Learning English as a Second Language

The Ten Basic Sentence Patterns of the English Language

Just as people must possess a basic knowledge of English grammar in order to understand sentences in the language, they must also possess a basic knowledge of sentence structure in order to understand the grammar. When studying English, though, individuals should keep in mind that although the number of sentences a native speaker can produce is virtually unlimited, there are only ten basic patterns underlying those sentences.

Tips for Teaching English as a Second Language

It’s important for teachers to know that although native speakers can create complex sentences by adding various types of clauses, phrases, and modifiers, in order to comprehend these sentences, ESL students need only to understand the simple framework that underlies every sentence in the English language – a framework consisting of a series of slots, with each slot filled by a specific structure. For example, the simple sentence “Tom loves football” can be divided into three distinct slots:

  • Tom (subject)
  • Loves (predicate or verb)
  • Football (direct object)

The Elements of Sentences in the English Language

All sentences, regardless of their length, contain a subject (the topic of the sentence) and a predicate (what is being said about the subject). Then again, the subject can be understood, for example: Please leave a message. (You please leave a message.)

The other basic elements of sentences are these:

  • Direct Object: Word or phrase that directly receives the action of the verb, for example, “Tom threw the football.”
  • Indirect Object: Word or phrase that indirectly receives the action of the verb, for example, “Tom threw Frank the football.”
  • Subject Complement: Word or phrase that follows the verb and either describes the subject or is equal to the subject, for example, “Tom is a writer;” or “Tom is grumpy.”
  • Object Complement: Word or phrase that follows a direct object and says something about it: for example: “Tom considers football a thrilling sport.” (“Football” is the direct object of the verb “considers,” and “a thrilling sport” is the object complement.)
  • Adverbial: Word or phrase that modifies a verb, for example: “Tom ran fast;” or “Tom ran across the yard.” (Adverbials can also modify adjectives and adverbs.)
  • Adjectival: Word or phrases that modifies a noun or pronoun, for example: “The house on the corner burned down.

Note: Prepositional phrases normally act in either adverbial or adjectival roles, for example;

Tom and Frank went to the game. “To the game” is an adverbial prepositional phrases telling where Tom and Frank went. Now, look at this sentence: “The house on the corner is big.” In this sentence, “on the corner” is an adjectival prepositional phrase telling “which” house.

The Ten Basic Sentence Patterns of the English Language

Of the ten basic sentence patterns in the English language, one is the “be” pattern, of which there are three combinations:

  • Noun + be + adverbial (Sue is downstairs.)
  • Noun + be + noun (Tom and Frank are friends.)
  • Noun + be + adjective (Sue is lonely.)

Note: The “be” verb in the English language has eight forms: am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being, and which form is used depends upon whether the subject is singular or plural, for example:

  • Tom is a footfall fan.
  • Frank and Tom are football fans.
  • Tom was being silly.
  • Tom and Frank were being silly.
  • Tom has been foolish.
  • Tom and Frank have been foolish.
  • Tom is being silly.
  • Tom and Frank are being silly.
  • Tom will be at the party.
  • Tom and Frank will be at the party.

Note: The verbs “be,” “been,” and “being” require helping verbs; and one should never say something like “Tom been drinking; “Tom be foolish;” or “Tom be at the party.”

Linking Verb Sentence Patterns

As is the case with the “be” verb, a linking verb is a verb that connects the subject to a complement that describes or identifies the subject; and the linking verb patterns include the following:

  • Noun + linking verb + noun (Sue became a wife.)
  • Noun + linking verb + adjectival (Sue seems aggravated.)

Intransitive Verb Sentence Pattern

A noun or an adjectival does not follow an intransitive verb, although additional information is frequently added to the sentence in the form of prepositional phrases and other modifiers.

  • Subject + intransitive verb


  • Sue cried.
  • Tom’s old friend from Vermont arrived on Monday.

Transitive Verb Sentence Patterns

All transitive verbs have one thing in common, which is a direct object (noun that directly receives the action of the verb); however, transitive verbs can take one or more complements. The transitive verb patterns are these:

  • Subject + transitive verb + direct object (Sue baked a cake.)
  • Subject + transitive verb + indirect object + direct object (Sue baked Tom a cake.)
  • Subject + transitive verb + direct object + subject complement (Tom considers himself smart.)
  • Subject + transitive verb + direct object + object complement (Sue considers Tom an idiot.)

In summation, learning the ten basic sentence patterns of English can help not only ESL students but also native speakers become more fluent when communicating in the language.


Kolln, M. Understanding English Grammar. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1990.

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