Level: elementary

Clause structure

All clauses in English have at least two parts, a noun phrase (subject) and a verb phrase:

Noun phrase (subject) Verb phrase
The children laughed.
All the people in the bus were watching.

But most clauses have more than two parts:

Noun phrase (subject) Verb phrase    
John wanted a new bicycle.  
All of the girls are learning English.  
This soup tastes awful.  
Mary and the family were driving to Madrid.  
She put the flowers in a vase.

The first noun phrase of a sentence is the subject. English clauses always have a subject:

His father has just retired. He was a teacher. (NOT Was a teacher.)
I'm waiting for my wife. She is late. (NOT Is late.)

except for the imperative, which is used for orders, invitations and requests:

Stop!
Please come to dinner tomorrow.
Play it again, please.

If we have no other subject, we use there or it. We call this a dummy subject:

There were twenty people at the meeting.
There will be an eclipse of the moon tonight.
It's a lovely day.
It's nearly one o’clock.

What's the subject?

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Verb patterns

Different verbs have different patterns, so the structure of the clause depends on the verb.

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Most verbs in English are either transitive or intransitive. A transitive verb has the structure noun + verb + noun:

Noun (subject) Verb Noun (object)
John wanted a new bicycle.

Transitive verbs need an object. Common transitive verbs are:

bring
buy
enjoy
like
make
take
want
wear

An intransitive verb has the structure noun + verb:

Noun (subject) Verb
John smiled.

Intransitive verbs do not have an object. Common intransitive verbs are:

arrive
cry
die
fall
happen
laugh
smile
work

Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive:

She sang a wonderful aria.
We were singing.
Transitive: N + V + N
Intransitive: N + V
We were playing football.
We were just playing.
Transitive: N + V + N
Intransitive: N + V

Common verbs like this are:

draw
follow
help
learn
ride
study
watch
write
Transitive or intransitive?

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Other patterns

Some verbs are both transitive and intransitive, but the object when they are transitive is the same as the subject when they are intransitive:

Peter closed the door.
The door closed.
Transitive: N + V + N
Intransitive: N + V
I boiled some water.
The water boiled.
Transitive: N + V + N
Intransitive: N + V

These are called ergative verbs.

There are other kinds of verb patterns. For example:

Verb patterns

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