What is a clause?

We represent our experiences linguistically by packaging information into clauses. As such, clauses can be considered to be the key unit of grammar. They are units of information structured around a verb phrase (VP) and, according to some theories (e.g. Systemic Functional Theory), a basic clause must consist minimally of a Subject and a verb.

Using a different descriptive approach, however, clauses may be described in terms of processes (what is going on), participants (the person(s) or thing(s) involved), and the circumstances accompanying the process (see What Do We Talk About?). Using this descriptive approach, a basic clause must consist of a process and at least one participant.

There are several exceptions to the above claims but space does not allow a more detailed discussion. The interested reader is referred to the work of Biber, Conrad and Leech (2002).

For now, we will examine the seven basic clause structures in English that are built around a verb phrase:

  1. SVO
  2. SV
  3. SVA
  4. SVC
  5. SVOC
  6. SVOA
  7. SVOO

SVO structure

English syntax generally follows a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order. Consider the following example.

the boy hugged the dog

We see that the Subject of the clause (the thing or person performing the action) is the boy; the Verb, which describes the particular action, is hugged, and the Object (the thing undergoing the action) is the dog. This clause can, therefore, be represented as follows.

Subject

Verb

Object

the boy

hugged

the dog

We have also noted how both the Subject and Object are represented by noun phrases and that the Verb is represented, as it must always be, by a verb phrase. Further examples of the basic SVO structure include the following.

Subject

Verb

Object

my dad

washed

his car

your friend

was opening

the door

Verity

is throwing

a ball

The basic SVO structure of English syntax can be modified in a number of ways but there are two main methods. The first is to remove or replace a functional element and the second is to add another functional element to the three-part structure.

SV structure

The basic Subject-Verb-Object structure can be reduced to produce a clause with the structure Subject-Verb (SV), e.g.

Subject

Verb

Anila

kicked

my mother

is drilling

the girl

laughed

Li Wei

went

A point to note here is that some verbs may take an Object, and thereby be expanded into the basic SVO structure, whereas some may not. Consider the first example Anila kicked. This SV structure could be expanded into an SVO structure as follows.

Subject

Verb

Object

Anila

kicked

the ball

Similarly, the second example my mother is drilling could also be expanded into an SVO clause, e.g.

Subject

Verb

Object

my mother

is drilling

a hole

Verbs such as kick and drill that are capable of taking an Object are referred to as transitive verbs. However, not all verbs are capable of taking an Object. Consider the verb laugh in the third example the girl laughed. It is not possible to expand this utterance into an SVO structure, e.g.

Subject

Verb

Object

the girl

laughed

it

It is evident that this utterance is syntactically incorrect because laugh is incapable of taking an Object. Similarly, the verb go in the fourth example Li Wei went is also not capable of taking an Object. So, for example, the following construction is also syntactically incorrect.

Subject

Verb

Object

Li Wei

went

it

Verbs such as laugh and go that do not take an Object are known as intransitive verbs.

SVA structure

The Object in the basic SVO structure can be substituted by an Adjunct that supplies further detail about actions, events and states. Adjuncts are most often optional elements that provide information related to manner, time, location or cause. Consider the following.

Subject

Verb

Adjunct

the small child

cried

very loudly

[Adjunct of manner]

my friend

left

that evening

[Adjunct of time]

Sarah

lives

in America

[Adjunct of location]

she

has been sad

since you left

[Adjunct of cause]

We noted earlier that Adjuncts may be represented by adverb phrases, noun phrases and prepositional phrases. From the above examples, the Adjunct of manner in the small child cried very loudly is represented by the adverb phrase very loudly. Further examples of Adjuncts represented by adverb phrases include the following.

Subject

Verb

Adjunct (AdvP)

Rooney

played

superbly

my charming son

was hovering

rather sheepishly

she

would behave

so bravely

From the previous examples, the Adjunct of time in my friend left that evening is represented not by an adverb phrase but by a noun phrase, that evening. Further examples of Adjuncts represented by noun phrases include the following.

Subject

Verb

Adjunct (NP)

the boy

ran

two miles

your fourth cousin

sang

this afternoon

Ravi

shouted

that morning

The Adjunct of location in Sarah lives in America from the earlier examples is represented by a prepositional phrase, in America. Further examples of prepositional phrases functioning as Adjuncts include the following.

Subject

Verb

Adjunct (PrepP)

Robert

ran

to the door

Helen’s brother

played

after his dinner

the ball

was bouncing

on the pitch

SVC structure

There is a fundamental difference between an Object and a Complement. The difference is that the Subject and Object refer to different things whereas the Subject and Complement (in a SVC clause) refer to the same thing. Consider the following.

