The Guide to English Sentence Structure That’s Easier Than You Expect
Good sentence structure is the key to strong, effective communication in English.
If you don’t know the parts of a sentence or how to combine them in the right order, your sentences will simply fall apart!
In this post, I’ll show you how to write and speak English with grammatically correct sentences in three steps.
- Dos and Don’ts to Improve Your English Sentences
- The Building Blocks of English Sentences
- The Four Basic Sentence Structures
- The Rules of Word Order
Dos and Don’ts to Improve Your English Sentences
Before we delve into the rules of sentence structure, it may be helpful to keep these tips in mind to speak and write with stronger sentences in English.
- Rely on broken English: Sometimes it’s tempting to just put a subject and verb together and hope your listener understands. But if you’re actively practicing sentence structure, take the time to create complete sentences. Even if they’re wrong, you’ll learn from the process.
- Think in your native language: Every language has its own sentence structure rules. If you translate back-and-forth between English and your native language, you’ll never get truly comfortable with the rules of English. So try to formulate sentences by thinking in English first.
- Learn some phrases/structures by heart: This way, you won’t need to think through the sentence structure rules every time you want to say a basic sentence. Pick some sentences that you use a lot (for example, sentences for introducing yourself) and memorize how to say them the right way.
- Listen to and watch English content: Watching English videos can help you tune your ears to the sound of proper sentence structure. The more you listen and actively pay attention to how native speakers word their sentences, the easier it will be to mimic and learn this yourself.
You can find authentic English videos to watch on a program like FluentU, for example, which also includes interactive captions to give you further support. You can also watch English content like movies and TV shows to get some practice.
- Correct your writing with Grammarly: Grammarly is like a super-charged grammar and spelling checker. It won’t just point out your mistakes, but it will also actually show you what you did wrong! That means you won’t make the same error the next time.
Grammarly can find sentence structure errors such as problems with word order or missing words, among many other types of grammar and spelling issues.
Sentences are the fundamental building blocks of any language. Luckily, the rules of sentence structure and syntax in English are pretty easy to understand, apply and learn.
The Building Blocks of English Sentences
You’ll need to understand these terms before we examine the different types of English sentence structures and the rules for forming them.
Subjects and Predicates
The most basic English sentences usually have two parts: a subject and predicate. The subject refers to who or what is performing the action in the sentence. The predicate gives us some information connected to or about the subject.
Let’s take the sentence “I walk the dog.” In this sentence, “I” is the subject, because it refers to the person who’s performing an action.
Meanwhile, “walk the dog” is the predicate because it tells us what the subject is doing.
Here are some more examples. The subject is in bold and the predicate is in italics.
I study at a public university.
Rajesh works at a marketing firm.
She likes the color purple a lot.
Independent and Dependent Clauses
A clause refers to a group of words containing a subject and predicate.
There are independent clauses, which can stand alone as complete sentences. There are also dependent clauses, which need to be attached to an independent clause in order to make sense.
- Independent clause: I went home.
- Dependent clause: If I went home…
Direct and Indirect Objects
Subjects, predicates and clauses can be found in any sentence, but direct objects and indirect objects are only in some sentences. However, they’re extremely common and it’s important to be able to recognize them when they’re used.
The direct object refers to something that has an action performed on it by the subject. The indirect object is who/what receives the action.
Okay, that’s a little confusing, right? Let’s look at an example.
Logan gives the book to his brother.
“His brother” receives the book from Logan, so “his brother” is the indirect object. Since Logan performed an action on the book (“gives”), the book is the direct object.
The Four Basic Sentence Structures
Sentences can be short and sweet or long, messy and complicated. Here are the different types and the rules for how they’re formed.
- Simple Sentence: A simple sentence contains a single independent clause.
For example: “John finished the book.” This sentence has a subject and predicate and can stand alone as a complete sentence.
- Compound Sentence: A compound sentence is formed when two or more simple sentences are joined together, usually by conjunctions (e.g. and, or, but) or a semicolon.
For instance, the sentence “She went to sleep and he stayed up to finish the work” is a compound sentence because it can be broken into two simple sentences: “She went to sleep.” and “He stayed up to finish the work.”
- Complex Sentence: A complex sentence contains an independent and a dependent clause.
For instance, take the sentence “John finished the book even though he was getting late for work.” The independent clause (“John finished the book”) is combined with a dependent clause (“even though he was getting late for work.”).
- Compound-complex sentence: A compound-complex sentence contains at least two independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.
For example: “Even though I set my alarm last night, I didn’t hear it ring this morning and I woke up late.” The independent clauses are in bold and the dependent clause is in italics.
When you’re learning and practicing, start off with the simple sentences and then use conjunctions to form compound ones. Once you’ve gained enough confidence, you can start forming longer complex and compound-complex sentences.
The Rules of Word Order
The English language is very particular about syntax, which refers to the arrangement and order of words in a sentence. If you’re confused, these rules should help you out.
Adjectives Go Before the Noun, Adverbs Go After the Verb
Adjectives are always placed before a noun or a pronoun that they’re modifying. Adverbs are usually placed after the verb that they’re modifying.
For example, we say “She wore a red dress” and never “She wore a dress red.”
Similarly, you’re more likely to hear a sentence like “The bird sang sweetly” instead of “The bird sweetly sang.” Just know that it’s generally not considered a huge mistake to put the adverb before the verb.
Info Is Organized by “Place, Manner, Time”
When adding details to your sentences, it’s useful to remember the rule of “place, manner, time.” Information is generally structured in this order.
For example, an English speaker might say, “I travel to her house (place) by bus (manner) every weekend (time).” They would probably not say, “I travel by bus every weekend to her house.”
Of course, you’ll occasionally come across sentences that don’t follow this rule and they aren’t grammatically incorrect, but this is the standard order. Sometimes, the “time” is mentioned in the beginning of a sentence, usually for the purpose of emphasis.
Don’t Begin Sentences with Conjunctions (Formal English)
When it comes to formal English writing, avoid starting your sentences with conjunctions.
Conjunctions include words like and, but, yet, or and because.
It’s not actually grammatically incorrect to start with a conjunction—however, it’s a very well-known tradition among English speakers. Many English professors, for example, may expect you to follow this rule when writing academic essays.
You certainly don’t have to follow it while you’re speaking or writing informally.
Question Words Go at the Beginning
In the English language, certain words are always used in questions. These are how, when, why, what, where, etc. and are usually placed at the beginning of the sentence.
For example, if you were to ask for directions you would say something like:
What is the fastest route to the airport?
How can I go from school to the store?
Where is the local pharmacy shop here?
Those are the basics for the structure of English questions—you can find an in-depth guide to forming questions in English here.
The best way to learn English is to use it as much as possible. So look for every opportunity you can to speak and write in English. Talk to your friends or an online study partner or make it a point to write down your thoughts and feelings regularly. Look up online grammar resources and links, do your lessons regularly and don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to ask your teachers for feedback. The more you expose yourself to the language and familiarize yourself with it, the faster you’ll learn.