If you have been reading the Story Polisher for a while now, you may have noticed that an understanding of the basic parts of the sentence is something I consider very useful (if not essential) for a writer. I try to explain things in such a way that you don’t need to know what a present participle is, much less the exact difference between it and a gerund. I don’t believe that you need to know and remember every grammatical term.
However, you do need to know the central, most basic parts of the sentence: the subject, the verb, and the direct object. So many of the errors that I explain here depend on your knowing these three things. The subject is the primary noun of the sentence, the person or thing that is performing an action. The verb is the action they are performing. The direct object is who or what they are doing something to (and isn’t always necessary for a complete sentence). Each of these parts of the sentence can be a single word:
Katy kissed Gunther.
Subject Verb Direct Object
Or a phrase:
The red-haired little girl has read my favorite book.
Subject Verb Direct Object
The ability to identify these three elements in any sentence you read or write is integral to being a good writer. There are so many errors that cannot be avoided if you don’t know where these three parts of the sentence are. For example, take this post that I saw going around Facebook and Twitter on December 31st:
The problem with this example is simple: that comma should not be there. How do we know? Because it separates the subject of the sentence (Tomorrow) from its verb (is). There are almost no situations where this is permissible. But if you don’t know how to find your subject and verb, then this error will keep popping up.
This error is particularly common in sentences with a long, complex subject. For example:
The boy that I’d had a crush on for the entire semester, had just given me a rose.
In that example, everything before the comma is the subject of the sentence. Many writers, when faced with such a long subject, feel like there should be a comma somewhere in the sentence. The writers who know how to identify their subjects and verbs, however, know that there should (almost) never be a comma in that part of the sentence. So make sure you always know where your subjects and verbs are—it could save your sentence someday.
The only truly common exception to this rule is when you have a clarifying phrase, set apart by commas, between the subject and the verb. Here are some examples (two of which are from the paragraph above this one):
My parents, Diana and Clark, want to talk to you.
Many writers, when faced with such a long subject, feel like there should be a comma somewhere in the sentence.
The writers who know how to identify their subjects and verbs, however, know that there should (almost) never be a comma in that part of the sentence.
If you remember from this post, a phrase that is set apart in this manner—be it with commas, em dashes, or parentheses—should be able to be removed from the sentence without rendering it illegible. That is, if you took the italicized phrases out of the examples above, they would still be whole sentences:
My parents want to talk to you.
Many writers feel like there should be a comma somewhere in the sentence.
The writers who know how to identify their subjects and verbs know that there should (almost) never be a comma in that part of the sentence.
These commas serve to create an interjection, not a pause or break, and will always come in pairs. If you’re not inserting some sort of clarifying information, you probably shouldn’t have any commas between your subject and your verb.
This rule applies to other breaking punctuation as well: there should generally not be any em dashes, semi-colons, colons, or periods separating your subject from your verb.