Sentence (linguistics)

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In non-functional linguistics, a sentence is a textual unit consisting of one or more words that are grammatically linked. In functional linguistics, a sentence is a unit of written texts delimited by graphological features such as upper case letters and markers such as periods, question marks, and exclamation marks. This notion contrasts with a curve, which is delimited by phonologic features such as pitch and loudness and markers such as pauses; and with a clause, which is a sequence of words that represents some process going on throughout time. [1] This entry is mainly about sentence in its non-functional sense, though much work in functional linguistics is indirectly cited or considered such as the categories of Speech Act Theory.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It involves analysing language form, language meaning, and language in context. The earliest activities in the documentation and description of language have been attributed to the 6th-century-BC Indian grammarian Pāṇini who wrote a formal description of the Sanskrit language in his Aṣṭādhyāyī.

In linguistics, a word is the smallest element that can be uttered in isolation with objective or practical meaning.


A sentence can include words grouped meaningfully to express a statement, question, exclamation, request, command or suggestion. [2] A sentence is a set of words that in principle tells a complete thought (although it may make little sense taken in isolation out of context). It may be a simple phrase, but it conveys enough meaning to imply a clause, even if it is not explicit; for example, "Two" as a sentence (in answer to the question "How many were there?") implies the clause "There were two." Typically a sentence contains a subject and predicate.

A question is an utterance which typically functions as a request for information, which is expected to be provided in the form of an answer. Questions can thus be understood as a kind of illocutionary act in the field of pragmatics or as special kinds of propositions in frameworks of formal semantics such as alternative semantics or inquisitive semantics. Questions are often conflated with interrogatives, which are the grammatical forms typically used to achieve them. Rhetorical questions, for example, are interrogative in form but may not be considered true questions as they are not expected to be answered. Conversely, non-interrogative grammatical structures may be considered questions as in the case of the imperative sentence "tell me your name".

The imperative mood is a grammatical mood that forms a command or request.

Suggestion is the psychological process by which one person guides the thoughts, feelings, or behavior of another person.

In the teaching of writing skills (composition skills), students are generally required to express (rather than imply) the elements of a sentence, leading to the schoolbook definition of a sentence as one that must [explicitly] include a subject and a verb. For example, in second-language acquisition, teachers often reject one-word answers that only imply a clause, commanding the student to "give me a complete sentence," by which they mean an explicit one.

The term composition, in written language, refers to the body of important features established by the author in their creation of literature. Composition relates to narrative works of literature, but also relates to essays, biographies, and other works established in the field of rhetoric.

Second-language acquisition (SLA), second-language learning, or L2acquisition, is the process by which people learn a second language. Second-language acquisition is also the scientific discipline devoted to studying that process. The field of second-language acquisition is a subdiscipline of applied linguistics, but also receives research attention from a variety of other disciplines, such as psychology and education.

As with all language expressions, sentences might contain function and content words and contain properties such as characteristic intonation and timing patterns.

In linguistics, function words are words that have little lexical meaning or have ambiguous meaning and express grammatical relationships among other words within a sentence, or specify the attitude or mood of the speaker. They signal the structural relationships that words have to one another and are the glue that holds sentences together. Thus they form important elements in the structures of sentences.

In linguistics, content words are words that name objects of reality and their qualities. They signify actual living things, family members, natural phenomena common actions, characteristics, etc. They consist mostly of nouns, lexical verbs and adjectives, but certain adverbs can also be content words. They contrast with function words, which are words that have very little substantive meaning and primarily denote grammatical relationships between content words, such as prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, etc.

In linguistics, intonation is variation in spoken pitch when used, not for distinguishing words as sememes, but, rather, for a range of other functions such as indicating the attitudes and emotions of the speaker, signalling the difference between statements and questions, and between different types of questions, focusing attention on important elements of the spoken message and also helping to regulate conversational interaction.

Sentences are generally characterized in most languages by the inclusion of a finite verb, e.g. "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."

