Syntactic Elements of the Clause Structure in English

Syntactic Elements of the Clause Structure in English

Welcome to class! Today’s discussion promises to be educative and interesting. If you are familiar with my posts, you will recall that I have made references to the English Rankscale which has the clause as one of its members. This post, Syntactic Elements of the Clause Structure in English, focuses, at a micro level, on those items that make up the clause or sentence structure. You are right to refer to a simple sentence as a clause. So both are used interchangeably.

Syntactic Elements of the Clause Structure in English

There are four (4) elements that make up the English clause and we refer to them as the Elements of clause structure. In other words, a clause in English has four (4) structural or syntactic elements and they are the maximum a clause can have.  Let us see the list of these four structural elements and proceed to discuss each one of them in details with illustrative examples. They are:

  1. Subject
  2. Predicators
  3. Complement
  4. Adjunct

Model of Classification

There is need to state here that there are various models of grammar. See the post, What is Grammar? for more clarifications. The model of grammar we subscribe to is the Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) which has M. A. K. Halliday and others as its proponents. In the description of the structural elements of the clause, we have adopted the SFG model, that is: (S), P, (C), (A). For the traditional grammarians, they classify the elements of the clause as follows:

  1. Subject – S
  2. Verb – P
  3. Object – O
  4. Adverbial – A

Description of Structural Elements of the Clause

 The four structural elements of the clause or simple sentence, the S, P, C, A, have specific groups that can operate under them. Under the subject, the nominal group operates; in the predicator, the verbal group operates. Under the Complement, the nominal group operates, while finally in the adjunct, the adverbial group operates.

Let us take each one of these structural elements and discuss them further:

The Subject

The subject is usually the first element in a clause, if we go by the basic patterns of the simple sentence. The subject is the performer or initiator of an action which the verb describes in a clause or sentence. It is the agent and it acts on the object. It is the element of a clause or simple sentence which normally comes before the predicator or Verbal group and consists of a noun phrase. In other words, in the subject, there is a nominal group. Usually, the subject normally consists of any of the following items:

A Noun

  • Cars are expensive these days.
  • George left for Canada last week.
  • Bread is a staple food.
  • Mangoes are in season.
  • Rice and Beans is good for lunch.

A Pronoun

  • Theirs is a good case.
  • We are fine today.
  • She usually arrives late.
  • Everybody needs to work hard.
  • They could not arrive on time.

Verbal Noun or Gerund

  • Travelling at night could be fun.
  • Texting on the road is dangerous.
  • Comparing one’s ability with another’s is unnecessary.
  • Swimming is a good sport.
  • Cooking in the hostel is prohibited.

Nominal Group

  • The cake in the fridge is bad.
  • The baby in the cot is sleeping.
  • My leg aches badly.
  • The generous chief of staff distributed cash gifts to the villagers.
  • Her father’s house is under repairs.

Finite Nominal Clause

  • Where we go is none of your business.
  • What they hear is untrue.
  • Why they complain is understandable.
  • What we want is not available.
  • That he would win the election is certain.

Non-Finite Nominal Clause

  • To go home at this time is not reasonable.
  • Working for hours without resting is unhealthy.
  • Being taken for granted is discouraging.
  • Sleeping too late can cause red eyes.
  • To marry twice is folly.

Note that the subject must always be in agreement with the verb and the complement in any given sentence. See the extensive discussion on Concord.

The Predicator

This is an important structural element of a clause or simple sentence. It usually comes after the subject and characteristically precedes the complement. The predicator comprises the operator, which is the first auxiliary verb or the finite verb ‘be’, a verb or verbal group, the non-finite part of the verb phrase plus other elements relating to it like the negation, the catenative, and the particle. It is in the predicator or the verbal group that we realise both tense and aspect. See The English Verbal Group. See the following sentences that show the predicator:

  • We did not like the food they gave us.
  • The boy won’t leave until you buy him biscuits.
  • He could not attend the meeting.
  • The girls do not sing in the choir.
  • The woman does not go out on Sundays.
  • The farmers did not cultivate the land.
  • We like eating fried rice on Christmas day.
  • They kept borrowing to augment their meagre salaries.

