Sentences and clauses

Some people find it quite difficult to decide where to end a group of words with a full stop.

What, in practical terms, is a sentence?

A written sentence should have certain characteristics:

  • a capital letter at the beginning
  • a full-stop at the end
  • a subject (who or what the sentence is about)
  • a verb (that tells you what’s happening)
  • and, finally, it should express ‘a single thought’.

There are a few other helpful points about a sentence:

  • a sentence can be long or short;
  • it can be very simple or very complex;
  • a sentence can be broken up with commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and so on.

Here are some examples of sentences:

  • Have you seen John? (question)
  • He’s in the library. (statement)
  • No, he’s not in the library. (negative statement)
  • You’ve looked in there, have you? (question using question tag)
  • Of course I’ve looked in there! (exclamation)
  • Please move to the left. (instruction)
  • Pick up that book! (command)

Here are some examples of collections of words that are not sentences.

  • So what?
  • Noise!
  • And close the door when you go out!
  • But he never heard the reply.
  • A long, dark shape, with a short, white tail.
  • Because I want to travel the world.

Clauses are collections of words that could in theory be sentences but which are parts of sentences. Here are sentences made up of two clauses. The clauses are in bold.

  • I went to the market because I wanted to buy some breadfruit.
  • He didn’t manage to pass the exam even though he worked very hard.
  • I’m feeling very hungry so I’m going to get some food out of the fridge.
  • The government was worried but they didn’t alter their foreign policy.

Sentences can be made up of more than two clauses.

  • I went to the library where I met Eli who was waiting for a reserved book.

This is made up of three parts:

  • I went to the library.
  • I met Eli.
  • Eli was waiting for a reserved book.

Clauses can be independent or dependent. Independent clauses can stand alone as sentences. Dependent clauses need to be attached to another clause which is independent.

  • If you don’t give me back my pen, I’ll hit you.

The first clause is dependent because by itself it doesn’t complete the thought; the second clause is independent as it could stand alone.

  • He received no thanks despite all the hard work he had done.

The first is an independent clause as it could stand alone; the second is dependent because we need another part to tell us what the word it refers to.

  • When I get back I’ll come over to your place with the books.

The first clause is dependent because when I get back does not complete the thought in this sentence; the second is independent as it could stand alone.

  • Although she’s only sixteen she is a very fast runner.

The first clause is dependent as it cannot stand alone and make a full ‘thought’; the latter clause is independent as it could happily be a sentence by itself.

  • I walked across to see Jamie who was working in the restaurant.

The first clause is independent but the second doesn’t make sense by itself.

It’s worth noting that all clauses have a verb. If a collection of words does not have a verb then it is likely to be a phrase. Here are some phrases:

  • my long lost brother
  • the book on the television in the corner
  • the old man with the red cap on his head by the library
  • a very interesting story
  • his delightful and talented daughter in Form 5