Subjects and Verbs and Sentence Order

Selline Odeny asked, “Please tell me about the subject-first and non-subject-first sentence patterns.”

Thanks for the request, Selline. I’d love to tell you about these sentence patterns.

While it’s true that sentences can begin with a dependent clause in which the beginning word is typically an adverb, I’ll be focusing on the main part of the sentence, the independent clause.

Subject First

The most common sentence patterns in English have the subject first, followed by the verb. We first learn who or what the sentence is about, and then we discover what the person or thing does or is.

Examples:

  1. Josie ran down the street. (“Josie” is the subject; “ran” is the verb)
  2. St. Louis is a fine place to visit. (“St. Louis” is the subject; “is” is the verb)
  3. The blue car careened down the mountain road. (“The blue car” is the complete subject; “careened” is the verb)

Non-Subject First

Less common are the sentence patterns that begin with a part of speech other than the subject (as is the case with this sentence, in which the adverb/predicate adjective pair “Less common” comes first). These inverted sentence patterns are used sometimes to delay revealing what the sentence is about and sometimes to create tension or suspense. Still other times, these patterns can be used to connect ideas between sentences more clearly.

Examples:

  1. Never before had I seen such a beautiful tree. (Begins with the adverb “Never before”)
  2. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (Begins with a pair of prepositional phrases—”In a hole” and “in the ground”)
  3. Masterly and dry and desolate he looked, his thin shoulder-blades lifting his coat slightly. (A series of three adjectives precedes the subject)
  4. It was always pleasant crossing bridges in Paris.

Sentence 4, written by Ernest Hemingway, begins with the expletive (“It”) and the verb (“was always”), followed by the complement (“pleasant”) before finally arriving at the subject (“crossing bridges in Paris”). The sentence rewritten in the conventional subject-verb pattern would look like this: Crossing bridges in Paris was always pleasant.

Extra Credit

A great resource for learning more about the “inverted” sentence patterns, the ones with something other than the subject first, is Scott Rice’s Right Words, Right Places, from which I took a few of these examples.

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10 Responses to Subjects and Verbs and Sentence Order

  1. Pamela says:

    Hi,
    In business writing, I abhor sentences that start with the word it. Action, action, results! Works well for Hemingway but not for consulting reports. Now that I know it is called an expletive, I can take more liberty in editing my colleagues’ reports! Thanks! Pamela

  2. Jane Kersey says:

    Does one use “an” or “a” in front of the word historic, as in “This is an historic house” or “This is a historic house.”

  3. Giugliano says:

    I’m a TOEFL student right now, In fact my first language is spanish, so I really appreciate If you can increase your explanation in order to help me with two particular items: “Inverted Verbs and Subjects” and “Adverbial at the Beginning of a Sentence”.
    Thanks for your help.
    Giugliano

  4. khamtanh says:

    Dear,
    I am in final years for my study and I have to write the thesis on English but I do not know how to write my thesis perfectly. So,I would like you to explain me about reading and writing skills “topic”,”main ideas”.
    Thank you very much for your kindly.

  5. kremlin says:

    will you define sentence order?

  6. mia says:

    hi,
    i need to know where to find activites for the subject-verb agreement.

  7. Spencer says:

    If a predicate adjective is a word that is equivalent to the subject, and you would say “That is mine.” then wouldn’t saying “My arm hurts.” be incorrect, and the proper way to say it be “Mine arm hurts.”? Sounds wrong, but it bothers me.

  8. Spencer says:

    One more question. Is there some way that I could learn quickly how to speak and write in Early Modern English?

  9. Kelly says:

    hi…
    i’m a junior college student taking up an English degree majoring in creative writing…
    i was wondering if you have any articles on sentence patterns and the like.
    i find it hard to answer the questions:
    1. does one use most sentence patterns when using the passive and active voice? How and why is it possible?
    2. when are infinitives used and what are their differences from the gerund?
    um…not to be rude, just hoping for a speedy and detailed reply which from me, would be very much appreciated.
    thank you.

  10. Karl says:

    Hi Kelly,
    Um…not to be rude, but it seems like you want me to do your homework for you.
    Here are a couple links, just because I’m feeling generous:
    Silva Rhetorica
    Verbals: Infinitives, Gerunds, etc. at Purdue OWL
    Active and Passive Voice at Purdue OWL