English Language

Sentence Structures and Syntax Explained

Nick Farmer

April 12, 2021

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Understanding the Syntax Subsystem for English Language

One of the most common areas of difficulty and confusion in English Language is the syntax subsystem, so you are not alone if you find this difficult. You will already have an intuitive understanding of how syntax in English works (you speak the language after all), but being able to effectively analyse and parse sentences and utterances can be tricky. It is important that you understand what the following word classes (aka parts of speech) are, and what their role is in a sentence, you may need to revise them from Unit 1/2.

  • Noun
  • Verb
  • Adjective
  • Adverb
  • Pronoun
  • Preposition
  • Conjunction
  • Determiner
  • Interjection

There are innumerable online and physical resources, such as Sara Thorne’s fantastic Mastering Advanced English Language, which you can look at to revise these word classes. These are the fundamental building blocks that we have at our disposal when building up a sentence and are vital for understanding syntax. Syntax is how we arrange these building blocks into phrases, which we combine to form clauses, which in turn create sentences.

What Is a Phrase?

Phrases are words or groups of words that function together in a clause. Often we class phrases in terms of what role they are playing: we might have a noun phrase, a verb phrase, or an adverbial phrase, for example. Look at the example below to get a feel for what is meant by a phrase.

Authorised Officers are here to help keep your public transport running smoothly and make sure everyone is paying their way.

The main phrases are:

  • 'Authorised Officers', 'your public transport', 'everyone', 'their way' (noun phrases)
  • 'are', 'to help keep…running', 'make sure', 'is paying' (verb phrases)
  • 'here’, 'smoothly' (adverbial phrases)
  • ’and’ (coordination conjunction)

What Is a Clause?

Clauses can be entire sentences or be one of several parts of a sentence. At a minimum, standard clauses must contain a subject and a verb, but usually have other components too. To help us understand what makes up a clause, it is important to re-familiarise yourself with the five clause elements:

  • Subject
  • Verb
  • Object
  • Complement
  • Adverbial

Clauses must contain a verb, or else we class them as fragments. The following is a clause:

They watched the sunset together.

But this is a fragment:

What a sunset!

Note that the clause above contains a subject (They), verb (watched), object (the sunset) and adverbial (together), whereas it is not entirely clear how to classify the elements of the fragment, because there is no verb telling us how the words relate to each other.

There are two types of clauses we need to be concerned about: independent (main) clauses and dependent (subordinate) clauses. An independent clause can stand by itself as a simple sentence, whereas a dependent clause sits inside another clause and usually adds extra or supporting information.

Sentence Structures

Now for one of the key skills that is assessed in short answer questions and analytical commentaries: understanding how we combine clauses to create different structures.

Simple Sentences & Utterances

The first sentence structure is the simple sentence, which contains only one clause. Often these are seen as “short” sentences, but this is not always the case. For instance below is an example of a simple sentence:

All the school children, their families and their teachers were at the carnival for a day of fun and competition.

Compound Sentences & Utterances

Compound sentences consist of at least two independent clauses (ones that have a subject, a verb and form a complete idea on their own), joined by a comma, semicolon or a coordinating conjunction. Take for example the following compound sentence comprised of three clauses:

She swam and she surfed, but her thoughts inevitably returned to the dangers of the sea.

Complex Sentences & Utterances

Complex sentences, on the other hand, contain one independent or “main” clause, as well as one or several subordinate clauses. To identify a subordinate clause, you need to think about whether the clause you have identified stands as a complete thought, or whether it relies on the rest of the sentence to make sense. An example is included below, where only the main clause is bolded.

Now, if you turn to your right, you’ll see the gallery, which was constructed in 1968.

Compound-Complex Sentences & Utterances

Compound-complex sentences, exactly as one would expect, are a combination of several independent and subordinate clauses, to form what is most often quite a long sentence. If you know how to identify compound and complex sentences, this one should not pose much difficulty. Here is an example, where only the dependent clause is bolded.

Now it wouldn’t matter how fast he ran, he would never make it there in time, nor would he have anyone to blame but himself.
Give me a ring if you’re coming, or tell Max on his way home from work.

Sentence Fragments (Minor Sentences)

It may occur to you that not every sentence or bit of language that you ever come across fits neatly into one of the above categories, especially if there is not any identifiable independent clause. These we class as sentence fragments, and they are often found in informal spontaneous discourses.

Too easy mate, good on ya, etc.

Like any skill in English Language, getting good at syntax takes practice. To build your confidence, try parsing any of the texts you come across in school, or even texts you see in a magazine or newspaper. Check with a teacher, friend or tutor to see if you got it right, and where you might still need a little bit of work. And, come back to this blog post anytime you need a refresher!


Be sure to read our Ultimate Guide to English Language for an overview of the study design, what’s involved in the exam, how to study for the subject and more!

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