Subject

Verb

Object

Julie

stroked

the cat

In this clause, the Subject refers to one thing (Julie) and the Object refers to another thing (the cat), i.e. they are not the same. In contrast, the Subject and Complement refer to the same thing, e.g.

Subject

Verb

Complement

Dawn

seems

happy

In this clause, the Complement (happy) makes reference to the same thing as the Subject (Dawn), i.e. it is Dawn that is happy. Other examples include the following.

Subject

Verb

Complement (AdjP)

Brian

went

mad

this book

is

rather terrible

my mother

appeared

sad

It should be apparent from all of these examples that the Complement refers to the same thing as the Subject, i.e. Brian is mad, the book is terrible, the mother is sad. In all the examples provided above, the Complement has been represented by an adjective phrase consisting of just a head adjective (mad, terrible, sad). However, we have indicated that Complements may also be represented by noun phrases. For example:

Subject

Verb

Complement (NP)

the witch

changed into

an ant

Adam

was born

a hero

Kathryn

became

the dentist

Again we see that the Subject and Complement refer to the same thing, i.e. the witch is the ant, Adam is the hero, Kathryn is the dentist. In each of these examples, the Complement is represented by a noun phrase made up of an identifier and a head noun (an ant, a hero, the dentist).

SVOC structure

Recall that, as well as removing or replacing an element in the basic SVO structure, we can also add other elements. One possibility is to append a Complement, i.e. SVOC. We have seen that when a Complement fills the same position as the Object in the SVO structure then the Complement refers to the same thing as the Subject. However, the Complement refers to the same thing as the Object when it follows the Object. For example:

Subject

Verb

Object

Complement

Paul

considered

your ideas

rather silly

It is apparent in this example that the Complement (very silly) refers to the same thing as the Object (your ideas), i.e. it is the ideas that are very silly and not Paul that is very silly. Other examples include:

Subject

Verb

Object

Complement

Cole

found

the game

frustrating

the mussels

made

Rupinder

ill

Duncan

designed

the room

rather dark

In each of these examples we see that the Object and the Complement refer to the same thing, i.e. it is the game that is frustrating and not Cole that is frustrating; it is Rupinder who is ill and not the mussels, and it is the room that is dark and not Duncan.

SVOA structure

As well as adding a Complement to the fundamental SVO structure, we can also add an Adjunct. Recall that Adjuncts are discretionary elements that supply extra information related to manner, time, location, and so on. Consider the following.

Subject

Verb

Object

Adjunct

the boy

hugged

the dog

gently

In this utterance the Adjunct function is represented by an adverb phrase that consists of just the head adverb gently. This Adjunct provides additional information regarding the manner in which the Subject, the boy, carried out an action on the Object, the dog. We now realize that this action was carried out gently. Here is a further example.

Subject

Verb

Object

Adjunct

the man

held

the woman

so softly

In this clause, the Adjunct is again represented by an adverb phrase, this time consisting of the head adverb softly that is pre-modified by the intensifying adverb so. Once more, this is an Adjunct of manner that describes how the Subject, the man, performed the action of holding on the Object, the woman. Here are some further examples of SVOA structures.

Subject

Verb

Object

Adjunct

Graeme

wrote

his essay

quickly

[Adjunct of manner]

the therapists

assessed

the children

yesterday

[Adjunct of time]

Daniel

cleaned

his flat

in London

[Adjunct of location]

SVOO structure

The final English clause structure involves the addition of a second Object to the primary SVO structure, i.e. SVOO. When two Objects are included in a clause a distinction is made between the direct object (Od) and the indirect object (Oi). The direct object is the thing or person undergoing an action, being talked about, and so on, and the indirect object is the person who is the recipient or beneficiary of the action. Consider the following example.

Subject

Verb

Indirect Object

Direct Object

Anna

gave

her mother

a beautiful card

In this example, the thing undergoing the action is a beautiful card, i.e. it is the card that is being given. This is, therefore, the direct object. The person who benefits from the action is her mother, i.e. the beautiful card is given to the mother. This is, therefore, the indirect object. Consider a further example.

Subject

Verb

Indirect Object

Direct Object

Graham

sent

Margaret

his love

In this clause the thing undergoing the action of being sent is his love, i.e. it is Graham’s love that is being sent. This is, therefore, the direct object. The recipient of the action is Margaret, i.e. she is the one who receives Graham’s love. This is, therefore, the indirect object. Further examples of SVOO clauses are given below.

Subject

Verb

Indirect Object

Direct Object

Alex

sent

Ryan

his regards

the twins

shipped

their friends

the carved clock

Sheila

tossed

Amerjit

my shuttlecock

References

Biber, D., Conrad, S. and Leech, G. (2002) Student Grammar of Spoken English Harlow: Longman.