The definitions and examples included here work well enough as general descriptions of English syntax, but we’re sure to come across examples of sentences for which they won't quite fit. Not to worry. What we have is at least a rough-and-ready beginning point.

Before we start, however, you need to know that beyond the solitary word, words can also be found in “strings,” that is, in phrases or clauses. Both of these “strings” are groups of words that cohere in some way. But a clause must, in addition, contain a verb. Further, clauses can be subdivided into independent clauses, which can stand alone, and dependent/subordinate clauses, which can’t.

In the definition of each class of word (verb, noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb, verbal, preposition, conjunction), I'll specify what that class generally expresses or means (its semantic content) and how that class functions (its potential syntactic relations).

Verbs express (“mean”) actions or states of being (she goes; she is; she becomes), and, because they predicate something about the subject, they function as the “hearts” of clauses.

To define them more precisely, we call them finite verbs, because they’re limited by person (first, second, third), number (singular, plural), and time (past, present, future).

  1. The three kinds of finite verbs are:

    1. transitive verbs: they indicate a transfer of the action of the verb to an object; that is they “take” a direct object;
    2. intransitive verbs: their meaning doesn’t allow such a transfer, so they don’t “take” an object;
    3. linking verbs: these are forms of to be or verbs such as become, seem, feel, etc. that link the subject with a predicate noun or a predicate adjective.

  2. Verbs also “agree”/are in concord with their subjects person and number. We go. (first person, plural)

  3. Verbs have voice: they show whether the subject is the performer (active voice) or the receiver (passive voice) of the action of the verb. I hit the ball. vs. I was hit by the ball.

  4. Verbs have mood or mode: they indicate the writer’s attitude toward the factuality or likelihood of the actions or conditions expressed. The three modes are

    1. indicative (declarative statement or question),
    2. imperative (command),
    3. subjunctive (doubt, hypothesis or supposition, possibility or any counterfactual statement). If he were here, I’d be surprised. or Suppose I were to ask you about the subjunctive.

  5. Finally, English verbs can have aspect, i.e. be progressive and thus emphasize the unfolding of the action. I am going to the store. vs. I go to the store.

Nouns name (“mean”) persons, places, things, or abstract ideas; they function as

  1. subjects (about which verbs make assertions; see example 1 below);
  2. direct objects (receivers of the actions of transitive verbs; see example 2);
  3. indirect objects (to/for whom/what something is done; see example 2);
  4. objects of prepositions (on the table);
  5. predicate nouns/predicate nominatives (nouns that occur in the predicate and rename the subject or complete its meaning; used with linking verb). Grendel is a monster.

Pronouns replace nouns (he snores) and therefore mean and function as nouns do. They also, however, come in a variety of kinds:

  1. personal (she, they);
  2. relative (who, which, what, that; more about the relative will come up later);
  3. interrogative (Who? Why? Where?);
  4. demonstrative (this, those).

Examples of nouns and verbs in action:

1. Hrothgar snores.

2. Beowulf gives Grendel a surprise.

Adjectives denote (“mean”) qualities of the referent of a noun. Their function, therefore, is to describe or modify or delimit nouns. In relation to nouns, they answer the question "which?".


3. Young Hrothgar snores.

An adjective placed in the predicate of a clause and modifying the subject is called a predicate adjective. (Hrothgar is young.)

specify (“mean”) locations or times or causes or manner or degree. They function as modifiers of verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, and, in relation to these words, they answer the questions "where?" "when?" "why?" or "how?".


4. Hrothgar snores loudly.

Verbals belong to a class of what you might call “second-string” verbs; a verbal can't function, as a verb does, as the "heart" of a clause, and it can't express all that a verb can. For example, it is non-finite with regard to person and number, although it may express time.

Verbals are categorized based on function; depending on the catagory, a verbal may function as a noun or a modifier (as adjective or adverb). These categories are:

  1. present participle (adjective; see examples 7 and 8 below) (N.B. You will need to distinguish present participles, by themselves, from the progressive forms of verbs.)
  2. past participle (adjective: Rolled, the sleeping bag took up little space.)
  3. infinitive (subject or object [noun]; adjective, adverb. To roll is fun.)
  4. gerund (subject or object [noun]. Rolling is fun.)


