Clause structure and verb patterns

Learn about clause structure and common verb patterns and do the exercises to practise using them.

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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Submitted by Sajatadib on Tue, 31/01/2023 - 09:36

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Thank you Sir, but,is this use of the verb considered to be correct in formal writing?
I read in a text book that verbs like "love"."hate", "like"...can be followed by ing form or to infinitive and verbs like "want", "need","ask"... are followed by to infinitive.Is this grammatically correct to use them like the previous comment?

Hi Sajatadib,

Yes, it is considered grammatically correct, although the Cambridge Dictionary adds that it is usually used in informal situations. You may be interested in this page for more explanation: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/want (see the Want meaning ‘need’ section).

Want and need can be followed by an -ing form verb (they both have the "need" meaning), but not "ask".

I hope that helps!

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Sajatadib on Mon, 30/01/2023 - 18:17

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Hello Sir,
The verb after "want" and "need" should be to infinitive,right?
But I heard this sentence : I don't want you telling me what to do.
Could you help me understand the ing form after want?
Thank you.

Hi Sajatadib,

"Want" can be followed by an -ing verb too. Here are some more examples.

  • The staff still want paying.
  • There are hundreds of things that need doing around the house.
  • Don't put the clothes away. They want washing first.

The meaning of "want" here is more like "need" or "it is necessary". The sentence that you mentioned means something like "I don't need you to tell me what to do" or "It's not necessary for you to tell me what to do". It's stronger than the regular meaning of "want".

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Tue, 27/12/2022 - 23:44

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Hello!

Could you please answer the following questions:

Is that grammatically correct to say "Twenty people were at the meeting". And can I say " I went with my friend to the cinema yesterday" or "With my friend I went to the cinema yesterday" or am I to use cleft sentences for emphasis because these ones aren't correct? I went to the cinema with my friend yesterday sounds correct to me (I hope it is), but I have doubts concerning the other two sentences.

Thank you very much for your precious contribution to our knowledge, and thank you beforehand for answering this post!!!

Hello howtosay_,

The first sentence ('Twenty people...') is fine and a perfectly natural phrasing.

The other sentences are possible but sound very clumsy. Although it is possible to move prepositional phrases such as 'with my friend' around it is rarely done and tends to produce constructions which are distracting rather than emphatic. You could use a cleft sentence construction (It was with my friend that...) if you really needed to, but I find it hard to think of a situation where you would want to put such heavy emphasis on this and could not do it through, for example, using your voice or a contrasting phrase (...with my friend, not my wife).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Peter!

Thank you, I'm very very grateful to you!!! Could I ask you to clarify if "I went to the cinema with my friend yesterday" (as an ordinary sentence without any emphasis) sounds clumsy too? And if so, how do you say it correctly?

Hello again howtosay_,

That sentence is fine. Generally speaking, prepositional phrases come at the end of the clause, so both 'yesterday' and 'with my friend' come at the end of this sentence. It doesn't matter in which order.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Peter!

Thank you very much for your answers!!! I've been trying to find this kind of information on my own for a long time, but I couldn't. So, I very appreciate your help!

Submitted by Dr Paul on Wed, 21/09/2022 - 15:12

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Hello Kirk,

I'm having doubts about the deconstructed sentence below, in particular the object of the (main) verb. Could you check?

Best,

Paul

You can’t stop people doing what they want.

You = subject
Can’t = modal verb, finite verb
Stop = transitive verb, main verb, bare infinitive
Can’t stop = verb phrase
People doing what they want = noun phrase (or zero that-clause?), direct object
People = noun
Doing what they want = gerund phrase, complement of noun phrase
Doing = gerund, verbal, non-finite verb
What they want = wh-clause, noun clause, object of gerund phrase, gerund complement
They = subject (pronoun)
Want = (transitive) verb

Hello Dr Paul,

Please note that this level of syntactical analysis isn't something I'm that all that familiar with, but yes, that looks correct to me.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Dr Paul on Thu, 08/09/2022 - 12:03

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Dear Sir/Madam,

I have been deconstructing three sentences (see below). Could you tell me whether the names behind the separate parts are correct?

Kinds regards,

Paul

I believe that he is dangerous

I = subject = personal pronoun (subject form)
Believe = transitive verb, active verb, finite verb, reporting verb
That he is dangerous = that-clause = direct object
He = subject = personal pronoun (subject form)
Is = linking verb and finite verb
Dangerous = modifier = adjective = subject complement

He is believed to be dangerous

He = subject = personal pronoun (subject form)
Is = finite verb
Believed = non-finite verb, past participle, transitive verb, reporting verb
Is believed = passive verb
To be dangerous = infinitve phrase = noun phrase = direct object
To be = infinitve = verbal (= non-finite verb) and functions as a noun
Dangerous = modifier = adjective

They believe him to be dangerous

They = subject = personal pronoun (subject form)
Believe = finite verb, active verb, transitive verb, reporting verb
Him = indirect object = personal pronoun (object form)
To be dangerous = see above
To be = see above
Dangerous = see above

Much appreciated, Kirk.

Unfortunately I used the wrong tense. I should have written 'I have deconstructed three sentences' (present perfect simple) in stead of 'I have been deconstructing three sentences' (present perfect continuous), because we don't use the latter if we're talking about how much or how many (in this case: three sentences).

Best,

Paul