must understand how those parts are related to each other.

When we group words into larger constructions, we accomplish two goals. First. we reduce the complexity of the sentence as a whole into smaller, more manageable parts. In so doing, we group words to identify complete references. The meaning we come away with depends on how we break up (analyze) a sentence.

The best strategy is to initially break the sentence into a few parts. Locate a basic simple sentence and identify how any remaining constructions are related to that basic simple sentence. The slot model offers a template for that effort.

Earlier we recognized King's full dream. �� Within the construction defining that dream we can now recognize a time, a location, and an event:

one day

on the red hills of Georgia

the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

We find a complex sentence consisting of two front sentence modifiers followed by a simple sentence with a predicate modifier at the end

one day ] on the red hills of Georgia ] the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together { at a table of brotherhood.

Finally, consider the following sentence:

When Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of a modest house at Appomattox Court House, Virginia to work out the terms for the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, a great chapter in American life came to a close and a greater chapter began.

At first, this appears to be a long and complex sentence. �� When we draw on the notions reviewed above, however, we see that its structure is really simple. We have a front sentence modifier

When Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of a modest house at Appomattox Court House, Virginia to work out the terms for the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ]

a great chapter in American life came to a close and a greater chapter began.

followed by a series of simple sentences

a great chapter in American life came to a close and

a great new chapter began

To test this analysis, try shifting the modifier:

A great chapter in American life came to a close, and

a great new chapter began.

[ when Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of a modest house at Appomattox Court House, Virginia to work out the terms for the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

The large construction passes the test for a sentence modifier. �� While that large construction may be the most interesting piece of the sentence, it is not the most crucial to the meaning. �� The main idea of the sentence is about great chapter(s) beginning and ending. The large construction does not identify or describe those chapters; it only says when the shift came.

Implications For Writing

The "slot" model of sentences developed above offers a template into which to fit constructions in the effort to make sense of sentences. �� The same model offers writers opportunities to qualifying references and ideas in terms of place, quality, time, purpose, type, extent, or conditions. �� Writing that does not make use of the sentence modifier, predicate modifier, and insert slots can be decidedly childlike in expression and simplistic in thought.


(1) The discussion is based on Robert L. Allen, English Grammars and English Grammar , Scribner's, Scribner's, 1972. Out of print.

(2) Letter to Editor, The New York Times , May 8, 1998 (Printed May 12, 1998), by Charlton Heston, NRA First Vice-President

(3) William H. Dunlop, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times , Austin edition, June 10, 1998, p. A28.

(4) Pete Hamill, Twenty Seven Words-The Bloody Problem of the Second Amendment , (Mightywords, 2000), www.mightywords.com, p. 4.

(5) The examples from March/April and May/June 1998 issues.

Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Inference
Choices
Ways to Read
Grammar

Copyright � 2000 by Daniel J. Kurland.  All rights reserved.
This Web page may be linked to other Web pages. Please inform the author

Questions/ Comments   |  Homepage

Dan Kurland's    www.criticalreading.com