Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Subjects and verbs

Often, students are given lessons in sentence structure, and if those lessons are to succeed, students need to understand the basics -- the subject and the verb. They need to be able to identify each and be able to recognize that the idea is a complete one; that is, students need to recognize whether the clause (all clauses have subject and verb) is independent (can be a sentence) or dependent (subordinate, not a complete sentence).

What I learned a long time ago is that it's easier for a student to identify the VERB first and then the subject. It's easier to identify the action (what's going on) in the sentence first, and then ask, "Who or what is doing this?"

Here are some sentences from a student's grammar exercise I saw recently:

Edgar Allan Poe lived a double life in many ways.
VERB = lived ~~>This is the active verb in the sentence; no other word indicates what someone can do.
SUBJECT = Edgar Allan Poe ~~>This is obviously who "lived..." in the sentence. Also, since this is his full name, all three words are being treated as one noun; therefore, his full name is the subject.

Poe was adopted by John Allan, a Richmond merchant, after the death of his itinerant actor parents.
VERB = was adopted ~~>This is a passive verb that is the sole action in the sentence.
SUBJECT = Poe ~~>This is the answer to the question, "Who 'was adopted'?"

Easy, huh?

The difficulty comes when students are dealing with linking verbs or even active or passive verbs which don't seem to have any action to them!

Try this:
Allan was enraged by his talented adopted son's lack of discipline.
VERB = was enraged ~~>It's the verb, including its auxiliary (helping) verb was, but it doesn't seem like an action. It isn't like run or jump or even write. The verbs think and read also seem to be non-action verbs, but they are!
SUBJECT = Allan ~~>Well, at least that's pretty obvious. He's the one who was enraged !

And then there are linking verbs. Most of the time, the linking verbs we use are these: am, are, is, was, were, have been, etc. - all some form of to be. These verbs link the subject to the word(s) after the verb; that is, the word(s) after the linking verb either describe or are the same as the subject.

My brother is a good fisherman.
The child was tall for his age.
Those people are late for the play.

But there are other verbs that can be considered linking verbs, depending on how they are used:

The play seems absurd.
The cast appears confused.

Identifying subjects and verbs can become automatic if students practice it, and if they use the ability in writing their sentences. Making sure every sentence or clause has a subject and verb is the first step toward writing good sentences.

Questions? Be sure to post them in the comments.

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