Last Revised 6/11/12
The Printable KISS Workbooks Return to Background Essays
First Steps
The Structure of Sentences
(Nexus & Modification)

1. Introduction

      Most grammar books make sentence structure appear to be much more complicated than it is. We need to remember that pre-school children master sentence structure all on their own. We can't teach it to them because, in order to do so, we would have to use sentences. Talking with, and reading to, pre-schoolers is extremely helpful because it gives them a rich language environment in which to work, but the children still have to figure the system out all on their own. Every child manages to do this, usually before the age of three. The system of sentence structure, therefore, cannot be that complicated. Perhaps the best way to begin to explain it is by looking at the primary concepts of nexus and modification.
     A "grammar" is simply a description of the language. Many people think that there is simply the grammar of English, such that, whatever grammar text they look at, they will be looking at the same thing. Although the language remains the same, the descriptions of it differ widely in the terminology and perspectives from which the various grammarians describe the language.[1] Even such a basic term as "clause" may mean one thing in one book, and something entirely different in another. These differences can result in major confusion for people who attempt to use several different sources to begin their study of the language.
    Even more important than the confusion in terminology, most grammar textbooks treat all grammatical constructions as equally important. They focus on the constructions as parts, and rarely even explore how the parts fit together in real sentences.

The Difference Between Structure and Form

      To see the difference, we need to explore the difference between "structure" and "form." If we look at a house, we can describe its form by noting the floors, the ceilings, the walls, the doors, the windows, the window sills, etc. If, on the other hand, we consider the house's structure, some things become significantly more important than others -- not all the walls, for example, structurally support the roof. They are all part of the form of the house, but they can be removed if they do not support the roof. Structure, in other words, involves the necessary interrelationships among the things that constitute an object's form -- what depends on what? The same is true of sentence structure.
      Unfortunately, most grammar books give the beginner a massive amount of "formal" (and often unnecessary) terminology, but rarely get around to the important structural concepts. A simple example of this is the formal instruction about adjectives and adverbs found in most grammar textbooks. There you will find things like "Adverbs often end in -ly." You will also find a fair amount of information on the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives and adverbs. Most books also include the following:

Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
These two sentences, however, assume that all the word-form information they have given enables students to identify adjectives and adverbs. It does not.

       The KISS Approach, on the other hand, enables students to identify all adjectives and adverbs simply by their structural functions:

A word or construction that modifies a noun or a pronoun functions as (and therefore is) an adjective.

A word or construction that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb functions as (and therefore is) an adverb.

The KISS Approach assumes that students understand (unconsciously) English sentence structure. And students do. In a sentence such as:

So first of all came the youngest Billy Goat Gruff to cross the bridge.

every student knows that the words "the" and "youngest" go with "Billy Goat Gruff," and not with "came." In other words, once students have learned how to identify nouns, pronouns, and verbs, the KISS explanation of adjectives and adverbs enables students to identify all adjectives and adverbs simply by looking at their functions -- how the words in a sentence relate to one another.

     The KISS Approach is not only simpler for teaching students to identify simple adjectives and adverbs. The majority of words and constructions in sentences function as modifiers, in other words, as adjectives or adverbs. These are described below, but here we can simply note that they include prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses. Thus, once we teach students to identify nouns, pronouns, and verbs -- the primary structural parts of sentences, the students can use the KISS explanations to easily tell whether any modifier function as an adjective or adverb. 

      The fact is that all sentences, even the most complicated, are built by using a very limited number of structural principles (constructions), almost all of which are described in this essay. The complexity of English sentences results from the fact that adults build sentences by embedding one construction into another. ("Embedding" is explained below.)

The Concept of "Chunking"

     KISS introduces "chunking," a very important concept, into the teaching of grammar. It may be nice to know that adjectives modify nouns or pronouns, but this information does not get students very far into an understanding of how sentences work. Indeed, most textbooks fail because they instruct students on small parts of sentences, but they never can get into the complicated sentences that students actually read or write because they do not focus on how all the parts of sentences are connected. "Chunking" explains how our brains learn to automatically connect all the parts of a sentence into main nexal patterns.
     Consider the sentence: 

Old Bill usually fishes in the river.

As a student reads this (or any) sentence, his mind expects to find the simple sentence structure he has known since toddler hood. His mind chunks the adjectival modifier “Old” with “Bill”, connecting them into a single conceptual unit. Recognizing “Old Bill” as a subject, the student’s mind begins to look for a verb. “Old Bill usually” doesn’t make sense, so the mind keeps reading. Aha! “Fishes” is a verb. The mind chunks the adverb “usually” with “fishes”, and then connects that chunk with the first part to create the basic subject/verb sentence structure it was seeking:

Old Bill / usually fishes…

The student has identified a meaningful structure, but he hasn’t yet reached the period. The sentence is offering more information. “In the river” easily chunks together, and because this phrase tells where the fishing happens, the student’s mind naturally links it as an adverb to the verb.