A finite verb is a form of a verb that has a subject and can function as the root of an independent clause; an independent clause can, in turn, stand alone as a complete sentence. In many languages, finite verbs are the locus of grammatical information of gender, person, number, tense, aspect, mood, and voice. Finite verbs are distinguished from non-finite verbs, such as infinitives, participles, gerunds etc., which generally mark these grammatical categories to a lesser degree or not at all, and which appear below the finite verb in the hierarchy of syntactic structure. Verbs were originally said to be finite if their form limited the possible person and number of the subject. In some languages, such as English, this does not apply.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog English-language pangram

"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is an English-language pangram—a sentence that contains all of the letters of the alphabet. It is commonly used for touch-typing practice, testing typewriters and computer keyboards, displaying examples of fonts, and other applications involving text where the use of all letters in the alphabet is desired. Owing to its brevity and coherence, it has become widely known.

Typical associates


In non-functional linguistics, a simple complete sentence consists of a single clause. In functional linguistics, a sentence is typically associated with a clause and a clause can be either a clause simplex or a clause complex. A clause is a clause simplex if it represents a single process going on through time and it is a clause complex if it represents a logical relation between two or more processes and is thus composed of two or more clause simplexes.

A clause (simplex) typically contains a predication structure with a subject noun phrase and a finite verb. Although the subject is usually a noun phrase, other kinds of phrases (such as gerund phrases) work as well, and some languages allow subjects to be omitted. In the examples below, the subject of the outmost clause simplex is in italics and the subject of boiling is in square brackets. Notice that there is clause embedding in the second and third examples.

Clause smallest grammatical unit that can express a complete proposition

In language, a clause is a part of the sentence that contains a verb. A typical clause consists of a subject and a predicate, the latter typically a verb phrase, a verb with any objects and other modifiers. However, the subject is sometimes not said or explicit, often the case in null-subject languages if the subject is retrievable from context, but it sometimes also occurs in other languages such as English.

The subject in a simple English sentence such as John runs, John is a teacher, or John was run over by a car is the person or thing about whom the statement is made, in this case John. Traditionally the subject is the word or phrase which controls the verb in the clause, that is to say with which the verb agrees. If there is no verb, as in John - what an idiot!, or if the verb has a different subject, as in John - I can't stand him!, then 'John' is not considered to be the grammatical subject, but can be described as the topic of the sentence.

Phrase Group of words

In everyday speech, a phrase is any group of words, often carrying a special idiomatic meaning; in this sense it is synonymous with expression. In linguistic analysis, a phrase is a group of words that functions as a constituent in the syntax of a sentence, a single unit within a grammatical hierarchy. A phrase typically appears within a clause, but it is possible also for a phrase to be a clause or to contain a clause within it. There are also types of phrases like noun phrase and prepositional phrase.

[Water] boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
It is quite interesting that [water] boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
The fact that [water] boils at 100 degrees Celsius is quite interesting.

There are two types of clauses: independent and non-independent/interdependent. An independent clause realises a speech act such as a statement, a question, a command or an offer. A non-independent clause does not realise any act. A non-independent clause (simplex or complex) is usually logically related to other non-independent clauses. Together they usually constitute a single independent clause (complex). For that reason, non-independent clauses are also called interdependent. For instance, the non-independent clause because I have no friends is related to the non-independent clause I don't go out in I don't go out, because I have no friends. The whole clause complex is independent because it realises a statement. What is stated is the causal nexus between having no friend and not going out. When such a statement is acted out, the fact that the speaker doesn't go out is already established, therefore it cannot be stated. What is still open and under negotiation is the reason for that fact. The causal nexus is represented by the independent clause complex and not by the two interdependent clause simplexes.

See also copula for the consequences of the verb to be on the theory of sentence structure.


By structure

One traditional scheme for classifying English sentences is by clause structure, the number and types of clauses in the sentence with finite verbs.

By purpose

Sentences can also be classified based on their purpose:

Major and minor sentences

A major sentence is a regular sentence; it has a subject and a predicate, e.g. "I have a ball.". In this sentence, one can change the persons, e.g. "We have a ball.". However, a minor sentence is an irregular type of sentence that does not contain a main clause, e.g. "Mary!", "Precisely so.", "Next Tuesday evening after it gets dark.". Other examples of minor sentences are headings (e.g. the heading of this entry), stereotyped expressions ("Hello!"), emotional expressions ("Wow!"), proverbs, etc. These can also include nominal sentences like "The more, the merrier". These mostly omit a main verb for the sake of conciseness, but may also do so in order to intensify the meaning around the nouns. [3]

