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Style Manual

Parts of sentences

A sentence is a group of words that makes sense on its own. Structure the parts of a sentence so meaning is easy to understand.

A full sentence is grammatically complete

Sentences can be statements, questions, exclamations or commands. A full sentence expresses a complete idea.

Sentences contain at least a subject and a verb.

A basic sentence can have more components, for example:

  • who did something (the subject)
  • what they did (the verb)
  • who or what they did it to (the object or complement).

The verb plus the object or complement form the ‘predicate’. Not all sentences contain an object or complement as part of the predicate.

A subject and verb can be enough to complete the subject–predicate structure of a sentence. 

Example

The manager moved. [The subject is ‘the manager’. The verb or predicate is ‘moved’.]

The manager moved their desk. [The subject is ‘the manager’. The verb is ‘moved’ and the object or complement is ‘their desk’. ‘Moved their desk’ is the predicate.]

The predicate can sometimes appear as a whole sentence because the subject is implied. This can depend on the ‘mood’ of the verb.

Example

Sign in. [The implied subject is ‘you’. The predicate is ‘sign in’.]

Confirm your password. [The implied subject is ‘you’. The predicate is the verb ‘confirm’, plus the object or complement ‘your password’.]

Subject

The subject is the person or thing that is doing the action in the sentence. The subject can be a pronoun, noun, noun phrase or noun clause.

Example

They met in the boardroom. [‘They’ is the subject.]

People use the website to find information. [‘People’ is the subject.]

The Digital Service Standard has 13 criteria. [‘The Digital Service Standard’ is the subject.]

The heavy rain that fell last week subdued the fire. [‘The heavy rain that fell last week’ is the subject.]

A noun phrase that is part of the subject is partially formed by determiners (such as ‘the’).

Verb

The verb carries information about the subject. It affects the object or complement (if there is one). It can convey an action, an event, a change or a state.

Example

They met in the boardroom. [‘met’ is the verb]

The meeting finished early. [‘finished’ is the verb]

They were all late. [‘were’ is the verb]

Objects and complements

An object is the thing, person or concept that complements the verb. Objects can be direct or indirect.

Example

Ravi sent clear instructions to the team.

[‘Clear instructions’ is the direct object of the verb ‘sent’. ‘The team’ is the indirect object of the verb. Both objects plus the verb form the predicate.]

Some verbs have no action. They have complements that describe a quality or characteristic of the subject.

Example

Mary is the new office manager.

[‘Mary’ is the subject. ‘The new office manager’ complements the verb ‘is’. The complement plus the verb forms the predicate.]

Sentences are simple, compound or complex

Simple sentences

A simple sentence contains only one main (or principal) clause. This means it has only one complete verb in it.

Example

The Senate voted on the Aged Care Bill. [‘The Senate’ is the subject. The verb is ‘voted’. ‘On the Aged Care Bill’ complements the verb to form the predicate.]

The subject can be implied by using a verb in the imperative mood.

Example

Enter your verification code. [The implied subject is ‘you’. The verb is ‘enter’. ‘Your verification code’ complements the verb to form the predicate.]

Compound sentences

A compound sentence contains 2 or more main clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’, ‘so’). Each clause has a complete verb and could stand on its own.

If they have different subjects, use a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

Example

The agency planned to start the project next year, but the group ran out of funding. [‘But’ is the coordinating conjunction that joins the 2 main clauses.]

If the 2 clauses share the same subject, don’t repeat the subject or insert a comma before the conjunction.

Example

The agency planned to start the project next year but ran out of funding. [‘The agency’ is the subject of the verb ‘planned’ and the implied subject of the verb ‘ran out’.]

You could also write this as 2 short sentences, but this approach can appear repetitive.

Example
The agency planned to start the project next year. The agency ran out of funding. [‘The agency’ is the subject of both sentences.]

Complex sentences

A complex sentence contains a main clause and at least one subordinate clause.

You can start the sentence with the main clause.

Example

She finished the report before she left work. [The focus of the sentence is that ‘she finished the report’, which is the main clause.]

You can also start the sentence with the subordinate clause to change the emphasis.

Example

Before she left work, she finished the report. [The focus of the sentence is that she finished ‘before she left work’, which is the subordinate clause.]

Passive voice changes standard sentence order

Simple subject–verb–object sentences are standard in English. This order is clearer and more accessible for people.

Build most sentences in this order with active voice when using active verbs (doing or action verbs).

In passive voice, the ‘agent’ of an active verb is not the grammatical subject in the sentence order. Using active verbs with passive voice disguises who is doing what.

Example

Wind forecasts are produced to show average speeds. [Passive voice: the grammatical subject is ‘wind forecasts’. It does not answer the question, ‘Who or what produces wind forecasts?’]

Wind forecasts are produced by computer models to show average speeds. [Passive voice with modified sentence structure:  ‘by computer models’ is an adverbial phrase. It answers the question, ‘Who or what produces wind forecasts?’]

Computer models produce wind forecasts to show average speeds. [Active voice: the subject of the verb matches the answer to the question, ‘Who or what produces wind forecasts?’]

Use passive voice only if there is a good reason – for example, if you can’t say who did the action or because information has to be concealed for ethical or legal reasons.

Example

A formal complaint was made about the use of discriminatory language.

Release notes

The digital edition has practical guidance on plain language.

  • It relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language and discusses plain language sentences.
  • It consolidates information from the sixth edition and highlights the basics about clauses. It takes a different approach to the sixth edition by breaking the grammar pages into specific subject areas like ‘phrases’ and ‘types of words’.

The sixth edition and Content Guide referred to ‘plain English’ only. This term is used in the digital edition to relate plain language to writing in the English language.

The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts.

About this page

Evidence

Content Design London (2020) ‘Simple sentences’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 6 April 2020.

GOV.UK (2019) Content design: planning, writing and managing content, GOV.UK.

New Zealand Government (2020) Plain language, Digital.govt.nz.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘2.6: Use simple sentences’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘2.7: Use short sentences and paragraphs’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca.

United States Government (n.d.) ‘Be concise’, Plain language guidelines, plainlanguage.gov.

W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) (n.d.) ‘Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.5: reading level’, Understanding WCAG 2.1, W3C website.

References

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

European Commission (2020) English style guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission, European Commission website, accessed 6 May 2020. 

Garner BA (2016) Garner’s modern English usage, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Oxford University Press (2017) Australian concise Oxford dictionary, 6th edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Peters P (1995) The Cambridge Australian English style guide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Nicoll C (2018) Upskill your editing [unpublished course notes], Communication Breakthrough, Canberra.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Strunk W and White EB (2000) The elements of style, 4th edn, Longman, New York.

University of Chicago Press (2017) Chicago manual of style: the essential guide for writers, editors, and publishers, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

W3C (2016) ‘Readable: understanding Guideline 3.1’, Understanding WCAG 2.0: A guide to understanding and implementing WCAG 2.0, W3C website. 

This page was updated Monday 12 October 2020.

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