Last Revised 6/11/12
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.
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.
The Difference Between Structure and Form
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.
Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.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.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"
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Nexus  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:
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":
Phil sings ballads.
Some sentences cannot be made meaningful without a complement:
Sarah is pretty.
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
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:
The book was returned to the library.
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:
He looks old.
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:
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.)
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.
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:
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
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.  But, as you already know, any construction in English, whether it be nexal or modificational, can be compounded:
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.
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.
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.
"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.
In this example, the adjective "brown"
has simply been embedded into the first sentence as an additional modifier
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.
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.
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.
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:
In many cases, one clause can be embedded in another clause:
1) She did the dishes, and
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
he went swimming.
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.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.
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).
5. Clarifying Verbals
Many grammar books (and
grammarians) also confuse beginners because they do not make a distinction
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).
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:
He likes swimming.
They are writing (about swimming).
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."
Gerundives are verbals that function as adjectives.  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:
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.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.  Thus, in a sentence such as
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.
"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.
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,
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,
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.
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:
As with infinitives, the verb "to be" is often ellipsed
as in the following example from Theodore Dreiser's wonderful "The
Because current grammar instruction begins with the eight
parts of speech, grammar textbooks rarely cover noun absolutes in any detail.
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.
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.
A word or construction that modifies a noun or a pronoun functions as (and therefore is) an adjective.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 http://letsplaymath.net/. Her books are described at http://letsplaymath.net/my-lets-play-math-books/.
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, , 1986, pp. 155-158). [Back]
9. These lectures, which are well worth watching more than once, are available on DVD. [Back]