A sentence is the largest independent unit of grammar: it begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. The word "sentence" is from the Latin for "to feel." The adjective form of the word is "sentential." The sentence is traditionally (and inadequately) defined as a word or group of words that expresses a complete idea and that includes a subject and a verb.
Types of Sentence Structures
The four basic sentence structures are the:
- Simple: A sentence with only one independent clause.
- Compound: Two (or more) simple sentences joined by a conjunction or an appropriate mark of punctuation.
- Complex: A sentence that contains an independent clause (or main clause) and at least one dependent clause.
- Compound-complex: A sentence with two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause.
Functional Types of Sentences
- Declarative: "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." (Mark Twain)
- Interrogative: "But what is the difference between literature and journalism? Journalism is unreadable and literature is not read." (Oscar Wilde)
- Imperative: "Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint." (Mark Twain)
- Exclamatory: "To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true!" (H. L. Mencken)
Definitions and Observations on Sentences
"I am trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period."
(William Faulkner in a letter to Malcolm Cowley)
"The term 'sentence' is widely used to refer to quite different types of unit. Grammatically, it is the highest unit and consists of one independent clause, or two or more related clauses. Orthographically and rhetorically, it is that unit which starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark."
(Angela Downing, "English Grammar: A University Course," 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)
"I have taken as my definition of a sentence any combination of words whatsoever, beyond the simple naming of an object of sense."
(Kathleen Carter Moore, "The Mental Development of a Child," 1896)
"A sentence is a unit of speech constructed according to language-dependent rules, which is relatively complete and independent in respect to content, grammatical structure, and intonation."
(Hadumo Bussmann, "Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics." Trans. by Lee Forester et al. Routledge, 1996)
"A written sentence is a word or group of words that conveys meaning to the listener, can be responded to or is part of a response, and is punctuated."
(Andrew S. Rothstein and Evelyn Rothstein, "English Grammar Instruction That Works!" Corwin Press, 2009)
"None of the usual definitions of a sentence really says much, but every sentence ought somehow to organize a pattern of thought, even if it does not always reduce that thought to bite-sized pieces."
(Richard Lanham, "Revising Prose." Scribner's, 1979)
"The sentence has been defined as the largest unit for which there are rules of grammar."
(Christian Lehmann, "Theoretical Implications of Grammaticalization Phenomena," Published in "The Role of Theory in Language Description," ed. by William A. Foley. Mouton de Gruyter, 1993)
The Notional Definition of a Sentence
Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson give a different take in explaining what a sentence is and does:
"It is sometimes said that a sentence expresses a complete thought. This is a notional definition: it defines a term by the notion or idea it conveys. The difficulty with this definition lies in fixing what is meant by a 'complete thought.' There are notices, for example, that seem to be complete in themselves but are not generally regarded as sentences: Exit, Danger, 50 mph speed limit… On the other hand, there are sentences that clearly consist of more than one thought. Here is one relatively simple example:
This week marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a fundamental work for the whole of modern science and a key influence on the philosophy of the European Enlightenment.
How many 'complete thoughts' are there in this sentence? We should at least recognize that the part after the comma introduces two additional points about Newton's book: (1) that it is a fundamental work for the whole of modern science, and (2) that it was a key influence on the philosophy of the European Enlightenment. Yet this example would be acknowledged by all as a single sentence, and it is written as a single sentence."
(Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson, "An Introduction to English Grammar, 2nd ed." Pearson, 2002)
Another Definition of a Sentence
D.J. Allerton provides an alternative definition of a sentence:
"Traditional attempts to define the sentence were generally either psychological or logical-analytic in nature: the former type spoke of 'a complete thought' or some other inaccessible psychological phenomenon; the latter type, following Aristotle, expected to find every sentence made up of a logical subject and logical predicate, units that themselves rely on the sentence for their definition. A more fruitful approach is that of Otto Jespersen (1924: 307), who suggests testing the completeness and independence of a sentence, by assessing its potential for standing alone, as a complete utterance."
(D. J. Allerton. "Essentials of Grammatical Theory." Routledge, 1979)
Two-Part Definition of a Sentence
Stanley Fish felt that a sentence can only be defined in two parts:
"A sentence is a structure of logical relationships. In its bare form, this proposition is hardly edifying, which is why I immediately supplement it with a simple exercise. 'Here,' I say, 'are five words randomly chosen; turn them into a sentence.' (The first time I did this the words were coffee, should, book, garbage and quickly.) In no time at all I am presented with 20 sentences, all perfectly coherent and all quite different. Then comes the hard part. 'What is it,' I ask, 'that you did? What did it take to turn a random list of words into a sentence?' A lot of fumbling and stumbling and false starts follow, but finally someone says, 'I put the words into a relationship with one another.'… Well, my bottom line can be summarized in two statements: (1) a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships."
(Stanley Fish, "Devoid of Content." The New York Times, May 31, 2005. Also "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One." HarperCollins, 2011)
The Lighter Side of Sentences
Some authors a humorous view of a sentence:
"One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence… "
(Kenneth Koch, "Permanently." Published in "The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch." Borzoi Books, 2005)