Sentences must always include both a subject and a predicate.
The subject is the noun (a person, place, or thing) that performs, controls, or is responsible for the action of the verb.
The predicate is, essentially, everything in the sentence that follows the subject. It is made up of at least one finite verb, the action of which is performed by the subject. In addition, the predicate may (but does not always) include:
First, let’s look at how we can identify the predicate in a clause or sentence. Later on, we will look more closely at the various parts of the predicate.
Identifying the predicate
In most cases, the predicate comes after the subject in a sentence or clause. It’s possible in simple sentences to have only a subject followed by a finite verb (a verb that has a relationship with subject and can inflect for grammatical tense). For example:
- “I refuse.”
- “Dogs bark.”
- “Bees sting.”
- “Cats meow.”
In the above examples, the subject (in italics) begins the sentences and the predicate (in bold) ends them. The predicate, made up of just an intransitive verb in the present simple tense, contains all the necessary information about the subject to be logical; therefore, each example is considered an independent clause and is a complete sentence.
However, it is much more common for the predicate to contain much more information than just a verb. Let’s look at an example of a sentence with a more complex predicate:
Parts of the predicate
“My family loves going to the beach each summer.”
loves — transitive finite verb in the present simple tense
going to the beach — gerund phrase acting as the direct object of the verb loves
each summer — adverbial phrase modifying the verb phrase loves going to the beach
Because every element after the subject my family is related to the verb loves, the entire phrase loves going to the beach each summer is considered the predicate.
Note that adverbs (which can be single words, adverbial phrases, or even adverbial clauses) that modify elements of the predicate do not always appear after the subject. It’s quite common for certain adverbs to appear at the beginning of a sentence to add emphasis to the information. For example:
Parts of the predicate
“In school we are learning about the American Revolution.”
in school — adverbial prepositional phrase acting as a modifier of the present participle learning
are — finite auxiliary verb used with the present participle learning to create the present continuous tense
learning — present participle (a type of non-finite verb) used with the auxiliary finite verb are to form the present continuous tense
Notice that the adverbial prepositional phrase in school is still part of the predicate, even though it appears at the beginning of the sentence before the subject. This is because it modifies the participle learning, which is part of the predicate.
The subject of a clause or sentence must always be performing at least one action, but there are many instances in which it performs more than one action. In such a case, in which the subject is related to two or more finite verbs, the sentence is said to have a compound predicate; a predicate composed of one verb is sometimes known as a simple predicate.
We usually use coordinating conjunctions to link the verbs in a compound predicate. If there are more than two predicate elements, we separate them with commas and use a conjunction before the final one.
Parts of the compound predicate
“I live in New Jersey but work in New York City.”
1. live in New Jersey
2. work in New York City
Connected by the coordinating conjunction but, they both have the same subject—I.
“My friend Daniel teaches in the morning, volunteers in the afternoon, and plays volleyball in the evening."
1. teaches in the morning
2. volunteers in the afternoon
3. plays volleyball in the evening
Connected by commas and the coordinating conjunction and, they all have the same subject—my friend Daniel.
Just as the same subject may have multiple compound predicates, the same predicate may have multiple compound subjects. In the same way, we join multiple subjects with coordinating conjunctions and (if there are more than two subjects) commas. For example:
- “My brother and I go fishing on the weekends.”
- “John, Mary, and Joe went to school together.”
Compound predicates vs. compound sentences
It’s important to distinguish a compound predicate from a compound sentence. A compound sentences is made up of two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction; each clause has its own subject. Even if the subjects relate to the same person or thing, there is a different predicate for each subject.
- “John studies at Harvard, but he also works as a mechanic on the weekend.”
This is a compound sentence, which has two independent clauses with two subjects: John and he. Even though they talk about the same person, each subject has its own unique predicate—it is not a compound predicate or a compound subject.
Complex sentences are composed of an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. Each clause in a complex sentence has a subject, and, again, each subject has its own predicate. For instance:
- “When my father is home on the weekends, the whole family always goes to a movie together.”
The dependent clause has the subject my father, and the predicate is is home on the weekends. The dependent clause is linked to the independent clause by the subordinating conjunction when, which can also be considered part of the dependent clause’s predicate. The subject of the independent clause is the whole family, and the predicate is always goes to a movie together.
Sentences can become increasingly complex, with multiple independent clauses and multiple dependent clauses. Just remember that for every clause with its own subject, there must be at least one corresponding predicate as well.
Parts of the predicate
We’ve seen where to look to identify the predicate in a sentence. Now let’s look more closely at the different elements that can be a part of the predicate.
When we are identifying the predicate in a sentence, we usually look for the finite verb that acts as the root of the sentence. The only verbs that can be considered finite are verbs in their base form (the infinitive form without the particle to), verbs in their past-tense form, or verbs inflected for the third-person singular. (The verb be, unique among verbs, also has unique forms to reflect plurality (multiple subjects), as well as first-person vs. second and third person.)
Let’s look at the last example from above:
- “In school we are learning about the American Revolution.”
The sentence uses the present continuous verb are learning. This largely functions as a single unit, with learning carrying the most meaning in the sentence. However, learning is a present participle, which is considered a non-finite verb; the finite verb of the sentence is actually just the auxiliary verb are. It is an inflection of the verb be that denotes a first person plural subject (we).
Verb forms that are never considered to be finite verbs in a sentence are gerunds, infinitives, and participles (both past and present). Here are a few example sentences to illustrate the difference, with finite verbs in bold and non-finite verbs in italics:
Finite vs. non-finite verbs
“We hate working on the farm.”