     Whereas the word "modifier" focuses on how a word or construction affects the meaning of the thing modified, "chunking" focuses on how our brains process the structural connections in the sentence -- how we put the words together to make meaning. The KISS "Psycholinguistic Model of How the Human Brain Processes Language," explains this in more detail with a more complex example.
     Here, however, we might note that an understanding of "chunking" helps students understand major aspects of style and errors. As an overly simplistic example, many subject/verb agreement errors reflect the writer's problem with chunking. In a sentence such as "One of the men are here," the writer has mistakenly chunked the object of the preposition "of" as the subject of the verb "are," and therefore used "are" instead of the correct "is."
     The model also shows that the primary purpose of punctuation is to assist the reader in chunking. Punctuation should not be taught as “right” or “wrong,” but as “effective” or “ineffective.” The most notorious punctuation errors, for example, are comma-splices, run-ons, and fragments. The reason they are so notorious is not that they infringe Emma's Rules of Etiquette, but because they confuse readers. As previously implied, when we read, we chunk words into phrases and phrases into sentences. Technically at the end of a main clause (but for our purposes here, at the end of a sentence), we stop chunking in short-term memory, dump the ideas into long-term memory, and clear short-term memory for the next sentence. A comma-splice joins two sentences with just a comma, but a comma is not a signal to dump to long term memory. A run-on joins two sentences together with no punctuation. The following sentence could be considered either a comma-splice or a run-on:

It sounded just like our front door does when you try to open it, it screeched. 

Does "when you try to open it" chunk to "does" or to "screeched"? It has to be one or the other. If you think it chunks to "does," then the sentence contains a comma-splice. It should be written as:

It sounded just like our front door does when you try to open it. It screeched. 

The period after "it" cuts "when you try to open it" off from "it screeched," thereby leading the reader to chunk it to "does." But the sentence might instead be a run-on:

It sounded just like our front door does. When you try to open it, it screeched. 

The point here is that punctuation signals what chunks to what. Comma-splices and run-ons leave the chunking ambiguous, leaving the connections for the reader to make--but that is not a reader's job.
     "Fragment" literally means a broken piece of a sentence that does not chunk to a main nexal pattern:

It sounded just like our front door does. When you try to open it. It screeched. 

Except for two constructions discussed below, every word in every sentence has to chunk, either within a nexal subject/verb pattern or as modification to a such a pattern.

A Final Introductory Comment

      There is one additional thing that I must ask beginners to do, and that is to change their conception of what it means to study sentence structure. Reading books and articles about grammar (including this one) won't do it. The only effective way to gain an understanding of English sentence structure is to study the structure of individual sentences, one after another, preferably in context. The easiest way to do this is to focus on one construction at a time (starting with the structurally most important), studying it until recognition becomes almost automatic, and then adding another construction. This is, of course, the KISS Approach, and materials for using it are provided on this site. (See the Printable Books page.)
     The difference of this approach -- its strangeness, so to speak -- is demonstrated to me every semester by my students. Having been given a brief definition, a list of words that function as prepositions, and a brief procedure, they are given a short text and asked to find the prepositional phrases in it. But instead of simply using the definition, the list, the procedure, and the text, numerous students report having searched other grammar books for more information about prepositional phrases. All that information does, however, is confuse them.

2. Nexus

     Nexus [2] denotes the strong bond between subjects, verbs, and complements -- the three fundamental parts of sentences. The basic English sentence names something (thus giving it a "subject") and then uses a verb to say something about what has been named:

Phil sings.
Mary exercises.
Children play.

This is that very simple structure which allows toddlers to master language on their own, without anyone explaining it to them. It is the skeletal structure that students unconsciously recognize when their minds chunk words together to create meaning as they speak, listen, read or write. And even very young children unconsciously understand that to complete their meaning, many verbs require what we call a "complement"[3]:

Phil sings ballads.
Mary exercises.
Children play games.

Some sentences cannot be made meaningful without a complement:

Sarah is pretty.
Bush is president.

This nexal S/V/C sentence pattern is the work-horse of the English language. We name something, use a verb to say something about it, and the verb may require (for our meaning) a complement.
    One way of looking at nexus is as strong magnetic forces -- a subject attracts and attaches to itself a verb, and some verbs require complements that they attach to themselves. The magnetic attractions within nexal patters are much stronger than the attractive forces between modifiers and the words that they modify. This explains why we can almost look at sentences as trains. The nexal patterns are the trains themselves -- the subject leads us to expect a verb, and some verbs lead us to expect a complement. This expectation pulls us through the sentence. If an expected element is missing, the train crashes. The modifiers, on the other hand, are the cargo. In our heads, we load ideas into these sentence trains, and send them out to our listeners or readers, who, in turn, unload them in their heads. 

The Types of Complements

     A complement answers the question “What?” (or “whom?”) after a verb. The question must be formed with “what” (or “whom”). Things that answer questions such as “Why?” “When?” “How?” etc. are not complements -- they are modifiers. In the KISS Approach, the complement has five possible variations.

1.) "Zero" Complements: the S / V variation

     In many S/V/C patterns, there is no complement:

Mary exercises daily.
The book was returned to the library.
Here the questions "exercises what?" or "was returned what?" simply do not make sense. If nothing answers the question verb + what?, then there is no complement. (Some linguists refer to this as a "zero" complement.)