Sentences that comprise a single word are called word sentences, and the words themselves sentence words. [4]


The 1980s saw a renewed surge in interest in sentence length, primarily in relation to "other syntactic phenomena". [5]

One definition of the average sentence length of a prose passage is the ratio of the number of words to the number of sentences. [6] [ unreliable source? ] The textbook Mathematical linguistics, by András Kornai, suggests that in "journalistic prose the median sentence length is above 15 words." [7] The average length of a sentence generally serves as a measure of sentence difficulty or complexity. [8] In general, as the average sentence length increases, the complexity of the sentences also increases. [9]

Another definition of "sentence length" is the number of clauses in the sentence, whereas the "clause length" is the number of phones in the clause. [10]

Research by Erik Schils and Pieter de Haan by sampling five texts showed that two adjacent sentences are more likely to have similar lengths than two non-adjacent sentences, and almost certainly have a similar length when in a work of fiction. This countered the theory that "authors may aim at an alternation of long and short sentences." [11] Sentence length, as well as word difficulty, are both factors in the readability of a sentence; however, other factors, such as the presence of conjunctions, have been said to "facilitate comprehension considerably". [12] [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

In linguistics, a copula is a word that links the subject of a sentence to a subject complement, such as the word is in the sentence "The sky is blue." The word copula derives from the Latin noun for a "link" or "tie" that connects two different things.

English grammar body of rules that describe the structure of expressions in the English language

English grammar is the way in which meanings are encoded into wordings in the English language. This includes the structure of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences, right up to the structure of whole texts.

A noun phrase or nominal (phrase) is a phrase that has a noun as its head or performs the same grammatical function as such a phrase. Noun phrases are very common cross-linguistically, and they may be the most frequently occurring phrase type.

A subordinate clause or dependent clause is a clause that provides a sentence element with additional information, but which cannot stand as a sentence. A dependent clause can either modify an adjacent clause or serve as a component of an independent clause.

Tunica language language

The Tunica language is a language isolate that was spoken in the Central and Lower Mississippi Valley in the United States by Native American Tunica peoples. There are no native speakers of the Tunica language, but as of 2017, there are 32 second language speakers.

In grammar, a predicate is one of the main two parts of a sentence, modifying the subject, and is usually headed with a verb. Take this sentence as an example: "My cats [are fluffy]", My cats acts as the subject, and are fluffy is the predicate.

In linguistics, an adverbial phrase ("AdvP") is a multi-word expression operating adverbially: its syntactic function is to modify other expressions, including verbs, adjectives, adverbs, adverbials, and sentences. Adverbial phrases can be divided into two types: complement adverbs and modifier adverbs. For example, in the sentence She sang very well, the expression very well is an adverbial phrase, as it modifies the verb to sing. More specifically, the adverbial phrase very well contains two adverbials, very and well: while well modifies the verb to convey information about the manner of singing, very is a degree modifier that conveys information about the degree to which the action of singing well was accomplished.

In linguistics, a non-finite clause is a dependent or embedded clause whose verbal chain is non-finite; for example, using Priscian's categories for Latin verb forms, in many languages we find texts with non-finite clauses containing infinitives, participles and gerunds. According to non-functionalists, a non-finite clause serves a grammatical role – commonly that of a noun, adjective, or adverb – in a greater clause that contains it. According to functionalists, a dependent non-finite clause either represents a circumstance for some process that is going on whereas an embedded one represents a qualification for something that is being represented as in I'm on a street , which is a more typical alternative to I'm on a street .

Wappo language extinct language spoken by the Wappo people

Wappo is an extinct language that was spoken in the Alexander Valley north of San Francisco by the Wappo Native Americans. The last fluent speaker, Laura Fish Somersal, died in 1990. Wappo's language death is attributed to the use of English in schools and economic situations such as the workplace. According to Somersal, the name for the people and language is derived from the Spanish word guapo, meaning "handsome" or "brave". The name for the people was originally Ashochimi.

East Ambae is an Oceanic language spoken on Ambae, Vanuatu. The data in this article will concern itself with the Lolovoli dialect of the North-East Ambae language.

