Words on Writing: S

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One word or a group of words that stands alone as a grammatical unit. A sentence can be defined in various ways:

By its components: A sentence typically contains at least one subject and a related verb.

By its content: A sentence typically forms a complete thought.

By its typography: A sentence typically begins with a capital letter.

By its punctuation: A sentence typically ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point.

By its structure: A sentence typically has one of these structures: simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex.

By its purpose: A sentence typically has one of these purposes: to state (declarative sentence), to command (imperative sentence), to ask (interrogative sentence), to exclaim (exclamatory sentence).

No definition of sentence captures all of the flexibility and creative potential of this fundamental unit of grammar.

Compare clausephrasesentence fragment.

sentence fragment

A phrase or clause that is punctuated as if it were a sentence but that does not stand alone grammatically as an independent clause. Like this.

In informal writing, when used judiciously, sentence fragments can enhance the reading experience by creating emphasis, suspense, and variety. Keep fragments short so readers won’t mistake them for complete sentences and have to reread. Powerful.


metaphor that includes a comparative word, such as like or as.

simple sentence

A sentence that contains exactly one independent clause and no dependent clausesXavier’s snow blower sputtered and conked out.

Compare compound sentencecomplex sentencecompound-complex sentence.

singular they

The widely condoned[1] yet still controversial use of they (or any of the third-person-plural pronouns—their, them, themselves) with a singular noun (friend, neighbor, dentist). In An employee who is snowed in can’t help missing their meetings, the pronoun their is called a “singular they” because its antecedent, employee, is singular.

For more, see the chapter “To Each Their Own” in Word Up!

spliced sentence

See comma-spliced sentence.

squinting modifier

A word or phrase tucked confusingly between two elements, looking at both. In Dale said tonight he’d build a fire, the squinting modifier is tonight. Does tonight modify the verb to its left (said), as in “Dale made his statement tonight”? Or does it modify the verb to its right (build), as in “Dale will build the fire tonight”?

Possible fixes: Tonight, Dale said he’d build a fire or Dale said he’d build a fire tonight.

Compare dangling modifier and misplaced modifier.

stem sentence

A subheading traditionally used in a technical procedure to flag the break between any introductory paragraphs and the first step. Stem sentences typically start with an infinitive: To replace the snow-blower rotator gizmo.

For a discussion of stem sentences in procedures, see the chapter “How To Do How-To: Watch Your Steps” in Word Up!

structure-class words (structure words, function words)

Words in any of the structure classes: prepositions (with), pronouns (he), conjunctions (but), determiners (the), auxiliaries (might), qualifiers (very), relatives (whose), and interrogatives (where).

Structure-class words have something in common that sets them apart from form-class words (parts of speech): structure-class words generally have only one form; in natural usage, they do not change form. (The does not appear as thes, the’s, theicity, thely, theing, unthe.)

Unlike form-class words, structure-class words have no features of form—no defining characteristics based on form alone. In isolation (out of context), these words cannot be linguistically tested in ways that help classify them. No structure-class word—not even the words listed at the top of this definition as typical examples (withhebut, etc.)—can be called a preposition in form, a pronoun in form, a conjunction in form, an anything in form.

Instead, structure-class words, or function words, are characterized by function: they build relationships between the form-class words around them. Words from the structure classes contain not lexical meaning (as form-class words do) but grammatical meaning; they give sentences structure and coherence. Only the most rudimentary sentences (See Spot dig) could exist without them.

Punctuation decisions, like sentences themselves, often hinge on structure-class words.

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

subordinate clause

See dependent clause.

subordinating conjunction (subordinator)

A conjunction that subordinates a clause, transforming it into a dependent clause while joining it to an independent clause. Words that typically act as subordinating conjunctions include althoughas ifbecauseunlesswhenever, and while.

In Judith sprinkles rock salt on the porch because it makes the ice melt faster, the word because is a subordinating conjunction. No punctuation is needed between clauses when the dependent clause comes second. When the dependent clause leads, however, you follow it with a comma: Because rock salt makes ice melt faster, Judith sprinkles some on the porch.

(The words identified here as subordinating conjunctions may also play other roles, in which case they are classified differently.)

Compare conjunctive adverbcoordinating conjunctionrelative pronoun.

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!


The arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses to create well-formed sentences—the result of the writer’s answer to the question, should I put this first or that? (or maybe, should I put this or that first?).

A-Z page

This is not a list of all words about writing—you’d be scrolling all day. These definitions evolved while I was writing Word Up! I enjoyed what I learned and wanted to share it.

Get the full glossary and more in the book: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)

[1] Phonetics professor Mark Liberman sums it up this way: “‘Singular they’ is deprecated by a few authorities, but is supported by most informed grammarians, and has often been used by great writers over the centuries” in “The SAT Fails a Grammar Test,” Language Log blog, January 31, 2005.

Last modified: December 12, 2015

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