Writing a Sentence: Everyone’s an Actor

Editing and Writing

Writing a Sentence: Everyone’s an Actor

This is the first of a series of posts trying to make grammatical ideas more understandable. I’ll be doing these posts periodically, and hopefully will collect them into an ebook when I’m finished. So let’s get started.

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Everyone’s an Actor

“I quit!”

Oh, please don’t. Because in a nutshell, “I quit” is the perfect illustration of a complete sentence. And it contains the first important thing you need to remember about writing any sentence – it’s all an act.

That is, every complete sentence involves an Actor (the subject of the sentence) performing some kind of Action (the verb). So a two-word sentence like “I quit” contains the seeds of almost every other complete sentence in the English language.

Of course, you won’t find many two-word sentences floating around. For one thing, unless they’re as dramatic as “I quit!” they’re actually pretty boring. And most acting is a lot more complex than that. But if you remember just the one basic idea, that a sentence has an actor and an action, those two things will help you clear up a lot of grammatical issues that come up in more complex sentences.

First, though, you have to find the Actor, or the main subject of the sentence, and make sure you know where the Action is. In a more complex sentence, losing track of the two things is what causes trouble.

Take a sentence like this:

The cat, while bouncing around late at night and running after the ball, careened off the collapsing plant stand.

Remember: at its root, this sentence starts with an Actor and an Act. There are other types of sentences where there can be more than one of each, but don’t worry about that yet. For now, let’s find the Actor.

That’s actually pretty easy in this sentence. The Actor is the cat. Most of the time, like an actor who wants to hog the spotlight, the subject of an English sentence appears very near the beginning.

However, the Act, even though it frequently appears near the Actor, can also show up much later in the sentence. So what’s the verb in this sentence? What’s the cat actually doing?

At first glance, it might seem that “bouncing” is the act. Anyone who’s seen a cat misbehaving will recognize that it’s certainly an active word! But notice that the whole section that has the word “bouncing” in it is surrounded by a comma on either side. That’s because this section is a sort of insert, put in to add extra details. But the sentence could function just the same if you removed that whole inserted section.

That’s actually a clue for finding the crucial verb even in a complex sentence. What is the one action you simply can’t take out, or the whole sentence would stop making sense?

Let’s look at the sentence without the insert:

The cat careened off the collapsing plant stand.

Does that help? Now it should seem pretty clear. The Subject-Verb, or Actor-Act, goes like this: “cat careened.”

Okay, so now we know a little bit about finding the Actor and Action, or subject and verb, in a sentence. But I can just hear you now, saying, “Big deal. What’s all the fuss about? Why does it matter?”

It matters, all right. Because if you make a mistake about the basic subject and verb of a complex sentence, it can lead to all sorts of grammatical confusion. And once that stuff starts, it easily snowballs. You could even find yourself with a piece of writing that is pretty much incomprehensible, even to you.

I’ll have more to say about those snowballs in the next post: Don’t Act Like That!


One Response

  1. Tim Lukeman says:

    While this inital lesson would seem obvious, we’ve seen enough bad writing on the Web to know that it’s greatly needed. Just because people know how to write, doesn’t mean they know how to WRITE.

    I especially like your approach. It’s easy-going, user-friendly, and conveys the information in a clear, entertaining way. Yet you never dumb it down. Accomplishing all this is no easy task!

    I look forward to your next entry!

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