2.) Predicate Adjectives: the S / V / PA variation

     In many cases, the word that answers the question "what?" after the verb is an adjective that describes the subject:

The flowers are pretty.
He looks old.
These are called "predicate" adjectives because they appear in what was traditionally called the "predicate" of the sentence, and, unlike most adjectives, they appear after the noun or pronoun that they modify.

3.) Predicate Nouns: the S / V / PN variation

     In other cases, the word that answers the question "what?" after the verb is a noun (or pronoun) and the pattern suggests that the complement is, in some way, equal to the subject:

George Bush is president.
Sleeping children resemble angels.

Note that the pattern (essentially the verb) must imply some type of equality or identify between the subject and the complement. In "He washes himself," "himself" is not a predicate noun because "washes" does not imply identity.

4. & 5.) Indirect and Direct Objects: the S / V / (IO) DO variations

     If something answers the question "verb & what?" and it is not a predicate adjective or a predicate noun, then it must be an indirect or direct object. (There are no other possibilities, and no exceptions.) 

Sam gave Bill [IO] a dollar [DO].
The evening sun gave the church windows [IO] a warm glow [DO].

An indirect object answers the question "to or for whom or what?" Thus Sam gave a dollar to Bill, and the sun gave a warm glow to the windows.

    If you continue to study KISS Grammar, you will see that these patterns permeate everything. They will be referred to so often that talking about five of them becomes cumbersome, especially when there is a way to simplify. Every sentence has a subject, and every sentence has a verb. But after that, a sentence can be complete, or it can require a indirect and/or direct object, or a predicate noun, or a predicate adjective. Instead of listing all these options every time we want to talk about them, it is much easier to group them all together and give them a name. We call them "complements." Thus the five patterns can be seen as five possible variations of the one fundamental S/V/C pattern of English sentence structure. This nexal pattern is the fundamental engine of English sentence structure.

3. Modification

      We all know that most sentences are not made simply of a noun subject, a verb, and then a noun or adjective complement. Although these nexal patterns can be expanded by compounding, the primary growth of sentences results from modification. Here again, everyone naturally (without instruction) learns how to write longer, more complicated sentences. This natural development, however, develops in a more or less set sequence. The first part of this section explores the simple constructions that normally develop first. The last part examines the three principles that probably underlie natural syntactic growth.

Adjectives and Adverbs

     The words that fill the S/V/C slots are usually modified by adjectives and adverbs:

The little mouse helpfully saved the big lion.
The KISS approach to adjectives and adverbs was discussed above, but here we need to emphasize that there are many other constructions that can function as modifiers, but when they do, they still function as either adjectives or adverbs.

Prepositional Phrases

      Questions from users of the KISS site indicate that some people are confused by the term "phrase." A "phrase" is a group of words that chunk together. Thus a noun and its modifiers constitute a noun phrase, and a verb and its modifiers make a verb phrase.
      Prepositional phrases are phrases that begin with words such as "in," "over," "under," "about," etc. There are approximately ninety words that can function as prepositions, so students require some practice in order to be able to identify these phrases. But the process is not that difficult because the students already have an excellent unconscious command of such phrases. Pre-schoolers use them all the time.
     Unfortunately, most textbooks underestimate the importance of these phrases -- often they are discussed somewhere in the last half of the book. But the writing of many third, fourth, and even some fifth graders is composed almost entirely of simple S/V/C nexal patterns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Most textbooks also underemphasize the functions of these phrases -- the way in which they chunk to the main nexal pattern. In other words, once again the textbooks focus on individual constructions without emphasizing how the constructions work together to form sentences.
     The KISS Approach teaches students how to identify these phrases (and their functions) as soon as students can identify S/V/C patterns, nouns, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs. As a result, if KISS instruction starts in third, fourth, or fifth grade, students can understand and intelligently discuss the entire structure of many of their own sentences.
     Most prepositional phrases function as adjectival or adverbial modifiers, but sometimes a phrase can be seen as both. For example, in "She saw the man in the house." is "in the house" an adverb to "saw," or an adjective to "man"? Because different people justifiably see this differently, KISS Grammar accepts either answer as correct. (Note, however, that the context of the sentence often makes one explanation better than the other.)
     Occasionally, prepositional phrases are complements in an S/V/C nexal pattern. Imagine, for example, the sentence "He's in a blue suit." Some grammarians would consider "in a blue suit" as an adverb that describes "how" he "is" -- his "state of being." But if the sentence is meant to identify which "He" is meant, it would be more meaningful to say that "in a blue suit" functions as a predicate adjective that identifies the subject in a S/V/PA pattern. Grammarians also give different explanations of "to Tim" in a sentence such as "Scrooge gave a Christmas turkey to Tim." One explanation is that the "to Tim" phrase functions as an adverb to "gave," but an equally valid explanation is to consider the phrase as functioning as an indirect object -- the equivalent of "Scrooge gave Tim a Christmas turkey."
     There are some complications with prepositional phrases that students will not be able to explain at this stage in their work, but in KISS students are expected to make mistakes in such cases. This expectation does not cause a problem because around 95% of the prepositional phrases in most texts can easily be explained in one of the ways described above. KISS focuses students' attention on how much they can explain. Exceptions to norms are mastered only after the norm is. Every child at some point says "Mommy readed me a book." After they have mastered the past tense "-ed" form, they automatically master the exceptions -- no one ever teaches students all the irregular verb forms.