It is important to note that if the only predicator in a sentence is an auxiliary verb, we reckon it as a lexical verb! For example:

  • The sun is
  • The girls are
  • These babies are so cute.

Note also that we can modify the lone auxiliary verb that has assumed the status of a lexical verb with a modal auxiliary. Take a look at these examples both in the finite and non-finite forms:

  • The students could be sometimes unruly.
  • He should be there by now.
  • You must be silly!
  • The man is being
  • They are being
  • He has been outside the country since independence.
  • She had been in charge before the new administration came on board.

The Complement

The complement has some features similar to the subject in the sense that the nominal group operates under both. The complement comprises the following:

A Noun

  • We ate chicken.
  • The man bought a house.
  • The madman stole plates.

A Pronoun

  • The teacher punished them.
  • He visited me.
  • She cooked it.

An Adjective

  • The sums appear difficult.
  • The wine is expensive.
  • He looks unkempt.
  • The baby is quiet.
  • The man became happy.
  • The houses are new.

A Verbal Noun/Gerund

  • I love swimming.
  • She likes cooking.
  • The kids love travelling.

Nominal Group

  • We killed a very big snake.
  • He likes fried rice with plantain.
  • She likes roasted yam.
  • He bought a cheap brown American truck.

Noun/Nominal Clause (finite and non-finite)

  • I like the position he took.
  • She loves sewing children’s clothes.
  • They asked why we came.
  • We foolishly believed the lie he told.
  • The farmer prefers selling his old yams.

 Types of Complements

It is essential to state that there are two types of complements. These are:

  1. Complement Intensive
  2. Complement Extensive

Let us take a look at each of them…

Complement Intensive

The complement intensive usually makes reference or expresses a relation to another element in the sentence or clause structure. The element is usually the subject or the complement.

See these examples:

  • The governor is shrewd.
  • The students elected him their captain.
  • Kenny G is an accomplished saxophonist.
  • We considered him suitable for the job.

Complement Extensive

This makes reference to an entity outside the sentence or clause structure. It does not refer to any element within the sentence or clause structure.

Examples include:

  • The senator built a new house.
  • They gave us papers for the exam.
  • He bought five bottles of wine.
  • She served biscuits.

In the complement extensive, we can recast the complement to be the subject of the sentence in the passive mood e. g.

  • A new house was built by the senator.
  • Papers were given to us for the exam.

Double Complementation

There is the concept of ‘Double Complementation’ which we should examine. It simply has to do with the presence of more than one complement in a clause structure. For example:

  • He bought his father a house.
  • They named him the champion.
  • Santa Claus gave the children some presents.
  • They decorated him a knight.
  • We made him our leader.

The Traditional Grammarians refer to this as a direct or indirect object.


We have items like: this morning, last year, last semester, often, very slowly or quickly, down the road, after the service etc. This position is occupied by the adverbial group. I have put together a comprehensive post on the Adverbial Group in English. Do check it out. I have also written on adjuncts and related concepts extensively in the post Types of Adverbs. Make sure you look it up.


It is important to state that of all these structural elements of the clause, the only obligatory element is the predicator. All others, the subject, the complement and the adjunct are optional! Let us consider some sentences to demonstrate the obligatory nature of the predicator and the optionality of other elements:

  • Leave! P
  • Leave now! P, (A)
  • You can leave. (S), P
  • You can leave at once. (S), P, (A)
  • He left the book. (S), P, (C)
  • She can leave him alone. (S), P, (C), (A)
  • The man left there in anger. (S), P, (A), (A)


It has been an interesting discourse so far. Hasn’t it? The discussion on the English Clause will be incomplete if we do not discuss Types of Clauses in English. Check out the post and please endeavour to drop your comments on every post you read! The feedback is important! Thank you so much for reading this post. I am sure you are better for it! Great


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