Structure of a clause

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The most central unit of grammar is the clause. Nearly every clause contains a Verb, and most contain a Subject. Other elements of a clause - which may or may not be present - are the Subject, Complement (which may be a copular Complement, a direct Object or an indirect Object, etc) and one or more Adverbial(s).

The principal elements of a clause are:

  • The Verb. This is the essential part of a Clause. It can be useful, in analysing grammar, to distinguish between verb (with a small 'v'), which is a word class, and Verb (with a capital), which is a function performed in a sentence. A Verb can be a single verb, or a multi-word verb phrase.
  • The Subject (the 'performer' of the action of the Verb), which is the element found second most commonly, after the verb.
  • The Complement, which is that which completes a sentence. In the strictest meaning, this is the part that follows the verb 'to be' (e.g. "She is Scottish"), but it can also be an Indirect or Direct Object. There may be more than one Object, or Complement, in a Clause. (Don't confuse complement with its homophone 'compliment'.)
  • The Adverbial. This is the vaguest function to define. Adverbials may modify (that is, tell us more about the action of) a Verb. Most commonly, they tell us how, where, when or why something was done - e.g. "she did it quickly" (adverb, answering the question 'how?'), or "yesterday" ('when?'); "at home" (adverbial phrase, answering 'where'); "because it seemed like a good idea" (adverbial Clause, 'why?').

For those who like oddities, there is a small group of units known as 'verbless Clauses', which are clauses without verbs, whose analysis belongs to a more advanced study of grammar than this.