Compounding, Reduction, and Embedding

     Three additional concepts not only simplify instruction in grammar -- they can also help us understand many aspects of style and of the way in which the more complicated forms of modification naturally develop.


     A "compound" is simply something that is composed of several parts or things. The grammar textbooks in most of our schools complicate grammar by suggesting that some things can be compounded and others cannot be. [4] But, as you already know, any construction in English, whether it be nexal or modificational, can be compounded:

Mary and Bill  exercise daily.
Cats sleep and chase mice.
Phil sings English and French ballads.
Many children play football, soccer or baseball.

Two S / V / C sentence patterns can also, of course, be compounded:

Phil sings English ballads, and he also sings French ballads.
Many children play soccer, or they play baseball.
Mary exercises daily, but Bill does not.

Compounds are almost always joined by one of the three coordinating conjunctions "and," "or," or "but." "Ordinate," in "coordinating," comes from the Latin "ordo," which means "order." The prefix "co-" means  "with" or "jointly." And "junction" means "to join." Thus "coordinating" conjunctions join things of equal order and equal value -- subject and subject, verb and verb, etc.

Reduction (Ellipsis)

      Ellipsis is simply the omission of understood words. Some readers probably noticed the ellipsis in "Mary exercises daily, but Bill does not." The second part of the compound is missing something. By itself, "Bill does not" would be meaningless, but within the context its meaning is perfectly clear -- we all understand that it means "Bill does not exercise daily." Similarly, in "Close the door," the subject "you" is ellipsed. Ellipsis is an important concept that is underplayed in most grammar textbooks. If you are confused about the structure of a sentence, think about what the sentence means -- you will probably find that part of the sentence has been ellipsed.
     Modern linguists have expanded the concept of ellipsis into a concept they call "reduction," but to understand "reduction," we must first look at "embedding."


     "Embedding" simply refers to putting one word or construction into (the bed of) another. In other words, we "plant" one idea into the space of another, thereby connecting the two. Embedding is the driving principle of almost all further expansion of basic sentences, but it also sheds additional light on simple modification and compounding. Consider the following two sentences:

The house was on the corner.
The brown house was on the corner.

In this example, the adjective "brown" has simply been embedded into the first sentence as an additional modifier of "house."
     How we learn to do this was suggested by Noam Chomsky, the "father" of transformational grammar. Chomsky was primarily interested in how our brains "generate" sentences. He argued that our brains begin with the smallest possible sentences, which he called "kernel sentences." In Chomsky's view, our example derives from two kernel sentences:

The house was on the corner. The house was brown.

To arrive at our embedded sentence, Chomsky would say that we reduce (delete) the repetitive part of the second sentence:

The house was on the corner. The house was brown.

Note the similarity between reduction and ellipsis. As in ellipsis, understood ideas are left out, but in the case of reduction we do not sense the omission because the remaining meaningful part of the sentence is embedded into the preceding sentence to arrive at "The brown house was on the corner."

       The example may seem extremely simplistic, but if you examine the writing of many third and fourth graders, you will find many short sentences such as "The house was on the corner. The house was brown." As the students mature, these sentences disappear, and Chomsky's idea is a neat explanation of how and why they do so.
     But the concept of embedding goes far beyond that. Indeed, perhaps the most important aspect of mature writing can be understood in terms of increasing mastery of compounding, reduction, and embedding.

4. Clauses -- Nexal Patterns Become Modifiers

Clauses and Embedding

     School textbooks and grammarians make a confusing mess of the question of clauses. Textbook definitions are often incomplete, and grammarians cannot agree on what is and what is not a clause. In the KISS Approach, the definition of "clause" is very important and very precise: a clause is a (nexal) S/V/C pattern and all the words that modify it. There are two primary types of clauses -- main and subordinate.

Main Clauses

     Perhaps the best way to teach the concept of "clause" (as opposed to "sentence") is to start with compounded main clauses (the focus of KISS Level 3.1.1) We have already seen that sentences can have more than one clause:

Mary exercises daily, but Bill does not.
In this example, the coordinating conjunction "but" indicates that the two clauses are of the same grammatical order, and thus they are two (compounded) main clauses. Students who are already comfortable identifying basic S/V/C patterns and their modifiers can easily understand and learn to identify main clauses.

Subordinate Clauses

     In many cases, one clause can be embedded in another clause:

1) She did the dishes, and he went swimming.
2) She did the dishes while he went swimming.