7. Rolling himself around in bed, Hrothgar snores.

8. Running, I caught up.

But finally, because verbals are verb-like, they can take objects and have adverbial modifiers. A verbal plus object and/or modifiers is a phrase (e.g., a participial phrase: Running rapidly on the grass, I caught up.

N.B. Two very common mistakes in the use of participial phrases are the misplaced modifier and the dangling modifier.

In the first, the phrase is "misplaced" next to a noun it isn’t meant to modify. (I lost my hat running down the street.) The writer can set up the proper relation between the words in these assertions by moving the phrases (Running down the street, I lost my hat).

Dangling modification, on the other hand, is a more egregious error; properly speaking, there is no modification in this case (Rushing over the mountain, the Pacific Ocean came into view). This sentence can’t be corrected simply by moving the participial phrase because the phrase isn’t really modifying anything; it merely dangles. So, dangling modifiers require a more serious restructuring of the sentence. (As the train rushed over the mountain, the Pacific Ocean came into view).

Most often—and you really must pay attention to this—dangling modifiers show up at the ends of sentences (Many people wanted to dress as if they were rich, thus supporting the illusion of general prosperity). One way this sentence could be restructured is: Many people wanted to dress as if they were rich, an action which would support the illusion of general prosperity. This form of dangling modification is no small potatoes because it destroys relations important in argumentation, such as premise-and-conclusion, data-and-conclusion, or, generally, any inference.

Prepositions function to link nouns or pronouns, the so-called objects of prepositions, to some other word in a clause or phrase. They express (“mean”) a variety of positional or time relations.

The entire unit of preposition+object-of-preposition is called the prepositional phrase and functions as an adverb or an adjective.

N.B. Prepositions and conjunctions are like one another in that they both have conjunctive force. That similarity is the reason a few words (e.g. after, before) show up on lists of both prepositions and conjunctions.


5. Hrothgar snores in bed.

6.Wealhtheow is not a relative of Beowulf.

Conjunctions function generally to link, and they express a wide range of meanings, from simple addition to some sort of qualification (consequence, time, cause, etc.). But the kind (coordinating or subordinating) will determine what pieces of language (individual words? phrases? clauses?) a conjunction is capable of linking.

Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so: "fanboys") are the more versatile of the two kinds because some of them can join all three (words, phrases, clauses).

Subordinating conjunctions (for example, when, while, since, after, because, if) generally connect a dependent clause to another clause. Given the specific conjunction, the dependent clause will function as an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. Here are some other subordinating conjunctions.





so that











in order that



*This word may also function as a preposition.

A special kind of subordinating conjunction is the relative. It both joins a dependent clause to another clause and also has a specific syntactic function in the clause in which it is found. This is the relative pronoun we came across at the beginning of Dr. Syntax 1. Examples include







N.B. Members of another group of words are sometimes mistaken for conjunctions, but they’re in fact adverbs, and it’s worth knowing about them. These are the so-called conjunctive adverbs or adverbial conjunctions (e.g. therefore, however, likewise); they do indeed have some conjunctive force and, as you’ll see later, function as transitions between sentences. Within sentences, they also often establish the thought connection between two independent clauses; however, they aren’t syntactically “strong” enough to hold the clauses together. So, for that connecting, you rely on the support of a semi-colon. Other conjunctive adverbs are:








on the other hand

in fact



in other words



9. When he sleeps, Hrothgar snores.

10. Hrothgar knows that Grendel is coming.

Appositives are a special case of nouns, so I've left them to last. An appositive can be a word or phrase or clause, but it must rename, explain, or identify another word. N.B. It doesn't modify that word. In fact, it has the same function as the first word.


11. Hrothgar, an old warrior, is besieged by Grendel.


Once you've learned the rough definitions found here in Dr. Syntax 1, you'll be able to analyze the syntax of an entire sentence. You can choose either to diagram or to give an account of kind and function of words, phrases, and clauses. Whichever way you choose, however, first locate all the verbs (don't be deceived by verbals!) and then determine who or what performs the action expressed by each verb. If you're looking at a single clause, you will have found the subject and what is predicated about the subject (the verb), both of which may make up the independent clause, or core structure, of your sentence. Be alert to the possibility of compound subjects and verbs: "Jack and Jill"; "went up and fell down."

In the following exercises in Syntactic Analysis, you have a chance to develop your skill.