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Subjects don't always act as agents in English

By Alexander Chagema | November 25th 2019 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Among other things, English language learners are taught in the formative stages of learning that it is improper to begin a sentence with a conjunction.

A conjunction is defined as 'a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause'. Such words include; and, but, nor, so, for and yet.

Over time though, one appreciates that with a good command of the language, it is possible to begin a sentence with a conjunction.

In English grammar, a subject; an essential part of a sentence, is simply defined as the 'person or thing that does the action' (an agent).

The standard rule is that a subject must be a noun and that it should come before a verb. Simply put, nouns are naming words while verbs are action words.

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An ideal sentence would be something like; “Joseph had to walk on despite the intolerable pain in his ankle that was a result of a swelling". In this sentence, the subject is 'Joseph', the verb is 'walk' and the action Joseph initiates is ‘walking’.

Nonetheless, the rule that the subject must initiate an action does not always apply, especially when a sentence is in the passive form.

For example, “A detective was attacked by traffic policemen in Kisumu". In this case, ‘detective', coming before the word 'attacked' (verb) is the subject, but it is clear that rather than be the agent of the action, the subject (detective) is the recipient of the action. In this example, the subject becomes the object. Ideally, objects are the receivers of an action.

In another sentence; "The blue phone cost him a tidy sum of money", there is no action, merely a statement of fact.

Complete thought

So, while we follow set rules of English grammar, in some cases, we do not always have to be pedantic. In such cases, we use our discretion, which is critical to analytical thinking.

In a previous column, we saw that a sentence is a group of words that, of necessity, must express a complete thought.

Yet sentences must follow a specific order to be intelligible, which is; subject +verb + object (SVO) in that order. Let us use a simple construction as an example: "He hates her".

‘He’ is the subject, ‘hate’ the verb and’ her’ the object. If you invert the order, you end up with something unintelligible; ‘her hates he’ or ‘he her hates’. Note, however, that not all known languages follow this order. Hindu, for instance, follows the Subject + object + verb order (SOV).

Regarding verbs, adverbs and adjectives, the rules can also be tricky, particularly because one must understand which modifies what to make grammatical sentences.

Consider the following sentence; "He learned a hard lesson after looking carefully at the outcome of his experiment". Of interest here are the words 'looking'' and 'carefully'. Looking, derived from the verb 'look' , is a gerund. Gerunds are verbs that function like nouns after letters 'ing' have been added to them.

Bad form

On the other hand, the word 'carefully' is an adverb. Adverbs, mostly verbs to which letters 'ly' have been added, are used in modifying either verbs, other adverbs or adjectives. Given this context therefore, we are supposed to use adverbs to modify, or describe gerunds.

Thus, while the sentence "He learned a hard lesson after looking carefully at the outcome of his experiment" can escape a casual glance, the good form is; “He learned a hard lesson after carefully looking at the outcome of his experiment".

This means that the subject took care to look at what happened after an experiment to understand where he went wrong". But by using the verb ‘look’, it is grammatical to say or write; 'look carefully'. To invert this order of words would be bad form.

Let us wind up by taking a look at some of the applications of the word ‘so’ that has been used in this narrative.

The word 'so' can take the place of an adverb because of its ability to modify both verbs, adverbs and adjectives. It can also be used as a conjunction, an adjective or an interjection, depending on the context.

As an adverb, 'so' denotes extent or degree of comparison. For example, "The manager was so worked up, he lectured his workers on the need for punctuality". "The tea is not so hot as to scald".

As a conjunction, we could say; "She missed the train, so she decided to take the bus to Mombasa". We can use the word 'so' to introduce a question. For example, "So, what happens now that the deal has fallen through?"

Mr Chagema is a correspondent for The Standard. [email protected]


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