Whereas the two clauses in (1) are joined by the coordinating conjunction "and," the same two clauses in (2) are joined by the subordinating conjunction "while." "Sub" means "under." Thus "subordinating" conjunctions create clauses that are "under," and (usually) less important than the main clause to which they are attached. 
     Note that in (2) the second clause has become an adverbial modifier of the verb in the first -- it answers the question "Did when?" This means that although both (1) and (2) consist of two clauses, the clause structure of the two sentences is significantly different. Example (1) consists of two main clauses:

She did the dishes
he went swimming.
Example two, on the other hand, consists of a subordinate clause "while he went swimming" in a main clause that includes the subordinate clause: "She did the dishes while he went swimming." Remember that the KISS definition of a clause is "an S / V / C pattern and all the words that modify (chunk to) it." Because the "while" clause modifies "did," it is part of the "She did the dishes" pattern, just like any other modifier would be. [5]

     Subordinate clauses function either as modifiers, or as part of the S/V/C nexal pattern. Subordinate clauses, for example, can function as subjects or complements:

Subject: [That he was hurt] is bad news.
Predicate Noun: The news is [what I feared].
Direct Object: Ron said [that the job was done].
We have already  seen a subordinate clause functioning as an adverb, and, of course, they can also function as adjectives: "The book [he was reading]was interesting." Note that a subordinate clause does not have to start with a subordinate conjunction. What makes a clause subordinate is that it functions within another clause as a noun, adjective, or adverb.

     Finally, we need to note that subordinate clauses can be embedded within subordinate clauses: "The book [he was reading [when I last saw him]] was interesting." Here, "when I last saw him" is adverbial to "was reading" and thus part of the subordinate clause "he was reading when I last saw him," which, in turn, functions as an adjective to "book" in the main clause (the entire sentence).
     As noted above, much of the complexity of English sentence structure results from our embedding one clause within another, and many of the "errors" that people worry about in their writing involve keeping clause boundaries (and the relationships among clauses) clear. The only really effective way to eliminate these problems is to understand, and be able to analyze, clause structure.
      Most grammar textbook don't teach students to do this because they focus on forms and individual constructions. For example, they give lists of subordinate conjunctions that "usually" introduce adverbial clauses. In such lists, students are likely to find "when" and "where," but both of these conjunctions can also introduce adjectival clauses. In "He thought of the time [when he went to New York]," the "when" clause modifies "time" and is therefore adjectival. Similarly, in "Sam thought of the lake [where he first went fishing]," the "where" clause functions as an adjective to "lake." 
     Because the writers of most textbooks do not think about how sentences are actually structured, they tend to ignore nexus and modification. As a result, their textbooks rarely explore subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses. Because KISS does focuses on the nexal and modificational functions of clauses, it helps students understand how complicated sentences work.

5. Clarifying Verbals

      Many grammar books (and grammarians) also confuse beginners because they do not make a distinction between finite verbs and verbals. Students look at a sentence such as "Swimming is good exercise." and they correctly identify "swimming" as a verb. Then the teacher tells them that "swimming" is not the verb in that sentence. (It is a verb. It is not a verb. What's going on? Is it any wonder that students find grammar confusing?) What we need is a distinction between those verbs that fill the "V" slot in an S/V/C pattern (finite verbs), and those that fulfill some other function (verbals). 
     Verbals are simply verbs that function as nouns, or adjectives, or adverbs (modifiers) within an S/V/C pattern. In KISS Level 2, students learn to distinguish finite verbs from verbals. They do not, however, study the various types of verbals. More about verbals could be taught before clauses (KISS Level 3), but clauses are far more important for questions of style, errors, and logic. As a result, the detailed study of verbals is left to KISS Level 4.
     There are three, and only three, types of verbals--gerunds, gerundives, and infinitives. Gerunds and gerundives are easily recognized by their participial form (usually ending in "-ing"). Any remaining verbals must then be infinitives. Because verbals have subjects and complements comparable to those of finite verbs, verbals can often be viewed as reductions of finite verbs. 


     Gerunds are verbs that function as nouns. As such, they usually occupy a nexal slot in an S/V/C pattern, but they can be parts of modifying phrases when, for example, they function as the object of a preposition. With a little practice, they are easily recognized:

Swimming is good exercise.
He likes swimming.
They are writing (about swimming).
Many grammar texts discuss gerunds, but they usually fail to explain adequately that like finite verbs, all verbals can have complements and be modified by adverbs. Thus, in the sentence

Complaining that you have been misunderstood is usually useless.

"Complaining" is a gerund that functions as the subject of the finite verb "is," and "that you have been misunderstood" is a subordinate clause that functions as the direct object of "complaining."
     The difference between nexus and modification explains a subtle distinction in two related gerund patterns. An editor once asked me for an explanation to convince a client (an architect) that he should be using the phrase "designing buildings." The architect insisted on using the phrase "the designing of buildings." The architect has a better ear for English than does the editor. The architect wanted to focus on "designing." His preference does so in two ways. First, it reinforces the noun function of the gerund "designing" by preceding it with "the." Second, it reduces "buildings" to a modifier in a prepositional phrase, thereby eliminating the stronger nexal connection in "designing buildings." That nexal pattern does put "designing" first, but as the direct object, "buildings" receives more emphasis than it does in a prepositional phrase.


     Gerundives are verbals that function as adjectives. [6] In "Sarah found Tom sitting under a tree," "sitting" is a gerundive that modifies "Tom." Gerundives are often the culprit behind "misplaced" (also known as "dangling") modifiers. A student wrote:

Thrown from the car, he saw her lying on the ground.
What the student meant is that she was thrown from the car; but what the sentence means is that he was thrown from the car. Our brains tend to chunk modifiers to the nearest word that makes sense. (Here again the KISS psycholinguistic model helps students actually understand the problem.)


