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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, an archive list can be found at the bottom of this page.
My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Wednesday, September 4


We recently saw on 60 Minutes a segment about a young man, Salman Kahn, who’d begun teaching math on the Internet. Teaching with amazing results. His viewers/students expanded from his modest tutorial beginning to over a million adults and young students. And that started me thinking about doing a tutorial on English sentence structure. Would I find anyone interested is what I had to say? Probably not, but I think I’d like to try it and see what happens.

For most of my teaching career I’ve used a system I first learned when I was a student at the University of Northern Colorado. I took the system and for thirty years revised it to fit my needs. It was a little like reverse diagramming, a simple method of examining English sentences without resorting to all those maddening labels from traditional grammar. And unlike diagramming, which can get agonizingly complicated even for the simplest of sentences, this system can visually show how the most complex of sentences are put together.

Let me introduce the symbols. I’ll supply the traditional grammatical names for each, and then never again mention them (Well, almost never). English sentences are built around the V, the verb. The basic form of the V is called the infinitive, or what I’ll be calling a 2. The 2 is a kind of V signaled by “to”—to run, to jump, to go, to think, etc. The number 2 is appropriate because the 2 consists of two words and the signal word to is a homophone for two. There, isn’t that simple so far?

English sentences rely more on word order than on the inflectional endings you find in most other languages, especially Spanish, Italian, French, and German. The V is usually preceded by some noun which is usually the person or thing doing the action of the V, and is traditionally called the subject, what I’ll be calling an S. “Man works, birds fly, bees sting,” etc. You can usually find the S by asking “Who or what is doing the action of the V?” From the preceding examples, Who or what works? Man; Who or what flies? Birds; Who or what stings? Bees. I’ll be saying “usually” about nearly everything because there are exceptions to almost everything in English grammar. Some V’s act on other nouns and some don’t, what traditionalists refer to as transitive and intransitive verbs. Yikes! Who needs it? You don’t. A V is a V is a V. Most V’s can act on a noun, or object, which I’ll simply call an O. You can determine this noun by saying the S and V and then asking “who or what?” Charlie drives a car. Charlie drives who or what? A car. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this discussion has to start with the basics and then move on to the more complicated. The basic patterns for an English sentence, then, are S–V and S–V–O. “Birds fly” and “Charlie flies a plane.”

Some V’s don’t do much, just act as a bridge between the S and some word after the V. The most common bridge V (or linking V) is “to be.” “To be” in all its forms just sits in the middle of the pattern either showing us some noun that’s the same as the S or some adjective that describes the S: “Charlie is a banker. Charlie is rich.” These are both what I’d call an S–V–S pattern.
In summary, the three main patterns around which almost all English sentences are built are S-V, S-V-O, and S-V-S.

End of lesson one. Is there anyone listening? If so, and you have a question, you can reach me by email,, or by posting a comment on one of my posts.

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