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Sentence Skills


Warm-up: Parts of Speech Subjects and Verbs II. Fragments III. Run-ons IV. Sentence Variety


Action or state Thing or person

(to) be, have, do, like, work, sing, can, must pen, dog, work, music, London, teacher, John a/an, the, 2, some, good, big, red, well, interesting

IELTS is an English exam. I like English. This is my dog. He lives in my house. We live in London. I have two dogs. My dogs are big. I like big dogs.


Describes a noun


Describes a verb, adjective or adverb

Replaces a noun Links a noun to another word Joins clauses, sentences or words Short exclamation, sometimes inserted into a sentence

quickly, silently, well, badly, very, really

I, you, he, she, some To, at, after, on And, but, when

My dog eats quickly. When he is very hungry, he eats really quickly.

Tara is Indian. She is beautiful. We went to school on Monday. I like dogs and I like cats. I like cats and dogs. I like dogs but I dont like cats. Ouch! That hurts! Hi! How are you? Well, I dont know.

Oh!, ouch!, hi!, well

I. Subjects and Verbs

The basic building blocks of English sentences are

subjects and verbs. Understanding them is an important first step toward mastering a number of sentence skills.

Every sentence has a subject and a verb. WHO or

WHAT the sentence speaks about is called the SUBJECT; WHAT the sentence says about the subject is called the VERB. In the following sentences, the subject is underlined once and the verb italicized.

The boy cried.

That fish smells. Many people applied for the job.

The show is a documentary.


To find a subject, ask WHO or WHAT the sentence is about. As shown below, your answer is the subject. Who is the first sentence about? What is the second sentence about? Who is the third sentence about? What is the fourth sentence about? The boy. That fish. Many people. The show.


1. To find a verb, ask what the sentence says about the subject. As shown below, your answer is the verb. What does the first sentence say about the boy? He cried. What does the second sentence say about the fish? It smells. What does the third sentence say about the people? They applied. What does the fourth sentence say about the show? It is a documentary.

2. A second way to find a verb is to put I, you, he, she, it or they in front of the word you think is a verb. If the result makes sense, you have a verb. For example, you could put he in front of cried in the first sentence above, with the result, he cried, making sense. Therefore, you know that cried is a verb.

3. Finally, it helps to remember that most verbs show action. In the sentences already considered, the three action verbs are cried, smells, and applied. Certain other verbs, known as linking verbs, do NOT show action. They do, however, give information about the subject. In The show is a documentary, the linking verb is joins the subject (show) with a word that identifies or describes it (documentary). Other common linking verbs include am, are, was, were, feel, appear, look, become and seem.



1. A sentence may have more than one verb, more than one subject, or several subjects and verbs. The engine coughed and sputtered. Broken glass and empty cans littered the parking lot.

Marta, Nilsa, and Robert met after class and headed downtown.

2. The subject of the sentence never appears within a prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase is simply a group of words that begins with a preposition. (See handouts for list of prepositions)

Crossing out prepositional phrases will help you find the subject or subjects of a sentence. The people in the apartment above ours fight loudly. The murky waters of the polluted lake spilled over the dam.

A stream of cold air seeps in through the space below the door.

3. Many verbs consist of more than one word. (The extra verbs are called auxiliary or helping verbs). (See handouts for forms of work)

4. Words like not, just, never, only, still, and always are not part of the verb, although they may appear within the verb. Ruby has never liked cold weather. Our boss will not be singing with the choir this year. The intersection has not always been this dangerous.

5. A verb preceded by to is NEVER the verb of a sentence. At night, my son likes to read under the covers. Evelyn decided to separate from her husband.

6. An ing word by itself is NEVER the verb of a sentence. (It may be a part of the verb, but it must have a helping verb in front of it.) They going on a trip this weekend. (not a sentence, because the verb is not complete) They are going on a trip this weekend. (a sentence)


HOW TO CHECK FOR SENTENCE FRAGMENTS 1. Read your paper aloud from the first sentence to the last. You will be able to see and hear better whether each word group you read is a complete thought.

2. If you think a word group may be a fragment, ask yourself: Does this contain a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought?

3. More specifically, be on the lookout for the most common fragments:

Dependent-word fragments (starting with words like after,

because, since, when and before) group)

-ing and to fragments (-ing and to at or near the start of a word

Added-detail fragments (starting with words like for example,

such as, also, and especially)

Missing-subject fragments (a verb is present but not the subject)


A run-on is two complete thoughts that are run together with no adequate sign given to mark the break between them.

