Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ziggywiggy Sent Oogleboogle a Fillyfolly... or a painless way to learn the basics of sentence structure

How to Identify the Parts of a Sentence -- a brief and painless introduction

I'm a big believer in the value of learning about grammar.  You can go far as a writer on instinct and intuition, but at some point, you need to be able to take a left-brain analytical approach to sentence structure if you want to effectively edit your own work.

The foundational first step is to learn how to identify the parts of a sentence. If, like me, you were myseriously absent the day that was taught in school, or if you had dozed off, or if your hippie-ish teachers preferred dissecting novels to talking about grammar, then you've got a hole in your brain where this basic knowledge should be.

But it's not too late to learn about grammar now.  And who knows, you might even enjoy it. It's worth keeping an open mind. Some subjects that are deadly dull to children can be fascinating to adults.

In the examples below, I use nonsense words both to try to keep you awake and to emphasize that you already have such a good intuitive grasp of English grammar that you can spot the structure in a sentence even if the individual words themselves are meaningless and don't give you any clues. 

1. The subject of a sentence 

In every sentence, somebody or something is doing something. Ask yourself, "Who or what is doing something in this sentence?" The answer will be the subject. 

Example: Ziggywiggy tortles the fillyfolly. 

Here, Ziggywiggy is doing something. The subject of the sentence is Ziggywiggy

2. The predicate of a sentence 

The predicate is the rest of the sentence, the part that is not the subject. Since Ziggywiggy is the sentence's subject, the predicate is tortles the fillyfolly

The predicate can be subdivided into two parts, the verb and the object. 

3. The verb 

The verb tells what the action is. In our sentence, the verb is tortles

4. The object 

While the subject tells who is doing the action, the object tells who is receiving the action. Ask yourself, "Who or what is being tortled?" The answer is the fillyfolly. So the object of the verb tortles is the fillyfolly

That is all you need to know to have a basic understanding of the structure of English sentences. Everything else is just a variation. 

Let's look at a few variations, and along the way, pick up some more terminology. 

-- Compound subjects 

You can have two or more subjects for a single verb. 

Example: Ziggywiggy and Oogleboogle tortle the fillyfolly. 

-- Compound verbs 

You can have multiple verbs for a single subject. 

Example: Ziggywiggy tortles and frumungles the fillyfolly. 

-- Direct object 

A direct object receives the action of a verb, as in our original example, Ziggywiggy tortles the fillyfolly, where fillyfolly is the direct object of tortles. 

-- Indirect object 

An indirect object never appears on its own. It always accompanies a direct object. The indirect object shows who or what gets the direct object. That's confusing, so let's look at an example. 

Ziggywiggy sent Oogleboogle a fillyfolly. 

Ziggywiggy is the subject. Sent is the verb. Fillyfolly is the direct object. And Oogleboogle is the indirect object. 

That should be enough basic terminology and concepts to give you a jumpstart on teaching yourself useful grammatical skills.  When I became interested in improving my writing skills, I found it very helpful to work through the exercises in a high school grammar textbook, even though high school was far behind me at that point.


The history of this article reflects the history of the content sites, which come and go. I originally published a version of the article in February 2007 on the site that used to be called Associated Content (which later became Yahoo! Contributor Network, then Yahoo! Voices, then became nothing at all). The article received 12,184 page views on AC as of July 2014, when the site closed. I then posted it on Bubblews, where it was my third most popular article with 20 likes. I took it down from Bubblews a few days ago. 

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