Syntax is the study of how words are arranged in a sentence. A sentence is a group of words that make sense and most sentences consist of a subject and a verb. Most consist of one complete action or clause.
Clauses consist of:
- A subject: the person or thing performing the action, e.g. Fran threw the ball.
- A verb: can describe actions (a lexical verb) or describe states (e.g., be, have, do, are auxiliaries and can work as main verbs or they help other verbs create tenses).
- Objects: this is the thing being acted upon by the subject. E.g. Fran threw the ball.
Direct Objects and Indirect Objects
Fran threw Olivia the ball. The direct object is ‘the ball’ – the thing directly done (or acted upon) by the subject, Fran. ‘Olivia’ is the indirect object – Fran did not throw Olivia, she threw the ball. We tend to say the indirect object ‘receives’ the object of the sentence.
E.g. Sophia got the biscuits for me. (Here the indirect object is ………………..)
Rahina sent all her work to college. (This time the indirect object is ………………...)
I lent Michelle the book. (Here it is ………..)
You can also have indirect objects introduced by the prepositions ‘to’ and ‘for’ e.g. ‘I lent a book to Emily’, or ‘I gave a speech for the college’.
What about the structure of clauses? Well, as with any study of language, being able to ‘feature spot’ (i.e. label the name or structure of a piece of language) is no use unless you are going to write/say something useful about its purpose/how it is used in that context/the pragmatic relevance of it. It is handy however, to be able to use the technical terms to help you identify the structure you want to comment on.
With that in mind, clauses are of 7 types:
Sophie smiled at the joke.
S V O
He listened carefully.
S V A
Laura is a scholar.
S V C
She gave me a book.
S V IO O
Pauline dropped her book on the floor.
S V O A
She got her book stained.
S V O C
A is the adverbial – a word, phrase or clause that tells us more about the way in which an action happened. They can refer to time, place, frequency or the manner in which something occurred. Eg. Neil wrote his letter rapidly. The bus arrived on time. After a long delay the train got here.
C is the complement – this gives more information about the subject or object of the clause. Eg. Nick is a student. He made his teacher mad!
The main thing to understand is how clauses are used within a sentence eg. Which is the main clause and which the subordinate clause. Most of our work in language acquisition will not involve children making complex utterances; so do not worry about this! For your information a main clause makes sense on its own and usually carries the main bit of information. The subordinate clause is related to the main one but gives us extra information or completes the main clause in some way. It cannot stand on its own and make sense.
Eg. A Parent might say: ‘Whatever you do, don’t play on the road.’
Underderline the main idea and the part that gives more detail relating to the main information (can you see why it is easier if you use the correct technical terms?!) Here, ‘whatever’ functions as a subordinating conjunction because it connects the subordinating clause to the main one (other such words are if, so that, because, before, while etc.).
A simple sentence has only one clause eg. ‘I want a biscuit’.
A compound sentence has two or more clauses joined together by conjunctions (such as and, but, then etc).
A complex sentence has a main clause and at least one subordinating clause eg. ‘Please don’t hit your brother, although I know he is annoying.’
That is all you need! This is the sort of information that is hard to retain if you do not use it frequently. You do not need to label everything in your data in the exam – the most important thing is to comment on how language is functioning and for what purpose a particular feature was used. Having the technical ‘know-how’ should improve your confidence and help you to refer to language accurately.