     As stated above, any verb that is not finite, not a gerund, and not a gerundive has to be an infinitive. Some infinitives are easily recognized by an initial "to." But many infinitive phrases do not have that initial "to." Infinitives can function in any way that nouns, adjectives, or adverbs can. For examples,

Noun (Subject and Predicate Noun): To know her is to love her.
Noun (Direct Object): He wanted to go home.
Noun  (Object of a Preposition): Carl did everything but win.
Adjective: It is time to go.
Adverb: He went to buy groceries.
     An important simplifying difference between KISS and traditional grammar involves the infinitive. Based on both nexus and the relatively new transformational grammar theories, KISS uses the infinitive to eliminate the traditional "objective" and "subjective" complements. [7] Thus, in a sentence such as
She wanted Bill to buy bread.
KISS considers "Bill" as the subject, and "bread" as the direct object of the infinitive "to buy." The entire nexal infinitive phrase functions as the direct object of the finite verb "wanted." Many traditional grammars use this same explanation, but KISS extends it to include sentences such as
They made their house a home.
Most traditional grammars would consider "house" to be the direct object of "made," and "home" an objective (?) complement. KISS eliminates these extra complements by viewing "their house a home" as a reduced nexal pattern with  an ellipsed, structural "to be," thereby  making the construction analogous to "Bill to buy bread" -- "house" is the subject" and "home" is the predicate noun of the ellipsed infinitive "to be," and the entire infinitive phrase is the direct object of "made." Note that the KISS explanation fits the meaning better. They did not, after all, make their house. They made their house to be a home.

6. Eight Additional Constructions

     In order to discuss how every word in any sentence fits into the sentence structure, KISS includes eight additional constructions. Some of these are very simple; others really require an understanding of other constructions before they can be understood. (Think of Vygotsky's "zones of proximal development.") In the KISS framework, these are all considered "Level 5 constructions" because they do not need to be learned before students can understand clauses or verbals. In the new curriculum design, the first three of these have been put into Level 2.3. The others all still have a level five designation.

6.1. Interjections

     "Interjection" is derived from the Latin for "thrown into." In other words, interjections are "thrown into" a sentence -- they do not chunk in the same way that other words and constructions do. They are neither parts of S/V/C nexal patterns, nor are they typical modifiers. Many traditional grammar books appear to limit "interjections" to single words such as "Gee," "Golly!" "Uh," etc. Other books include some prepositional phrases such as "of course." Many modern linguists consider these interjections as "sentence modifiers," which is a good way of looking at them. KISS goes beyond this to include other constructions, such as parenthetical expressions, as interjections -- "It was (he said) a good idea."

6.2. Direct Address

      "Direct Address" denotes the naming of the person or persons addressed -- "Bill, please close the door." Although it is usually considered a separate construction, note that it is really a sentence modifier and thus could be considered a specific type of interjection.

6.3. Nouns Used as Adverbs

     In a sentence such as "The plane crashed three miles from here," "miles" is a noun that functions as an adverb indicating "how far." Nouns are fairly commonly used as adverbs.

A Note on Gerunds That Function as Nouns Used as Adverbs

     A frequent question in internet discussion groups about grammar is how to explain words such as "fishing" in "They went fishing." The question usually evokes a variety of responses, some of them very complex. Within KISS, the answer is simple. "Fishing" is a gerund, and since gerunds can function in any way that nouns can, "fishing" is a gerund that functions as a Noun Used as an Adverb.

6.4 Appositives (KISS Level 5.4)

     Traditionally, "appositive" denotes a noun that "chunks" to another word in a sentence entirely based on meaning. (In other words, there is no preposition or conjunction to make the connection.) An example would be -- "They live in Ithaca, a city in New York." One way of looking at these appositives is to consider them a reduction of an S/V/PN pattern in a subordinate clause -- "They live in Ithaca, which is a city in New York." In essence, a nexal pattern ("which is a city in New York") is reduced to an appositive that can be viewed as a modifier of the word to which it stands in apposition. The advanced reduction may partially explain why appositives generally appear in students' writing well after the development of subordinate clauses. If you study KISS Level 5.4, you will probably agree that many other constructions (finite verbs, clauses, verbals) can also function as appositives.

6.5 Post-Positioned Adjectives (KISS Level 5.5)

     A few adjectives usually follow the noun they modify, as in "They all went to the park." KISS treats these a regular adjectives, reserving the "post-positioned" designation for the less frequent, and stylistically more advanced adjectives that can usually be viewed as a reduction of an S/V/PA pattern in a subordinate clause. "The trees, tall and dark, made the trail difficult to follow" can be seen as a reduction of  "The trees, which were tall and dark, made the trail difficult to follow." (Note the structural similarity between appositives and post-positioned adjectives.) Students do not really need the concept of "Post-Positioned Adjectives" to understand that these words function as adjectival modifiers, but KISS includes the concept because it can be studied as a later stylistic development.

