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:

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?


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:


An intransitive verb has the structure noun + verb:

Noun (subject) Verb
John smiled.

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


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:

Transitive or intransitive?


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


Hello Kirk,

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



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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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,


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).