Finite verb: hate (present simple tense, first-person plural)
Non-finite verb: working (gerund)
“John ran quickly to catch his bus.”
Finite verb: ran (past simple tense, third-person singular)
Non-finite verb: to catch (infinitive)
“Susy lives in New York City.”
Finite verb: lives (present simple tense, third-person singular)
Non-finite verb: none
“They were being very difficult.”
Finite verb: were (past simple tense, third-person plural)
Non-finite verb: being (present participle)
“We have seen that movie already.”
Finite verb: have (present simple tense, first-person plural)
Non-finite verb: seen (past participle)
Note that gerunds and infinitives are able to function as nouns, so it is possible for them to be the subject of a clause rather than part of the predicate. If they appear before the finite verb in a sentence, they are usually acting as the subject. For example:
- “Working all week makes me so tired.”
- “To err is human.”
Objects of verbs
Grammatical objects are nouns or pronouns that complete the meaning of verbs or prepositions. The objects of verbs tell us who or what is receiving the action of the verb. They are technically a kind of complement (sometimes known as a verb complement); however, because they are often so important to the structure of the predicate, they are usually described as a unique, separate part of it.
The object of a verb can either be a direct object, meaning it directly receives the action of the verb, or it can be an indirect object, meaning it receives the direct object of the verb.
Note that only transitive verbs take objects.
Direct objects are directly affected by the verbs they complete—that is, the verb’s action is happening directly to them. For example:
- “The dog chased its tail.” (The object its tail is receiving the action of the verb chase.)
- “Mary reads a new book every week.” (The object a new book is receiving the action of the verb read.)
- “I asked Jonathan on a date.” (The object Jonathan is receiving the action of the verb asked.)
An indirect object, on the other hand, is the person or thing who receives the direct object of the verb. Indirect objects appear directly between the verb and its direct object.
- “Please pass me the salt.” (The pronoun me is receiving the direct object the salt, which receives the action of the verb pass.)
- “I sent the company an application for the job.” (The noun phrase the company is receiving the direct object an application, which receives the action of the verb sent.)
Complements are words or groups of words that are necessary to complete the meaning of another part of the sentence. Unlike modifiers, they do not add supplemental information—they provide information that is necessary to achieve the intended meaning in the sentence.
An object complement is a word or group of words that describes, renames, or completes the direct object of the verb. It can be a noun, adjective, relative clause, infinitive, or gerund.
- “The committee elected him treasurer.” (The noun treasurer renames the object him.)
- “All he wanted was to make his husband happy.” (The adjective happy describes the object his husband.)
- “Do you know someone who can work the printer?” (The relative clause who can work the printer describes the object someone.)
- “I didn’t expect you to approve.” (The infinitive to approve describes a potential action of the object you.)
- “We came across him lying in the yard.” (The gerund phrase lying in the yard describes the action of the object him.)
An adjective complement is a phrase or clause that provides information necessary to complete an adjective’s meaning. Adjective complements almost always appear with predicative adjectives (adjectives that appear after linking verbs) and can be prepositional phrases, infinitives and infinitive phrases, or noun clauses.
- “I am perfectly content on my own.” (The prepositional phrase on my own completes the meaning of the adjective content.)
- “We’re just glad to be of service.” (The infinitive phrase to be of service completes the meaning of the adjective glad.)
- “We were a little curious why they decided to leave.” (The noun clause why they decided to leave completes the meaning of the adjective curious.)
Adverbial complements are adverbs or adverbial elements that are required to complete the meaning of the verb. They always appear after the verb they complement.
- “The teacher sent Tim home.” (The adverbial noun home completes the meaning of the verb sent.)
- “Please put the book on the shelf.” (The adverbial prepositional phrase on the shelf completes the meaning of the verb put.)
A subject complement is the information that follows a linking verb to describe, identify, or rename the subject of the clause. Subject complements can be nouns, pronouns, or adjectives.
Even though they modify the subject, they are dependent on the verb of the clause and thus are part of the predicate.
- “Love is a virtue.” (The noun phrase a virtue renames the subject love.)
- “Her husband took all the credit, but it was she who did all the work.” (The pronoun she re-identifies the subject it.)
- “You look nice.” (The adjective nice describes the subject you.)
Modifiers are adjectives and adverbs that describe (modify) another part of the sentence. They can appear as part of either the subject or the predicate, depending on what they are modifying.
Both adjectives and adverbs can be made into phrases and clauses, which function as a whole unit to modify a word (or group of words).
Below, we’ll look at some examples of modifiers functioning as part of the predicate (the predicate will be in italics, while the modifier will be in bold). Go to the section Modifiers to learn more about them.
What they modify
“Jonathan always brings his favorite toy to school.”
1. always — adverb
2. favorite — adjective
3. to school — adverbial prepositional phrase
1. The verb brings
2. The noun toy
3. The verb brings
“I work in a restaurant that is often busy.”
1. in a restaurant — adverbial prepositional phrase
2. often — adverb
3. often busy — predicative adjective phrase
4. that is often busy — relative clause (also called an adjective clause)
1. The verb work
2. The adjective busy
3. The subject pronoun that
4. The noun restaurant
“We took the bright orange painting in the living room off the wall.”
1. bright — adverb
2. bright orange — adjective phrase
3. in the living room — adjectival prepositional phrase
4. off the wall — adverbial prepositional phrase
1. The adjective orange
2. The noun painting
3. The noun painting
4. The verb took