6.6 Delayed Subjects and Sentences (KISS Level 5.6)

      In a fairly common variation of the nexal S/V/C pattern, the meaningful subject is delayed and its place is taken usually by "It" -- "It was impossible to see him in the darkness" means "To see him in the darkness was impossible." The most common delayed subjects consist of infinitives or clauses.
     Delayed Subjects are another good example of how the KISS Approach differs from most others. When they do deal with this construction, most textbooks refer to them as "cleft sentences," and they give examples comparable to the one above. But delayed subjects can appear within sentences, as in "The boy thought it useful to look for hazel rods." KISS explains "it useful" as an ellipsed infinitive -- "it *to be* useful." The infinitive phrase "to look for hazel rods" is then easily seen as a delayed subject of the infinitive -- "The boy thought to look for hazel nuts *to be* useful." In other words, where most grammars simply name and describe various constructions, KISS has developed these constructions as concepts that can be used to explain how almost any word functions as part of a nexal pattern or as a modifier.

6.7 Passive Voice and Retained Complements (KISS Level 5.7)

     Passive voice is another variation of the basic nexal pattern. In passives, the subject is passive, but that passivity is expressed in the form of the verb -- "Bill was given a dollar." Complements after passives (in this example "dollar") are considered to be "retained" from the active voice version of the sentence -- "Someone gave Bill a dollar." Much nonsense has been written (and taught) about the passive voice, primarily because students have not been taught how to identify subjects and verbs in the first place. KISS first teaches students how to identify passives -- and only then begins to explore their stylistic functions.

6.8 Noun Absolutes (KISS Level 5.8)

     Stylistically, noun absolutes are the most advanced type of reduction of the nexal pattern of a clause. In them, a gerundive (a verbal) replaces the finite verb in what would be a subordinate clause: 

Main clauses: The snow stopped. They decided to leave their cabin and head to town.
Subordinate clause: When the snow stopped, they decided to leave their cabin and head to town.
Noun Absolute: The snow having stopped, they decided to leave their cabin and head to town.

As with infinitives, the verb "to be" is often ellipsed as in the following example from Theodore Dreiser's wonderful "The Lost Phoebe":

Main clauses: He fell asleep after a time. His head was on his knees.
Subordinate clause: He fell asleep after a time, while his head was on his knees.
Noun Absolute: He fell asleep after a time, his head on his knees.

Because current grammar instruction begins with the eight parts of speech, grammar textbooks rarely cover noun absolutes in any detail. 
     Almost all grammarians define noun absolutes only as adverbial modifiers, but noun absolutes can also function as nouns. Here again, the grammarians' problem is that they focus on individual constructions and not the underlying nexal and modification patterns. [#8] Like clauses and verbals, noun absolutes can function as objects of prepositions or as subjects or complements in nexal patterns. Consider, for example, the following sentence from Eric Knight's Lassie, Come Home:

His problem was his mother staring at him.

Most grammar textbooks would analyze this sentence by saying that the subject, verb, and complement are "problem was . . . mother." They would then explain "staring" as a modifier of "mother." But modifiers are less important than the words in nexal patterns, including reduced nexal patterns. Thus this analysis suggests that the main idea is that his problem was his mother. But that is not what the sentence means. The "staring" is just as much a part of the problem as is his mother.
     The KISS analysis explains "mother staring" as the core of a noun absolute, in other words, as a reduced nexal pattern. That absolute functions as a predicate noun. As a result, the basic pattern of the sentence is "problem was . . . mother staring." Whereas most grammars treat all grammatical constructions as equally important, the KISS focus on nexus and modification highlights the structural relationships in sentences such that the explanations expose the meaning of the sentences. If you study KISS Level 5.8, you will probably agree that noun absolutes can also function as nouns.

      To understand noun absolutes, students really need to be able to identify gerundives, so the noun absolute should probably be the last construction that students study.

7. Conclusion -- Nexus, Modification, and the Teaching of Grammar

     Leonard Bernstein's six brilliant Harvard Lectures on The Unanswered Question explore the history and theory of classical music in an interdisciplinary perspective, including philosophy and modern linguistics. In the second lecture, "Musical Syntax," he analyzes musical notes and phrases in a way that is similar to the grammarians' analysis of words and phrases. He observes that it is a form of parsing, similar to grammatical parsing, but he actually makes fun of traditional grammatical parsing. (What good does it do, what understanding does it give us, to know that in this sentence "sentence" is a singular noun in the nominative case?) In its place, he uses the concepts of compounding, reduction, and embedding, concepts that have been fundamental to this essay, to parse and explain the structures of music. The lecture ends with a very informative analysis of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, punctuated by Bernstein's comments on the reductions, etc. [#9] His point is that understanding the structural principles of the whole is more meaningful than being able to name the individual parts.
     The two most important structural concepts of grammar are nexus and modification. They should probably be taught as soon as students are old enough to comprehend them. Consider the KISS approach to teaching adjectives and adverbs (discussed above). The traditional approach is to teach descriptions of the forms of the words, the different kinds of adjectives and adverbs, etc. As I noted in the "Introduction," the KISS Approach, on the other hand, not only emphasizes the function of these words as modifiers, it has the students identify adjectives and adverbs by first determining how the words function:

A word or construction that modifies a noun or a pronoun functions as (and therefore is) an adjective.

