on Connie Gulick.com

Did you know that in most ancient writing systems, there was no punctuation, and often not even spaces between words?


So what’s the purpose of punctuation?  It’s to clarify meaning in writing, meaning that would usually be clear through the rising or lowering of the voice, facial expression, pauses, and timing when we are speaking.  Punctuation seems to be difficult because we learned to speak first, and now we’ve got to figure out how to apply those marks to what we would be saying aloud.  But once we understand some basic ideas or rules, then it becomes easy.



Who Subject








All punctuation depends on the “sentence” – the basic unit of communication in English.  So it’s important that you learn what makes up a sentence. 

“Isn't it a sentence if it begins with a capital letter and ends with a period?”Picture of a cop you might ask.  Sorry, those don’t make a group of words a sentence any more than a child wearing a policeman’s uniform on Halloween night makes him an officer of the law.  The capital letter and period are just the dressing, or costume, that helps identify a sentence, but they don’t make it BE a sentence.

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To make a sentence, you must have two things:  the subject and the verb.




(what happened?)

The verb is the heart of the sentence.  Graphic of a heartOf the question words (see the sidebar above left) it answers what, as in what is happening.  You may have heard it’s “action.”  But how active is “The man is tall”?  What kind of action is happening?  Not much.  It's not like he became tall or grew tall or did something.  The verb in this sentence is “is.”  So let’s expand the definition of “verb” to be the action happening in a sentence OR a word connecting the subject with the rest of the sentence.  (In “The man is tall,” the verb connects “man” with the description “tall.”) 

Without a verb, there is no sentence.  *Note that I'm speaking of the word or words that are doing the job of the verb within a sentence.  For more discussion on Words' Jobs, check out this link.  Be sure to read about the job of verbs.



(who or what did it?)

 Graphic of a brainThe subject is the mind of the sentence.  It answers who, as in who (or what) is doing the action. 


I’m going to indicate a sentence like this:  SV.

S = subject, V = verb

 You can have a two-word sentence that’s completely legal (by grammatical rules).  Here are some examples.  Henry cried.  She ran.  We belong.  Sodas fizz.  Ellen sings. 

I’m not getting really particular about the number of words, however.  The following examples still show sentences that contain only the subject and verb, even though either one (or both) may have more than one word.  The big brown bear growled.  We usually obey.  He used to sing. Our neighbor's cockatoo barks.  The day heated up.

Notice how in all the examples I’ve given you, the subject is first and the verb follows.  This is pretty much the norm.

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I bet you’re saying that can’t be all to a sentence.  After all, you know lots of sentences that contain many more words than just the subject and verb.  Okay, let’s look at some.  She ran to first base.  A fire burned two hundred acres of forest yesterday.  The big brown bear growled menacingly.  Our neighbor's cockatoo barks like a dog.




the other stuff

She ran to first base.
A fire burned two hundred acres of forest yesterday.
The big brown bear growled menacingly.
We usually obey.  
He used to sing.  
Our neighbor's cockatoo barks like a dog.
The day heated up.  
My son went to the Game Stop to buy an X-box.





So what’s this other stuff?  If it's not connected with the subject or the verb, traditional grammarians might call it “C” for “complement.”  (Remember, the complement, with an “e,” is complete-ment.  It completes the sentence.)  Okay, so complement means "the rest of it."  Because it’s not necessary to give a sentence its sentence-ness, I call the complement “C” for “crud.”  That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  It just means that crud does not a sentence make

How do you identify crud?  It’s what answers any of the other question words.  “To first base” answers “where.”   “Two hundred acres” answers “how much.”  “Yesterday” answers “when.”  “Menacingly” answers “how.”  “To the Game Stop” answers “where.”  “To buy an X-box” answers “why.” 

More info on Crud






Picture of a janitor


Almost every word in English has more than one job it can do.  For example, you might identify "table" as a noun, therefore fitting in the subject or object locations of a sentence.  He left his books on the dining room table.  The table has a broken leg.  Even here, the word "table" is doing two different things.  But what if I say, "We tabled the discussion until another meeting"?  Here it isn't even a noun.

So when I identify a word, I'm concerned with what it is doing in a certain sentence.  I don't care that "table" is typically a noun; in the last example sentence, it is a verb because it is doing the job of the verb. 

So it doesn't matter if that guy out there in the hallway has a PhD.  If he's mopping the floor, he's the janitor.

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The Job of Verbs:

Verbs and verbals:

Most people think of verbs in terms of their present participle.  Ask someone to give you examples of verbs, and he might answer, "Jumping, singing, dancing."  However, notice that these are the PARTiciples of the verbs they represent.  This means, they are only PART of the verb and need more "verb" to really be a verb (to really be doing the job of a verb).  If these words are paired with some form of "to be" (is, am, are, was, were) in front of them, then together, the pairs are verbs.

He is jumping.  She was singing.  They were dancing.  We have been studying.

However, alone, the participles are NOT verbs.

Jumping can get you injured.  Singing is a fun activity.  Dancing is healthy.  These participles are doing the job of subjects.

He caught the jumping cricket.  The singing sword flashed in the sun.  I like to watch the dancing baby.  These participles are doing the job of adjectives.    

Another way people think of verbs is in their "infinitive" state -- "To be or not to be. . .", "To sing, to dance, perchance to dream."  Look at it this way -- the working verb in a sentence indicates two things in addition to the WHAT:  time (tense) and in the present tense, number (either plural or singular).  "Sang" indicates past tense.  "Will sing" is future.  "Will have sung" is future perfect.  "To sing" has no indication of time.  That's why it's called the infinitive.

Think of the infinitive as the action figure still in the package, shrink wrapped in cellophane.  It's a thing!  A noun that we can put on a shelf, or take down, pass around, look at, touch, etc.  Don't believe me?

Check this out.

I want Pepsi.                 I would like an active role.

I want sleep.                 I would like to sing in the show.

I want to go to bed.

Whatever follows "want" or "would like" is a noun.  It is the THING I want or would like.  What is the verb in these sentences?  It's the wanting.  Did the "going to bed" happen?  Not yet.  Did the "singing" happen?  Nope.  Just wanting has happened.

Another example:

I went to the store for groceries.

I went to the store to buy some groceries.

In this case, the infinitive indicates purpose, so it's the equivalent of a prepositional phrase.  What is the verb in these sentences?  What action happens?  "Went" or the going.  Did I get the groceries?  We don't know.  That's the reason I went, but maybe something sidetracked me.  So "to buy" is not the verb.  It's only the purpose of my going to the store.

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  This page last updated Friday, August 26, 2011, by Connie Gulick.

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