How to form a proper sentence in English

english lessons utrecht

You might be thinking that this post is too simple for you to read, that you learned this in kindergarten. However, if your mother tongue is something other than English, please read on.

Outside of reading my students’ work, I sometimes find myself reading English written by Dutch speakers on the internet or in a book. I wince in embarrassment for the author when I see half of a sentence with a period after it.

Complete sentences in other languages are not necessarily complete sentences in English. This statement is especially applicable to Dutch speakers–many will look at half an English sentence and think that it would sound right in Dutch, so what’s the problem?

The problem is your colleagues and clients might be judging your harshly for writing in half sentences because it makes your writing look childish. In short, this can be an embarrassing mistake for a professional to make. Are you alarmed? Let’s correct this.

Part I: You need two things

To form a sentence in English, you must have two things:

1. a subject

2. a main verb

(Actually, you also need a capital letter.)

If you are missing either of these two things, then you are not looking at a sentence, you are looking at a phrase.

These are not sentences, but phrases:

a vase of roses

a very interesting life

as fast as possible

under the couch

These are sentences:

A vase of roses was sitting on the hall table when I walked in.

He led a very interesting life.

The race car driver drove as fast as possible.

They hid my keys under the couch.

Part II: You can put sentences together in different ways

A sentence can be composed of one or multiple clauses. A clause is just a part of a sentence with a subject and a verb. A simple sentence, like

Ice cream has a lot of sugar.

or

Kids love ice cream.

only has one clause. It’s independent because it can stand by itself and and makes sense. This is your typical English sentence: subject-verb-object. (Ice cream-has-sugar.)

I can put both independent sentences together using the words for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (FANBOYS):

Ice cream has a lot of sugar, so kids love it! OR Ice cream has a lot of sugar, and kids love it!

Part III: All ways to combine sentences are not equal

What if I add a different word to the beginning of the sentence?

Because ice cream has a lot of sugar.

“Because” is a word that connects two sentences together, but it causes the sentence to become dependent. It’s called a subordinator (other subordinators are since, after, although, when, that, who, or which). This sentence is now dependent because it starts with a subordinator. What is it dependent on? It is dependent on another sentence. It cannot stand by itself. It needs to be joined to an independent clause to be considered a sentence.

Kids love ice cream because it has a lot of sugar.

Taa-daa! Now it’s a sentence again. This is called a complex sentence because it has an independent part (Kids love ice cream) and a dependent part (because it has a lot of sugar). These two parts of the sentence are not balanced. The first part can stand by itself but the second part cannot.

english lessons utrecht

Part IV: Examples from Dutch

The root of the problem among Dutch speakers seems to be that it is ok to use dependent clauses as complete sentences in Dutch. For examples, you can have a sentence like this in Dutch:

Zodat wij al die bezoeken aan de musea kunnen blijven betalen.

which translates to this in English:

So that we can continue to be able to pay for all those visits to the museums.

The Dutch sentence is correct (I assume, since I see it everywhere) while the English sentence is not actually a sentence. Why not? They both have a subject and a verb. The problem is that “so that” in English causes the sentence to be a dependent clause.

In English, only this sentence is correct:

We need to continue to subsidize the museum card so that we can continue to be able to pay for all those visits to the museums.

More examples…

1. The mortgages are granted by banks who profit from these deals greatly.

Although there are voices stating that plenty of banks back up their mortgage deals with a mix of real and imaginary (or ‘multiplied’) money.

This is only half a sentence–it’s only the dependent part. An independent part needs to follow the dependent part. Here is an example with “although”:

Although what constitutes as a militia has been up for debate, the supreme court upholds the idea that a militia is the general population.

2. Dealers usually have a whole assortment of wares you might be interested in.

So it’s easier to start experimenting with other drugs.

Here is the correct version:

Dealers usually have a whole assortment of wares you might be interested in, so it’s easier to start experimenting with other drugs. 

Do you have any other examples of only half a sentence when translating from Dutch to English?

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