The Structure of English Language

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Sentences and clauses

In the syntax of English and other modern European languages, such as Dutch, French, German or Italian, the two most important structures are almost certainly clauses and sentences. Please note that:

  • the sentence as we know it, is not found in all languages
  • the sentence is not a necessary structure in natural language
  • many written texts and most spoken data are not organized into regular sentence forms

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Before you look at descriptions of either structure, you may wonder why they appear together in the heading above. This is because neither makes sense without the other. Writers of language textbooks may put either of them ahead of the other, depending upon whether their structural model builds (or synthesises) smaller structures into larger ones (“bottom up”) or analyses larger structures into smaller ones (“top down”). This is explained at the start of this guide, and briefly again below, under the heading Building or analysing? This guide places clauses before sentences, in keeping with its "bottom up" or synthetic approach. You should try to explain the subject with both synthetic and analytic models.

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We can understand a clause in several ways. Simply it can be seen as a verb and the words or phrases which cluster round it. One linguist describes it as "a structural unit smaller than a sentence but larger than phrases or words". The problem here is that in some cases a clause may appear identical with a sentence or phrase, but the term we use tells us about a different structural feature. A more difficult explanation to follow is that a clause is a syntactic unit consisting of a verb, together with its associated subject, objects or complements and adverbials. Note that the only obligatory (“must have”) elements are the subject and the verb (usually, but not always, in this order). So before you can go further, you need to know about these different clause elements (parts of the clause).

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Clauses and clauses

You may have met the term clause in other contexts - it is used to identify short passages within longer ones (such as paragraphs) in such texts as legal or parliamentary documents. The writers of these will often construct artificial sentences which are broken into a series of clauses, so that these can be named. This allows us to write such things as "Paragraph x , clause y of the Sale of Goods Act, 1979 protects consumers." Here clause identifies the unit of syntax (and its meaning or semantic content) but may not in every case exactly match the models explained here or in grammatical reference works.

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