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The S V/C Pattern

Another step, slightly less important but still useful, is to see that the predicate is often composed of two parts.

Subject Predicate

Subject Verb/Complement

The verb is the word or cluster of words actually naming the action performed by the subject. The complement comes after the verb. It may do a number of different things, but most often it’s the receiver of the action performed by the subject and named by the verb:

Subject Verb/Complement

John hit / the ball.

Here John is an agent, the one doing something. " Hit" names the action he’s performing, and " the ball" receives the effect of the action. Not all cases are so clear, however. Sometimes the complement modifies the subject, as in " John is tall." Here, " tall" doesn’t receive the effect of the action. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any action at all, unless we consider merely existing to be an action. But such cases need not cause problems as long as we recognize the basic pattern and sense that it has been completed. For us, as writers, a detailed understanding of linguistics is secondary. Learning to use the language effectively comes first.

For now, it’s enough to say that the basic pattern upon which English sentences are built is Subject Verb/Complement (S V/C).


Helen is / happy.

People form / governments.

Justice serves / everyone.

Cigarettes are / dangerous.

Running builds / endurance.

Each of these is a simple sentence. Because it can stand by itself as a complete sentence, it’s also called an independent clause. Because it often serves as the foundation of a much longer sentence, it’s sometimes called a base clause. What we call it, though, is less important than learning to sense its presence in every sentence we build.

4.1. Some word groups listed below contain a subject and predicate and are therefore complete sentences. Others do not and can therefore be considered fragments or parts of sentences. If the word group is a sentence, put an S. If it is a fragment, put a Fr.

a. Beyond the big river.

b. Huge waves lapped the prow.

c. More than enough money.

d. Sitting down together for Sunday breakfast.

e. Her wound healed.

f. Earlier and earlier each night.

g. The sun slipped below the horizon.

h. Steeping the neighbourhood in shadow.

i. Calling us in from our play.

j. Our mother was cooking supper.


4.2. The following word groups are all simple sentences. Label the subject, the verb, and the complement by writing the appropriate letter above each

a. Morning dawned grey and heavy.

b. That basket broke the old record.

c. You are not alone.

d. Storm warnings don’t scare me.

e. The students attended the concert.

f. The chimpanzee learned sign language.


Writing made up of only such little sentences would quickly grow monotonous and would also sound like it had been written by someone without much language experience. Fortunately, the basic S V/C pattern allows for easy expansion in almost unlimited ways. You already use the following methods of expansion, though perhaps without knowing their names. After reading about them, you’ll understand some terms linguists use to describe how you build sentences, and you’ll see how you can use these methods to write more effective sentences.


Modification and Subordination

The easiest and most common way of developing the S V/C pattern is by adding a modifier. To modify means to change or alter. A modifier, therefore, is a word or word group that changes the meaning of another word or word group that is more basic to the sentence.


Luis eats / apples.

By adding a modifier to the complement, we can alter the meaning of " apples."


Luis eats / green apples.

We can also modify the subject.


Little Luis eats / green apples.

And even the verb.


Little Luis never eats / green apples.

Notice how the basic S V/C pattern remains even after several modifiers have been added. This is because modifiers cluster around base elements like iron filings around a magnet.

The principle that describes this relationship between modifiers and more basic sentence elements is subordination. Subordination means taking a position of lesser importance or rank. In the Army, for example, a private is subordinate to a captain and a captain to a general. Likewise, when we say a modifier is subordinate to the base element, we mean it has less importance and is dependent upon that more basic element for its claim to a place in the sentence. We can see this by looking at our last example.

Little Luis never eats green apples.

When we drop all the modifiers, we still have a sentence that feels complete.

Luis eats apples.

But when we drop the base words that the modifiers depend on, we are left with something entirely different.

Little never green.

The result is nonsense. Our minds want to process the data as a sentence, but it won’t fit. We have modifiers, but we don’t know what is being modified. The base elements are missing.


