Yes, you read that correctly. There are only 4 basic sentence types in the English language. You’d think there would be more, but there isn’t. Everything you say, write, or read falls into one of those four categories.
Knowing what those categories are can provide helpful when you’re writing or speaking, especially if you are the most confident in social situations. Which, let’s face it, most bookworms and introverts aren’t. I know I’m definitely not!
Reviewing sentence types is also the doorway to a much larger conversation about how you are supposed to arrange words in a sentence, better known as syntax. Syntax is where much of the confusion over grammar comes in because much of syntax is down to your preferences and a larger cultural practice.
“Here lies the water; good. Here stands the man; good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes—mark you that. But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself.”
Hamlet Act V, Scene 1, Lines 13-16William Shakespeare
A definition of syntax for the everyday human and why you need to pay attention to it.
Syntax helps you put the words you use into context when you use them in a sentence.
Take the quote from Hamlet. This is the graveyard scene, by the way, where the two gravediggers are arguing about Ophelia’s burial. The speaker, in this quote, is arguing that if someone goes to the water to drown, he’s killed himself. However, if the water comes to him and he can’t get out, then he hasn’t killed himself.
What Shakespeare shows in these lines is why syntax is important in a sentence. Without syntax, you could say just as easily “water dog splashed the” as “the dog splashed the water.”
If you expect it means the same thing, it doesn’t. In “water dog splashed the” you could just as easily argue that the water splashed the dog, even if what you mean was that the dog splashed the water.
Why does this matter? If the water splashed the dog, it implies that the dog did not intend to get wet. If the dog splashed the water, it implies the dog deliberately tried to get wet. Just as the gravedigger’s argument about Ophelia. She went to the water to drown. The water did not come to her.
Now, if this were a criminal trial, that is the detail that could determine whether the verdict is guilty or innocent.
The four basic sentence types and what they mean.
Questions are also called “interrogative sentences,” meaning that they “interrogate” or are seeking information. Most commonly, you expect a response. There are several question types, but I’ll go on to the two which are most likely to trip you up either in conversation or in writing: the rhetorical question and the exclamatory question.
A rhetorical question is a question that a speaker or writer poses in order to make a point. For instance, “who knows how long they’ll be” is a rhetorical question. You aren’t expecting an answer, you’re making the point that “they” will be away for a long time and you aren’t expecting them back any time soon.
Just listen to any upcoming political campaign and you’ll hear a lot of these bandied about.
The exclamatory question is, in my opinion, one of the most annoying. It’s a question that’s posed as an exclamation, such as “isn’t this fun!” or “what a lovely day!” What makes them annoying is that if you don’t agree with the effusive sentiment, you are often accused of being grumpy or having a “bad attitude” when in reality you just don’t agree.
Or if you’re annoyed that the person in question has interrupted your book or expects you to be exuberant. Especially if they expect you to be exuberant before you’ve had your morning coffee.
There is just one final thing about questions and that is when some people simply raise the pitch of their voice at the end of a sentence to show they’re asking a question. While technically this is correct, and it can be very common, it’s not as advisable for everyday speech. Why? Because we live in a more neurodiverse world than we used to, and not every neurodiverse person can tell that you’re asking a question.
One of my neurodiverse family members still has this issue, and it’s better to be straightforward and use an obvious question word.
Even people with high anxiety levels or who aren’t necessarily comfortable in social settings can miss questions that aren’t obviously questions. So, be mindful when you use them as you’re out and about in the world. Better to ask in a more straightforward manner, in my opinion.
Statements can also be called “declarative.” Most sentences fall into this category, whether in writing or in conversation. All that’s happening here is communicating information. Plain and simple.
Instructions are also known as “imperatives” or “directives.” These sentences usually start with verbs because the subject, or the person to whom the instructions are being given, is understood to be “you.” Most rules or processes have at least one directive in them, even if the rest of the sentences in the document are statements.
There are several types of instructions too, and they all depend on mood:
- Commands, e.g. Go write your book.
- Prohibitions e.g., Don’t stop until you are done.
- Invitations e.g Join me for coffee tomorrow morning. These are very popular in some romance genres, by the way.
- Warnings e.g. Watch out for plot bunnies.
- Pleas e.g. Help me understand your point. A good way of determining these is to try the sentence out with the word “please” before the verb. If it works, then you know you what you’re dealing with.
- Requests e.g., Bring your book in here and read.
- Well-wishing e.g. Write well this afternoon.
- Advice e.g. Put on some sunscreen if you’re going to read at the beach this afternoon.
Exclamations express emotion and very little else. When you’re writing, they’re nearly always with an exclamation mark. Incidentally, if you go back to the parts of speech review, most interjections are also exclamations.
Why does this help you?
Aside from arming you with more information to help you navigate the grammatical waters, knowing the basic sentence types can also help you determine how to edit, how to respond in conversation, or even if you need to respond.
A growing number of people, for instance, expect you to answer them when they’ve only made a statement, not asked a question expecting an answer. I even had one person not raise their pitch at the end and expected me to answer what they thought was a question.
While this may sound pedantic, people who have anxiety or are neurodiverse may stumble over this conversational trap. And it is a trap, even if it’s not meant to be. Also, if you work in customer service and someone does this to you, it makes your job as the agent that much harder.
If you’re reading, knowing which category or subcategory a sentence is in can help you determine the context. Is that character really angry or are they being grumpy? What is that other character implying with that exclamation? Sentence types can provide you with clues to the storyline and give you that extra bit of enjoyment from reading.
As we saw with the example from Hamlet, word order matters as much as a sequence of events. Otherwise, you can end up making some terrible mistakes.
Sentence types can also determine your word order.
So, most sentences in English rely on what’s known as the SVO pattern. This means you have a subject, a verb, and an object in that order. So, the sentence “Ophelia drowned herself” has “Ophelia” as the subject, “drowned” as the verb, and “herself” as the object.
That particular sentence was a statement. Statements mostly follow the SVO pattern with very few variations.
The other sentences? Not so much. If you go back and look at some of the subtypes, you’ll notice instructions or imperatives nearly always start with a verb. Questions start with one of the question words like who, what, or where. You get the idea.
There are more nuances to word order, but most of these are up to you to determine. Your word order and choice is where your writing “voice” makes itself known. This is where you can really start to have fun with English because you can add nuances to your writing with word order. Incidentally, understanding things like inversions can also help you understand some of the more difficult classic writers out there.
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