Identifying Errors in Sentence Structure

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  • 0:05 What is Sentence Structure?
  • 0:44 Subject-Verb Agreement
  • 2:42 Clauses
  • 4:11 Parallel Structure
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

There are many rules detailing how to build sentences. One mistake can change how a sentence is understood. This lesson discusses how to avoid some common errors in sentence structure.

What Is Sentence Structure?

The written word is an essential form of communication in the world today. In order to be effective, all writing must follow a particular type of sentence structure. Sentence structure can be thought of as the rules that govern the structure of written sentences. In other words, sentence structure is how you build sentences.

Sentence structure is vital in writing. Any piece of writing needs to be clear so that others can understand it. Communication is the whole point of the written word. Sentence structure gives clear expectations for how sentences must be formed so that others can easily read and understand your writing. Let's look at some important aspects of sentence structure and how to avoid making common errors.

Subject-Verb Agreement

Perhaps the most basic rule when it comes to sentence structure is subject-verb agreement. Remember, a subject is the person or object doing the action in the sentence. A verb is the action. For example, in this sentence:

Sally throws a temper tantrum every night.

'Sally' is the person doing the action and so is the subject. 'Throws' is the action and so is the verb.

Subject-verb agreement is the idea that the verbs must agree with the subjects. In other words, the verb must change form to match the subject. In that same sentence, the verb 'throws' is in a form that agrees with the singular subject, 'Sally.' The sentence would be incorrect if it read:

Sally throw a temper tantrum every night.

since 'throw' without an 's' is a form for plural subjects. For instance:

The sisters throw a temper tantrum every night.

'Sisters' is now the subject and is plural, so 'throw' is the form that agrees. Compound subjects are also plural, so be sure to use the correct form when there is more than one subject.

The biggest error with subject-verb agreement comes when the subject of the sentence is unclear. This usually happens when the sentence is complex, and other words interrupt the action. In simple terms, other words come in between the subject and the verb. For example:

The couch and chair that were clawed by the cat has been thrown out.

Did you notice the error in agreement? 'The couch and chair' is the compound subject of this sentence and needs a verb that uses the plural form. However, the phrase 'that were clawed by the cat' is an interrupting phrase and may make agreement hard to decipher. 'Has' is a verb but should be changed to 'have' to match the plural subject. Therefore, the sentence should be:

The couch and chair that were clawed by the cat have been thrown out.

To identify when errors occur, find the actual subject of the sentence. Check for interrupting words, and ignore them to check for agreement.


Clauses can also cause errors in sentence structure. A clause is a unit or group of words ranking below a sentence, but still consisting of a subject and a predicate. Remember that a predicate is the verb and all the words that follow in the sentence and that a sentence is not considered complete unless it has both a subject and a predicate.

An independent clause is a clause that has a subject and predicate and can stand alone as a complete sentence. A dependent clause is a clause with a subject and a predicate but cannot stand alone. If a dependent clause is standing alone, it will be a fragment, which is an incomplete sentence. Thus, a dependent clause must be attached to an independent one.

Let's look at an example of a dependent and independent clause. This sentence:

Molly was studying for her math exam.

is an independent clause since it has a subject, a predicate, and can stand alone. However, if you add a conjunction, which is a word used to connect phrases, the clause becomes dependent.

While Molly was studying for her math exam.

is not a complete sentence. It has a subject and predicate but needs to be attached to an independent clause.

While Molly was studying for her math exam, the fire alarm went off.

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