• Andrew

Grammar Bites | Sentence Components (YouTube Script)


Once upon a time, I had a set of mysteriously branded building bricks that could lock together to make a train. Some pieces had wheels built into them, other pieces were shaped like smokestacks, others were just squares that I could use to build train cars of any shape or variety. There were a few rules that governed how the pieces fit together, but, overall, the possibilities for building train cars were limitless.

I no longer play with that train set, but I do spend a lot of time playing with sentences, and, the more time I spend with sentences, the more I realize that they work in a very similar way. Just like the building set, sentences are made up of discrete pieces that can fit together in myriad ways. There are some rules that govern how those pieces fit together, but, overall, the possibilities for arranging those pieces are limitless.

Most traditional approaches to grammar start with a tour through the parts of speech, the nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and all that. We’re not going to do that here for a couple of reasons. First, that’s really boring. Second, all that detail is helpful if you’re studying sentences or language for their own sake, but, if you’re looking to improve your mastery of sentence writing, it’s more detail than you need right now.

So, instead of dealing with all those parts of speech, we’re just going to focus on three main components for building any sentence:

The verb phrase, this is the powerhouse of a sentence. Everything else in a sentence revolves around the verb.

One or more noun phrases. If the verb is the powerhouse of the sentence, noun phrases are what draw power and meaning from the verb. Without a verb, noun phrases are just lifeless facts. Without noun phrases, verbs are just aimless energy.

Modifiers. Almost everything else you could think of is a modifier. Modifiers add information beyond the simple assertions of verb+noun phrase combos. Modifiers can make sentences more informative, more engaging, more dramatic, more fun.

Like the different building blocks in my train set, the three sentence components can be arranged and rearranged to create an infinite number of sentences. This highlights a third reason for ignoring a grand tour of the parts of speech: words are not stuck in a single category. It’s much less interesting and realistic to ask whether vacuum is a noun or not—really, the question is whether it’s being used as a noun or a verb in a given sentence.

It’s like my building set. There was a particular piece that was designed to be the pilot of the train. Sometimes I put it on the front car like I was supposed to, but I also used it sometimes as a hat for the conductor or as a decoration somewhere else. There was a conventional purpose for that piece, but I was free to use it in different ways. The piece’s intended use mattered much less than the context I actually put it in.

Remember, grammar is not about right and wrong—it’s about what’s possible. Because of that, our focus on grammar here is not on rigid categories. Instead, the focus is on helping you see the creative possibilities of language and the flexibility that you have as a writer. So don’t worry about what a word is or what it’s meant to be, think instead about where you’re putting it and how you’re using it in your sentence. Some of your most interesting and surprising sentences will come into being when you use a word in a new or unexpected way.

Of course, that’s not to say that everything is possible. When I was building train cars, I was constrained by the different connectors that were built into each piece. I couldn’t just connect any piece to any other piece in any way that I wanted to, but I still had a lot of flexibility. In future videos, we’ll talk about how the three components of a sentence connect in greater detail. But, for now, it’s enough to know that noun phrases and verb phrases like to connect to each other and that modifiers can go just about wherever they want to. What’s important for you as a writer is to understand that how you connect the elements of each sentence matters more for creating meaningful work than any rule printed in any book.