In linguistics, an argument is an expression that helps complete the meaning of a predicate, the latter referring in this context to a main verb and its auxiliaries. In this regard, the complement is a closely related concept. Most predicates take one, two, or three arguments. A predicate and its arguments form a predicate-argument structure. The discussion of predicates and arguments is associated most with (content) verbs and noun phrases (NPs), although other syntactic categories can also be construed as predicates and as arguments. Arguments must be distinguished from adjuncts. While a predicate needs its arguments to complete its meaning, the adjuncts that appear with a predicate are optional; they are not necessary to complete the meaning of the predicate. Most theories of syntax and semantics acknowledge arguments and adjuncts, although the terminology varies, and the distinction is generally believed to exist in all languages. Dependency grammars sometimes call arguments actants, following Tesnière (1959).

In linguistics, a light verb is a verb that has little semantic content of its own and forms a predicate with some additional expression, which is usually a noun. Common verbs in English that can function as light verbs are do, give, have, make, and take. Other names for light verb include delexical verb, vector verb, explicator verb, thin verb, empty verb and semantically weak verb. While light verbs are similar to auxiliary verbs regarding their contribution of meaning to the clauses in which they appear, light verbs fail the diagnostics that identify auxiliary verbs and are therefore distinct from auxiliaries.

Araki is a nearly extinct language spoken in the small island of Araki, south of Espiritu Santo Island in Vanuatu. Araki is gradually being replaced by Tangoa, a language from a neighbouring island.

Adang is a Papuan language spoken on the island of Alor in Indonesia. The language is agglutinative. The Hamap dialect is sometimes treated as a separate language; on the other hand, Kabola, which is sociolinguistically distinct, is sometimes included. Adang, Hamap and Kabola are considered a dialect chain. Adang is endangered as fewer speakers raise their children in Adang, instead opting for Indonesian.

In linguistics and grammar, affirmation and negation are the ways that grammar encodes negative and positive polarity in verb phrases, clauses, or other utterances. Essentially an affirmative (positive) form is used to express the validity or truth of a basic assertion, while a negative form expresses its falsity. Examples are the sentences "Jane is here" and "Jane is not here"; the first is affirmative, while the second is negative.

Saliba is an Oceanic language spoken on the islets off the southeastern tip of Papua New Guinea. There are approximately 2,500 speakers of Saliba. Significant documentation of the language was undertaken by the Saliba-Logea documentation project, and hundreds of audio-video resources can be found in the project archive.

In grammar, sentence clause structure, commonly known as sentence composition, is the classification of sentences based on the number and kind of clauses in their syntactic structure. Such division is an element of traditional grammar.


  1. Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar . Arnold: p. 6.
  2. "'Sentence' – Definitions from". . Retrieved 2008-05-23.
  3. Exploring Language: Sentences
  4. Jan Noordegraaf (2001). "J. M. Hoogvliet as a teacher and theoretician". In Marcel Bax; C. Jan-Wouter Zwart; A. J. van Essen (eds.). Reflections on Language and Language Learning. John Benjamins B.V. p. 24. ISBN   90-272-2584-2.
  5. Těšitelová, Marie (1992). Quantitative Linguistics. p. 126. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  6. "Calculate Average Sentence Length". Linguistics Forum. Jun 23, 2011. Retrieved December 12, 2011.
  7. Kornai, András. Mathematical linguistics. p. 188. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  8. Perera, Katherine. The assessment of sentence difficulty. p. 108. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  9. Troia, Gary A. Instruction and assessment for struggling writers: evidence-based practices. p. 370. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  10. Reinhard Köhler; Gabriel Altmann; Raĭmond Genrikhovich Piotrovskiĭ (2005). Quantitative Linguistics. p. 352. Retrieved December 15, 2011. (Caption) Table 26.3: Sentence length (expressed by the number of clauses) and clause length (expressed by the number of phones) in a Turkish text
  11. Erik Schils; Pieter de Haan (1993). "Characteristics of Sentence Length in Running Text". Oxford University Press. Retrieved December 12, 2011.
  12. Perera, Katherine. The assessment of sentence difficulty. p. 108. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  13. Fries, Udo. Sentence Length, Sentence Complexity, and the Noun Phrase in 18th-Century News Publications. p. 21. Retrieved December 15, 2011.