One of the most important factors to keep in mind when analyzing sentences is that sentences are not only formed by words, but also by structural units known as constituents. In order to fully understand how sentences are formed and organized, an understanding is essential of how the parts of a sentence function. An analysis of sentence constituency begins at the largest units of grammar and then breaks the larger units down into smaller and smaller units.
The largest constituents of sentences can be illustrated by looking at complex and coordinate sentences. For example, consider the following sentence.
When the horse we bet on fell down, I was devastated.
A complex sentence has at least one dependent clause and an independent clause. In the above example, I was devastated acts as the independent clause and When the horse we bet on fell down is the dependent clause. Dependent clauses are introduced by either subordinate conjunctions, like although or because, or relative pronouns, such as who or which. Therefore, the largest constituents of the above complex sentence are the independent clause I was devastated and the dependent clause When the horse we bet on fell down.
A coordinate sentence is a sentence consisting of two coordinate clauses with a conjunction joining them together. The following sentence is an example.
Elizabeth gave Don a handmade scarf, but he lost it on the bus.
In this example, Elizabeth gave Don a handmade scarf and he lost it on the bus are both coordinate clauses. The conjunction but joins them. Therefore, in a coordinate sentence, the largest constituents are the two coordinate clauses and the conjunction that joins them.
The two major constituents of a simple sentence (or simple clause) are the noun phrase (or NP) and the verb phrase (or VP). A noun phrase contains either a noun or a pronoun and a verb phrase contains a verb. The following is a list of simple sentences.
In these sentences, the constituents on the left are all noun phrases and the constituents on the right are all verb phrases. The verb phrases stumbled, won the wager, and drank the contents of the bottle also function to assert something about the noun phrases Jessica, Christian, and Sean. Therefore, noun phrases and verb phrases can either be identified by position in a sentence or by function.
Sometimes a verb phrase can contain a noun phrase, as in the example drank the contents of the bottle. The contents and the bottle are both noun phrases. If alternate words were substituted for the contents or the bottle, those words would also function as noun phrases in the sentence.
The only essential component of a noun phrase is the noun, but noun phrases can also contain determiners, adjectives, and prepositional phrases. The patterns used to extend noun phrases follow certain rules.
Here's an example of a noun phrase and and explanation of its components:
Determiners, adjectives and prepositional phrases are optional components of a noun phrase.
Noun phrases function as unified entities within a sentence. A complex noun phrase like The red chickens in the coup functions exactly like a simple noun phrase like Don. Looking at how active and passive sentences are constructed demonstrates this unified quality of noun phrases.
Don stole the red chickens in the coup. (Active)
The red chickens in the coup were stolen by Don. (Passive)
Rearranging noun phrases in a sentence changes the referent of the predication the verb phrase asserts. Specifically, exchanging the direct object noun phrase (the red chickens in the coup) for the subject noun phrase (Don) creates a passive sentence out of an active sentence.
Both constituents and words are arranged in a linear order in sentences. Depending on how the arrangement, it can sometimes change a sentence’s meaning and can sometimes create a sentence that is ungrammatical in English.
Consider the following examples of how word order can impact sentence meaning.
The dog bit the man.
The man bit the dog.
These sentences share the same exact words, but their arrangement drastically changes the meaning of the sentences. The order signifies who bit whom.
The following example demonstrates how altering the word order of a sentence can lead to a sentence that is ill formed.
The dog bit the man.
Bit the man the dog.
English is an SVO (or subject, verb, object) language. Placing words and constituents in a VSO or VOS order in English leads to ungrammatical sentences that do not produce meaning.
However, changing the order of words doesn’t always mean that a sentence’s meaning gets changed, as the following examples suggest.
Tomorrow I will take my money to the bank.
I will take my money to the bank tomorrow.
This example suggests that the ordering of words in sentences is not always fixed.
Complex and coordinate sentences can begin to be analyzed at the level of their largest constituents, dependent clauses and independent clauses.
Simple sentences contain noun phrases and verb phrases, which are constituents that can be continually broken down to smaller and smaller units.
A study of grammar patterns for sentences reveals a multi-layered system of construction that reveals many of the intricacies of the English language.