Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Grammar Moment: Finding subjects and verbs

One problem a lot of people have with the English language is that it has just been taught to them willy-nilly, without much of a system. Thus, run-on sentences and fragments, misplaced commas, subject-verb agreement problems, and misplaced modifiers are treated as separate issues. However, all of these different problems can be addressed by looking at one specific concept: finding subjects and verbs.

The subject and verb form the core of the sentence, the framework from which all of the rest of the sentence hangs. If you can find that core, you have the power to solve all sorts of problems.

To find the subject and verb, it is easiest to look for the verb first. The verb will show an action or a state of being. There will always be a main verb, and it may be accompanied by one or more helping verbs. What you’re looking for is the main verb, plus any helping verbs that go with it. Here’s an example:

Sammy Sosa hit another home run.

OK, we look for an action or a state of being. In this sentence, it’s an action:

Sammy Sosa hit another home run.

Here’s another example:

Muriel had been unhappy all day.

This time, we don’t have an action, but we have a state of being. We also have a helping verb along with the main verb:

Muriel had been unhappy all day.

Once you find the verb, finding the subject is easy. You just ask, “Who or what is doing the verb?” In the first example above, you ask, “Who or what hit another home run?” The answer is “Sammy Sosa”:

Sammy Sosa hit another home run.

In the second example, you ask, “Who or what had been unhappy all day?” The answer is “Muriel”:

Muriel had been unhappy all day.

You may note a pattern in how I’m showing subjects and verbs: I’m underlining subjects and bold-facing verbs. I will be continuing to use this pattern in order to show these elements.

Now, sometimes, there will be extra words in the way to make finding the subject and verb trickier:

The plate of cookies is on the table.

First we look for the verb. It’s as simple as verbs come:

The plate of cookies is on the table.

Now we ask, “Who or what is on the table?” At first glance, we might think the answer is “cookies,” since that’s the word right before the verb. But look again. Cookies is attached to the word plate by the preposition of. The two words together, of cookies, is just a phrase that tells more about the plate. Prepositional phrases like this are never subjects or verbs, and if they give you trouble, you might even put parentheses around them to remind you they’re off-limits when you’re looking for the subject.

The plate (of cookies) is on the table.

Sentences like this, by the way, are likely to confuse a computer grammar checker. The grammar checker sees the plural cookies right before the verb is and thinks that cookies is the subject, so the grammar checker will flag that as an error. This is one example of why you should never, EVER, trust the computer grammar checker. All it can tell you is where it thinks there MIGHT be an error. It’s up to you to look carefully and see whether there is, in fact, an error.

Sometimes you get extra words that come between parts of the verb. Adverbs are particularly slippery and can show up all over the place:

The cookies were definitely being eaten quickly.

You want to be sure to find the verb, the whole verb, and nothing but the verb. This verb has multiple words, and there’s an adverb you want to make sure to watch out for:

The cookies were definitely being eaten quickly.

Other tricky situations arise when the subject and verb aren’t in the usual order. Usually, the subject comes before the verb, but in some sentence constructions, that isn’t the case:

There are more than 20,000 students at TVI.

This is where finding the verb first is especially useful. First, we find the verb:

There are more than 20,000 students at TVI.

Now, we ask the question, “Who or what are at TVI?” No, it can’t be there, because there isn’t even a noun – it’s another one of those sneaky adverbs. Who or what are at TVI? Students!

There are more than 20,000 students at TVI.

Another situation that can be confusing is questions, in which at least part of the verb comes before the subject. Again, if you find the verb first, you can find the subject:

Did you see the new action movie?

OK, I hear you saying, this seems like an awful lot of esoteric theory. Subject, verb, schmubject, schmerb. Isn’t this a lot of work on a whole lot of abstract ideas?

Well, not really. As I mentioned earlier, if you can get a good handle on subjects and verbs, you will really get a good handle on dozens of other grammar issues. The entire English language will make more sense than it ever did before. We may have the most inconsistent language on the planet, but underneath it all, there is a logical foundation, and that’s subjects and verbs.

By the way, this system of underlining and bold-facing is only one way to show sentence structure. Another system, called diagramming, does much the same thing, but it draws a picture of a sentence. Diagramming focuses on the core of the sentence, the subject and verb, and shows the rest of the sentence as attachments to that core. If you want to learn more about diagramming, here’s a good link:

Diagramming used to be really popular, but about 30 years ago it fell into disfavor, about when a whole lot of grammar teaching became less organized. I like diagramming, and I find it useful in my own writing. I highly recommend it.


Blogger Carol Anne said...

OK, my single and double underlines are both coming through as single underlines. I composed this entry in Word and transferred it to Blogger, so maybe HTML doesn't do double underlines. Or maybe Blogger's translation software doesn't do double underlines.

If HTML doesn't do double underlines, I'll adjust my formatting to do without. If HTML does do double underlines, will someone who knows how they work let me know the HTML tags to put into the blog entry?

Thu Sep 22, 03:35:00 AM MDT  
Anonymous Jerry said...

I'm afraid there is no double-underline defined in HTML or CSS.

In CSS your options for text decoration are underline, overline, line-through and blink.

<span style="text-decoration:overline">overlined text</span>

Please don't use blink.

Thu Sep 22, 05:10:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

OK, typography has been reset. Things should be much clearer now.

Of course, verbs may often be action words, but they never blink.

Fri Sep 23, 12:55:00 AM MDT  

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