Some run-ons have no punctuation at all to mark the break between the thoughts. Such run-ons are known as fused sentences: they are fused, or joined together, as if they were only one thought. The bus stopped suddenly I spilled coffee all over my shirt. Mario told everyone in the room to be quiet his favorite show was on.

In other run-ons, known as comma splices, a comma is used to connect, or splice together, the two complete thoughts. However, a comma alone is not enough to connect two complete thoughts. Some stronger connection than a comma alone is needed. The bus stopped suddenly, I spilled coffee all over my shirt. Mario told everyone in the room to be quiet, his favorite show was on.

Comma splices are the most common kind of runon. Students sense that some kind of connection is needed between two thoughts, and so they often put a comma at the dividing point. But the comma alone is not sufficient. A stronger, clearer mark is needed between two complete thoughts.

A Warning Words That Can Lead to Run-Ons People often write run-ons when the second complete thought begins with one of the following words: (See handouts for the list)

HOW TO CHECK FOR RUN-ONS 1. To see if a sentence is a run-on, read it aloud and listen for a break marking two complete thoughts. Your voice will probably drop and pause at the break.

2. To check an entire paper, read it aloud from the first sentence to the last. Doing so will help you hear and see each complete thought.

3. Be on the lookout for words that can lead to run-on sentences. Correct run-ons by using one of the following methods:
Period and a capital letter Comma and a joining word (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) Semicolon, alone or with a transitional word Subordination

(See list of transitional words)


One part of effective writing is to vary the kinds of sentences you write. If every sentence follows the same pattern, writing may become monotonous to read. There are four ways you can create variety and interest in your writing style. It also includes coordination and subordination two important techniques for achieving different kinds of emphasis in writing.

The following are four methods you can use to revise simple sentences, making them more complex and sophisticated:
Add a second complete thought (COORDINATION) Add a dependent thought (SUBORDINATION) Begin with a special opening word or phrase.

Place adjectives or verbs in a series.

A. Revise by adding a second complete thought

When you add a second complete thought to a simple sentence, the result is a compound (or double) sentence. The two complete statements in a compound sentence are usually connected by a comma plus a joining or coordinating word (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).

A compound sentence is used to give equal weight to two closely related ideas. The technique of showing that ideas have equal importance is called COORDINATION.
Following are some compound sentences. In each case, the sentence contains two ideas that the writer considers equal in importance.

Greg worked on the engine for three hours, but the car still wouldnt start. Bananas were on sale this week, so I bought a bunch for the childrens lunches. We laced up our roller blades, and then we moved cautiously onto the rink.

B. Revise by adding a dependent thought

When you add a dependent thought to a simple sentence, the result is a complex sentence. A dependent thought begins with one of the following subordinating words: (See handouts for list of subordinating words)

A complex sentence is used to emphasize one idea over another. Look at the following complex sentence:
Although the exam room was very quiet, I still couldnt concentrate.

The idea that the writer wishes to emphasize here I still couldnt concentrate is expressed as a complete thought. The less important idea Although the exam room was very quiet is subordinated to the complete thought.
The technique of giving one idea less emphasis than another is called SUBORDINATION.

Following are other examples of complex sentences. In each case, the part starting with the dependent word is the less emphasized part of the sentence. Even though I was tired, I stayed up to watch the horror movie. Before I take a bath, I check for spiders in the tub. When Ivy feels nervous, she pulls on her earlobe.

C. Revise by beginning with a special opening word or phrase

Among the special openers that can be used to start sentences are ed words, -ing words, -ly words, to word groups, and prepositional phrases. Here are examples of all five kinds of openers:

-ed word Concerned about his sons fever, Paul called a doctor.
-ing word Humming softly, the woman browsed through the rack of dresses.

-ly word Hesitantly, Sue approached the instructors desk. To word group To protect her hair, Eva uses the lowest setting on her blow dryer. Prepositional phrase During the exam, drops of water fell from the ceiling.

D. Revise by placing adjectives or verbs in a series

Various parts of a sentence may be placed in a series. Among these parts are adjectives (descriptive words) and verbs. Here are examples of both in a series: Adjectives I gently applied a sticky new Band-Aid to the deep, ragged cut on my finger. Verbs The truck bounced off a guardrail, sideswiped a tree, and plunged down the embankment.