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Basic formulas are for language, too

If you are of a mathematical or scientific mind, your inclination may be to solve problems through formulas. You may wonder why studying English isn’t as straight forward.

But wait. Sometimes it is. Our language forms a variety of sentences using basic sentence patterns. These models are very similar to formulas and can be constructed as scientifically as E=mc2.

The first basic pattern of an English language sentence is a noun plus a verb plus a possible adverb or prepositional phrase (N + V = sentence). The verb in this pattern is always intransitive, with nothing to accept action ("The fans cheered"; "Dan struck out"; "Vinnie is traveling by bus.").

Pattern two is N + V + N in which the verb is transitive and the second noun is the direct object. The first noun remains the subject of the sentence ("The choir sang my favorite selection"; "Someone donated money"; "We should win every game.").

In pattern three (N + V + N + N), the subject and transitive verb are followed by an indirect object and then a direct object ("Team members gave Alice a gift"; "He wrote her and his aunt a letter" — remember that pronouns can be used just as nouns are; "Mother got Sybil that job.").

The pattern four formula is N + LV + N. Be, become and remain are the linking verbs (LV) that usually appear in this pattern. The noun following this linking verb is a predicate noun (or pronoun). These linking verbs produce sentences in which two nouns refer to the same person or thing: "Both books have become best sellers"; "James remained my friend"; "The exchange student is she."

One more pattern provides a formula of N + LV + Adj. These verbs are also linking verbs. There are thousands of intransitive verbs, but only a few are used regularly as linking. The most important of these are forms of be, become, seem and remain.

The word following the linking verb is a predicate adjective. It refers back to and describes the noun: "These rocks are treacherous"; "Toby remained calm"; "His mother seems very young."

Our sentences are normally more involved than the examples given here. We usually add modifiers, phrases and clauses. No matter how complicated or how long a sentence is, however, it will always have one of the five basic patterns as its foundation.

And where would we be without those underpinnings?

— Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at ifixgrammar@charter.net.