A word or construction that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb functions as (and therefore is) an adverb.

In the "Introduction," I suggested this approach makes it easier for students to then learn how to identify the adjectival and adverbial functions of prepositional phrases and clauses. The discussion of prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses then suggested that students can identify the adjectival and adverbial functions of these phrases and clauses in exactly the same way that they identified the functions of single-word adjectives and adverbs. Then the often inaccurate information such as that adverbial clauses often begin with "where" or "when" can be dropped. (Keep It Simple.) We can now look at the rest of the constructions.
     The very definition of verbals emphasizes their functions-- "Verbals are simply verbs that function as nouns, or adjectives or adverbs (modifiers) within an S/V/C pattern." Here again, students can easily learn to identify the functions by using what they have previously learned about nexus and modification. The eight additional constructions introduce two (Interjections and Direct Address) that are "thrown into" an S/V/C pattern, but Nouns Used as Adverbs are again easily understood by their function as modifiers. Appositives and Post-Positioned Adjectives can be understood as modifiers that result from the reduction of an S/V/C pattern, and Delayed Subjects and Passive Voice are variations on the basic S/V/C pattern. That leaves Noun Absolutes, which again function either as adverbs, or as objects of prepositions (as parts of a type of modifier) or as filling the subject or complement slots in an S/V/C pattern.
     If the preceding paragraph seems to say a lot of the same thing, that is the point. Once students understand nexus and modification, they can understand how almost everything "fits." The KISS Approach is not only more meaningful, it can also be a lot easier to understand. Note also that the KISS sequence follows the natural mental development of syntactic structures, starting with the simplest sentence pattern and adding on to it. And most of the words in any text function in those simple ways--as subjects, finite verbs, complements, adjectives, adverbs, etc. Thus even at KISS Level One, students can see that they can already identify and meaningfully discuss most of the words in any sentence that they read or write. (Reading instructors, by the way, have told me that one of many students' problems is that they read individual words--in other words, they do not see the nexal and modificational connections.)
     Even more importantly, perhaps, an emphasis on nexus and modification can help students understand not only working systematically, but also the nature of a "system." One can work systematically without understanding a system. For example, students identifying S/V/C patterns should be taught to work systematically, one S/V/C pattern at a time (rather than finding a verb here, and a subject there, as some students try to do). But working systematically will not necessarily result in understanding a "system." Whether one is talking about electrical systems, economic systems, or political systems, understanding a "system" means to understand how all the relevant parts interrelate. Too much of our teaching in all disciplines focuses on individual facts. Students (and even many adults) don't realize the problem with this because they are rarely asked to think about the nature of a "system." If students work systematically through all of KISS, the concepts of nexus and modification will enable them to understand the total system of sentence structure. Once they do that, all of those silly definitions, rules of punctuation, and prohibitions about beginning a sentence with "But" will appear to be what they are--mostly nonsense.
       I want to thank Denise Gaskins, from the Yahoo KISSGramamrGroup for her very helpful suggestions for improving the organization and explanations in this essay. I have literally adopted some of her suggested sentences. (She is not, of course, responsible for the mistakes and value judgments.) Mrs. Gaskins' website is at Her books are described at

1. For more on this see Chapter One of Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Art. [Back]
2. The fundamental importance of "nexus" and "modification" was first suggested by Otto Jespersen in  his 1924, widely-respected The Philosophy of Grammar. Jespersen used the term "junction" to refer to what most traditionalists call "modification," so I have used the traditional term in place of "junction." (Note, however, that "junction" itself implies the concept of "chunking" that was described above.) [Back]
3. Philosophically, to say something about something else is "to predicate," and thus traditional grammars refer to the second part of the sentence as the predicate. The term "predicate," however, obscures the importance of complements. [Back]
4. I should note here that KISS Grammar also has a section and various other exercises devoted to compounding, but if you use them, you will probably agree that the KISS exercises focus on the stylistic implications of compounding. [Back]
5. Most traditional textbooks really mess this up in that they consider some subordinate clauses to be parts of main clauses and others not. And it is often not clear which is which. [Back]
6. Some grammarians like to emphasize the adverbial function of gerundives. Although it is true that most gerundives can be seen as also having an adverbial function, the problems that some writers have in using gerundives (misplaced or dangling modifiers) always result from their missing the adjectival function of the gerundive. Thus the KISS Approach basically ignores the adverbial function. [Back]
7. Don't ask me for a definition of "objective" and "subjective" complements. You are welcome to search other grammar resources, but please check more than two. You will get anywhere from two to two dozen different answers. Because KISS eliminates the need for them, I have stopped thinking about what "objective" and "subjective" complements are. [Back]
8. Even though George O. Curme is acknowledged as one of the two greatest early twentieth century grammarians, graduate students in English or Linguistics apparently do not study his work. Curme discusses noun absolutes as nouns in Volume II of his A Grammar of the English Language (Essex, Conn.: Verbatin, [1931], 1986, pp. 155-158). [Back]
9. These lectures, which are well worth watching more than once, are available on DVD. [Back]