We’ve seen how these two principles, modification and subordination, join individual words in clusters. It’s also worth noting how they join word groups together. Just as individual words cluster around more important ones, so the clusters they form attach themselves to more important elements. Notice how this happens in the following example.


The river was cold.

Adding a little modification, we get this:


The recently thawed river was/icy cold.


" Recently" modifies " thawed, " while the two words join together to modify " river, " the base word of the cluster.

Whole sentences can be joined in this way:

Although the recently thawed river was icy cold, we dove right in.

Now the former sentence, which was also an independent clause, has become a part of a larger whole. It is now subordinate to " we dove right in, " which becomes the new base clause of the sentence. Without our base clause we would be left with a subordinate element that had no independent element to depend on, like an orphan.

Modification and subordination can help you in two ways: first, they can help you understand how your sentence elements relate to each other and to the sentence as a whole; second, they’re important tools for combining those elements into more complex and sophisticated sentences.



The basic S V/C pattern can also be expanded by coordination. Whereas subordination ranks one element as more important than the other, coordination places elements on an equal footing. If the relationship of subordination is that of child to parent, the relationship of coordination is that of spouse to spouse. In a sentence it works like this:


Esther types/letters.

The subject can be expanded by adding a coordinate element:


Lois and Esther type/letters.

And coordination can also be used to expand the complement.


Lois and Esther type/letters and memos.

Or the verb.

Lois and Esther type letters and memos but write-out short notes and signatures.

Now each element has been compounded with a resulting structure that might be represented as follows:


Lois and Esther type/letters and memos


write-out/short notes and signatures.

This sentence has a compound subject, a compound verb, and two compound complements. In every case the compound elements are coordinate to each other and therefore, because they are of equal importance, may be said to balance.

And just as we can subordinate either individual words or whole groups of words, the same is true of coordination. In the previous example we compounded the various parts of a single independent clause, but we could also coordinate two separate clauses.


Esther types/letters, but Lois types/memos.

Now our sentence has two independent clauses, each of which could stand alone as a complete sentence.



A third way of expanding the basic pattern is substitution, which means replacing a single word with a word group. Again, an example will help.


I saved/my meagre wages.

By substituting, we can expand the complement to read:


I saved/what I earned, which wasn’t much.

" My wages" has been expanded to " what I earned" and " meagre" to " which wasn’t much." As you can see, this adds more words without adding much meaning and so could be objected to as uneconomical. Still it’s a perfectly grammatical way of expanding sentences, and there may be times when it will suit your needs exactly, either to give emphasis or to improve sound and rhythm. Sometimes, as in the example below, you can use substitution to clarify or summarize your thoughts:

Change: Harold and Arthur earn more than I do. This makes me furious.

to: Getting paid less than my male co-workers makes me furious.


4.3. Write five base clauses (S V/C) without modifiers. Exchange and compare them.

4.4. Keeping the five base clauses you received from a classmate in exercise 1, add modifiers to the base elements and then return them and discuss them again.

4.5. Underline and label (S, V, or C) the main word clusters in each of the following sentences.

a. The maturing tadpole slowly grows legs.

b. Slow dancing is much more fun.

c. An elderly woman picked out a bright red hat.

d. The freshly lit match touched the pile of dry woodchips.

e. The clear water cooled her cheeks and forehead.

f. Small aspen leaves flickered and danced in the bright morning air.

g. Most team members brought their own gloves.

h. The swirling dust almost obscured the distant horizon.

i. Some old cars get pretty good mileage.

j. That wise old carp wouldn’t even consider my shiny new spinner.


4.6. Use modification, coordination, or substitution to expand each of the following sentences

a. Denis devoured his waffles.

b. The teachers played football.

c. Rain flooded my basement.

d. Those boys won the trophy.

e. Doris is a mechanic.

f. The horses ate hay.

g. Clouds spilled their rain.

h. Cowboys love horses.

i. The cheerleaders did handsprings.

4.7. Rewrite any three of the sentences you expanded for the previous activity, this time expanding them even further.

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