Sentence (linguistics)

In non-functional linguistics, a sentence is a textual unit consisting of one or more words that are grammatically linked. In functional linguistics, a sentence is a unit of written texts delimited by graphological features such as upper case letters and markers such as periods, question marks, and exclamation marks. This notion opposes that of the curve, which is delimited by phonologic features such as pitch and loudness and markers such as pauses. This notion also opposes a clause, which is a sequence of words that represents some process going on throughout time.[1] This entry is mainly about sentence in its non-functional sense, though much work in functional linguistics is indirectly cited or considered such as the categories of Speech Act Theory.

A sentence can include words grouped meaningfully to express a statement, question, exclamation, request, command or suggestion.[2] A sentence is a set of words that in principle tells a complete thought (although it may make little sense taken in isolation out of context); thus it may be a simple phrase, but it conveys enough meaning to imply a clause, even if it is not explicit. For example, "Two" as a sentence (in answer to the question "How many were there?") implies the clause "There were two". Typically a sentence contains a subject and predicate. A sentence can also be defined purely in orthographic terms, as a group of words starting with a capital letter and ending in a full stop.[3]

In the teaching of writing skills (composition skills), students are generally required to express (rather than imply) the elements of a sentence, leading to the schoolbook definition of a sentence as one that must [explicitly] include a subject and a verb. For example, in second-language acquisition, teachers often reject one-word answers that only imply a clause, commanding the student to "give me a complete sentence", by which they mean an explicit one.

As with all language expressions, sentences might contain function and content words and contain properties such as characteristic intonation and timing patterns.

Sentences are generally characterized in most languages by the inclusion of a finite verb, e.g. "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog".

Typical associates


In non-functional linguistics, a simple complete sentence consists of a single clause. In functional linguistics, a sentence is typically associated with a clause and a clause can be either a clause simplex or a clause complex. A clause is a clause simplex if it represents a single process going on through time and it is a clause complex if it represents a logical relation between two or more processes and is thus composed of two or more clause simplexes.

A clause (simplex) typically contains a predication structure with a subject noun phrase and a finite verb. Although the subject is usually a noun phrase, other kinds of phrases (such as gerund phrases) work as well, and some languages allow subjects to be omitted. In the examples below, the subject of the outmost clause simplex is in italics and the subject of boiling is in square brackets. Notice that there is clause embedding in the second and third examples.

[Water] boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
It is quite interesting that [water] boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
The fact that [water] boils at 100 degrees Celsius is quite interesting.

There are two types of clauses: independent and non-independent/interdependent. An independent clause realises a speech act such as a statement, a question, a command or an offer. A non-independent clause does not realise any act. A non-independent clause (simplex or complex) is usually logically related to other non-independent clauses. Together they usually constitute a single independent clause (complex). For that reason, non-independent clauses are also called interdependent. For instance, the non-independent clause because I have no friends is related to the non-independent clause I don't go out in I don't go out, because I have no friends. The whole clause complex is independent because it realises a statement. What is stated is the causal nexus between having no friend and not going out. When such a statement is acted out, the fact that the speaker doesn't go out is already established, therefore it cannot be stated. What is still open and under negotiation is the reason for that fact. The causal nexus is represented by the independent clause complex and not by the two interdependent clause simplexes.

See also copula for the consequences of the verb to be on the theory of sentence structure.


By structure

One traditional scheme for classifying English sentences is by clause structure, the number and types of clauses in the sentence with finite verbs.

By purpose

Sentences can also be classified based on their purpose:

Major and minor sentences

A major sentence is a regular sentence; it has a subject and a predicate, e.g. "I have a ball.". In this sentence, one can change the persons, e.g. "We have a ball.". However, a minor sentence is an irregular type of sentence that does not contain a main clause, e.g. "Mary!", "Precisely so.", "Next Tuesday evening after it gets dark.". Other examples of minor sentences are headings (e.g. the heading of this entry), stereotyped expressions ("Hello!"), emotional expressions ("Wow!"), proverbs, etc. These can also include nominal sentences like "The more, the merrier". These mostly omit a main verb for the sake of conciseness, but may also do so in order to intensify the meaning around the nouns.[4]

Sentences that comprise a single word are called word sentences, and the words themselves sentence words.[5]


After a slump in interest, sentence length came to be studied in the 1980s, mostly "with respect to other syntactic phenomena".[6]

One definition of the average sentence length of a prose passage is the ratio of the number of words to the number of sentences.[7] The textbook Mathematical linguistics, by András Kornai, suggests that in "journalistic prose the median sentence length is above 15 words".[8] The average length of a sentence generally serves as a measure of sentence difficulty or complexity.[9] In general, as the average sentence length increases, the complexity of the sentences also increases.[10]

Another definition of "sentence length" is the number of clauses in the sentence, whereas the "clause length" is the number of phones in the clause.[11]

Research by Erik Schils and Pieter de Haan by sampling five texts showed that two adjacent sentences are more likely to have similar lengths than two non-adjacent sentences, and almost certainly have similar length when in a work of fiction. This countered the theory that "authors may aim at an alternation of long and short sentences".[12] Sentence length, as well as word difficulty, are both factors in the readability of a sentence.[13] However, other factors, such as the presence of conjunctions, have been said to "facilitate comprehension considerably".[14]

See also


  1. Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Arnold: p. 6.
  2. "'Sentence' – Definitions from". Retrieved 2008-05-23.
  3. Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. Arnold: p. 6.
  4. Exploring Language: Sentences
  5. Jan Noordegraaf (2001). "J. M. Hoogvliet as a teacher and theoretician". In Marcel Bax; C. Jan-Wouter Zwart; A. J. van Essen. Reflections on Language and Language Learning. John Benjamins B.V. p. 24. ISBN 90-272-2584-2.
  6. Těšitelová, Marie (1992). Quantitative Linguistics. p. 126. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  7. "Calculate Average Sentence Length". Linguistics Forum. Jun 23, 2011. Retrieved December 12, 2011.
  8. Kornai, András. Mathematical linguistics. p. 188. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  9. Perera, Katherine. The assessment of sentence difficulty. p. 108. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  10. Troia, Gary A. Instruction and assessment for struggling writers: evidence-based practices. p. 370. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  11. Reinhard Köhler; Gabriel Altmann; Raĭmond Genrikhovich Piotrovskiĭ (2005). Quantitative Linguistics. p. 352. Retrieved December 15, 2011. (Caption) Table 26.3: Sentence length (expressed by the number of clauses) and clause length (expressed by the number of phones) in a Turkish text
  12. Erik Schils; Pieter de Haan (1993). "Characteristics of Sentence Length in Running Text". Oxford University Press. Retrieved December 12, 2011.
  13. Perera, Katherine. The assessment of sentence difficulty. p. 108. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  14. Fries, Udo. Sentence Length, Sentence Complexity, and the Noun Phrase in 18th-Century News Publications. p. 21. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
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