What is a sentence? What does a sentence do?

Please note, I am NOT a grammar expert. Grammar experts might disagree with the fine detail of this. That is OK, what I am going to say here is close enough for the rest of us.

At its simplest a sentence is a subject and a verb. Rather famously "Jesus wept." is the shortest sentence in bible. It has a subject, Jesus, and a verb, wept. In most formal writing we write rather more complicated sentences than the subject + verb structure. We would normally write at least a subject, a verb and an object, and we would often modify and/or qualify one or more of these elements. We also string things that could sometimes apparently make sentences of their own together. We recognise a sentence because it starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark (sometimes also followed by a quote mark).

Please note, I am talking about formal writing here. Particularly if you are writing chat the rules are different. That is not because the rules of grammar change hugely, but because we often don't speak in full sentence. Consider the following:


"You OK?"
"Yes, you?"
"OK, thanks."

This is a perfectly good verbal exchange. There are, however, no proper sentences in there. In fact quite a lot of spoken exchanges, even of complicated ideas, ignore the rules of written grammar - we have gestures, body language, and conventional understanding to help us convey the message without all the structures of written language.

What a sentence does is a bit harder to describe. Its main function is to convey a single idea. It has bigger functions within a paragraph and the longer piece of work as well - it needs to fit in, continue the flow of the piece and so on, but its core function is to convey a single idea.

What should my sentences look like?

It is impossible to say precisely what every sentence should be like. Some of that is personal style. There are some structures and ideas you can use though. I am going to look at sentences that might be useful in a scientific report, review or essay, because that is what I know best. You can take the ideas and modify them slightly to meet your needs though.

Typical structures might look like:

A and B (and the other letters) are the subjects and objects of the sentences. This can be anything, depending on what precisely you are writing. Let us consider a sentence about insulin release:
Increased blood sugar causes insulin release.
This is a correct fact and a sentence from the templates above; it is A causes B.

It might be sufficient and ample for your needs. It conveys a simple idea clearly and concisely, which is good! But, it is not very much like the sorts of sentences you see in text books and the like, and which your lecturers probably expect too.

How can you improve this? Well, one of the best ways to look to qualify or modify the parts. The simple way to think about these to ask questions about them. For example:

In fact we can apply those question words: how, who, when, where, why and what to each of the parts to see if there is something more we can say. If we do that, we might end up with something that looks more like this:
Except in diabetics, increased blood sugar causes an almost immediate release of insulin from the pancreas.

We could, of course write this as several short sentences:
Increased blood sugar causes insulin release. Diabetic people do not show this insulin release. The insulin is released quickly. It is released from the pancreas.
These are all grammatical sentences, and in small groups they may be easier to read. They could easily be bullet points in a summary in fact. But, in an essay or report, it is actually hard work to read lots and lots of these short "punchy" sentences like this. Humans tend to like their ideas nicely wrapped and easy to swallow, and just like wrapping a parcel this means wrapping the ideas up a little. However, just as you can overwrap a present, you can overwrap your ideas and make them impossible to understand easily. This is where style comes in to it. Judging what extras to include, which to ignore all together, which to leave for a new sentence does not have hard and fast rules. Just remember to keep your sentences short - they are only conveying one idea - but wrapped up nicely enough to be easy to read. You might be writing because you have to, but the aim of writing is to convey ideas, whether that is to your co-workers, your funders, or to get marks from your examiners!


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