Thursday, March 6, 2014

Subject and verb: the beginnings of a vast cosmos

Space, time, and the matter that exists or pops in and out of existence are the basic elements of our experience. They also make up the fundamentals on which our writing is established. After all, what are our sentences about if not matter or ideas either existing or acting within the space-time continuum?

I might be getting a little far out after reading about the great Carl Sagan in this month's issue of Smithsonian, but I believe the ideas are linked. To make the most basic kind of declarative sentence, you must have two parts, a subject that performs an action or occupies a state of being and a verb that expresses that action or state of being.

If you take the matter and smash it together with what it does as it proceeds through time, it becomes something greater than its parts: a sentence that expresses a complete thought. As a writer, you've created the beginnings of a universe, with multitudinous possibilities for expansion.

The tiger snores.
I am.
Miley Cyrus twerked.

Yes, I did go there. "Twerk" is a new verb, but it certainly describes a specific and immediately identifiable action, performed by a subject who is likewise quite easy to point out in a lineup, at least if you've been paying attention to the celebrity gossip.

If you add more nouns or pronouns to your subject, it becomes a compound subject:

Either the tiger or the lion snores.
My brother and I are.
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke performed.

That much may still be easy to remember, but when you start adding elaborate descriptions to the subject, it may become harder to remember where the subject and the verb are. A mismatch between the subject and the verb, resulting in an error of agreement, may be the unfortunate result of such a memory lapse.

The most sought-after item at our stores, the blue-gray penknife decorated with carvings of jumping hyenas symbolizing good luck, fly off the shelf.

The verb here incorrectly takes the plural form because somewhere between the stores, carvings, and hyenas, the writer forgot that the main action, flying, is being done by a singular subject, the item. Boil down this sentence to its core components, and it reads: The item flies.

The simple declarative sentence isn't the only basic sentence form. I'll cover the sentences that don't appear to have a subject at all or whose subject appears in inverted order in another entry.

The English language is rife with odd cases and exceptions to rules, but knowing your simple subject and the simple verb connected with it can save you a lot of trouble as you express more complicated thoughts with more elaborate constructions. It can also keep you focused on what you're really trying to say in a sentence, helping your readers stay with you, no matter how far you want to take them.

No comments:

Post a Comment