Barron's SAT, 26th edition (2012)


Chapter 4. Grammar, Plain and Fanciful1

• Sentences

• Subject

• Predicate

• Verbs

Plain grammar gives us the horrors. Our eyes glaze over when we read “Nouns are words that name or designate persons, places, things, states, or qualities.” Nevertheless, we need to have some understanding of grammar to survive the writing sections on the SAT. That brings us to fanciful grammar, the rules of grammar illustrated in ways to keep both the reader and the writer awake.

First, we need to be sure we understand what a sentence is. A sentence consists of at least two parts: a subject or topic (the someone or something we are talking about) and a predicate or comment (what we are saying about that someone or something). It may have other parts, but these two are essential.

Let’s look at a few sentences.

The witch is bending over the cauldron.

The witch bending over the cauldron is a student.

The cauldron bubbled.

The pot overflowed.

She was scalded.

Her long, thin, elegant fingers writhed with the agony of her burns.

The professor of herbology concocted a healing salve.

The witch’s blistered digits twitched as the infirmarian slathered dollops of ointment on the irritated skin.

In each of the sentences above, the complete subject appears in boldface. Within each complete subject, there is a simple subject, the heart of the matter, a noun or pronoun.

In each of the sentences below, the simple subject appears in boldface also.

The wizard wavered.

The troll pounced.

It bounced off the bannister.

The incantations chanted by the enchanter were consistently off-key.

spoonful of sugar makes the elixir go down.

(Wizard, troll, incantations, and spoonful all are nouns. It is a pronoun, of course.) Now let’s look at the predicate, the comment about the subject.

The witch is bending over the cauldron.

Berenice and Benedick hid under the cloak of invisibility.

The professor of herbology concocted a healing salve.

The troll pounced.

The mandrake began to scream.

In each of the sentences above, the part in boldface is the complete predicate, or everything the sentence has to say about its subject. Just as within each complete subject lies a simple subject, within each complete predicate lies a simple predicate, or verb. The simple predicate (the verb) appears in boldface in each of the sentences below.

The witch is bending over the cauldron.

The mandrake began to scream.

Berenice and Benedick hid under the cloak of invisibility.

The troll pounced.

The subject usually precedes the predicate. However, exceptions do occur.

Over the parapets and into the sky flew a silver and gold Rolls Royce.

There were twenty-nine would-be wizards practicing their potions.

Simple subjects can be compound (that means you’re talking about more than one someone or something). A compound subject consists of at least two subjects, linked by and, or, or nor. These subjects have something in common: they may or may not enjoy doing things together, but they do share the same verb.

A witch and an apprentice are bending over the cauldron.

Berenice or Benedick lurked beneath the balustrade.

Either the lion or the witch escaped from the wardrobe.

The Greeks and the Trojans ran down to the sea higgledy-piggledy.

Neither the mandrake nor the mummy enjoyed being dug up.

Simple predicates can be compound as well (that means the schizophrenic subject gets to do more than one thing at a time). A compound predicate consists of at least two verbs—linked by and, or, nor, yet, or but—that have a common subject.

The cauldron bubbled and overflowed.

Her long, thin, elegant fingers writhed with the agony of her burns or flexed in evidence of her dexterity.

The glum troll neither bustled nor bounced.

will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.

The Greeks and the Trojans ran down to the sea higgledy-piggledy yet never got their armor wet.

The walrus wept but ate the oysters, every one.

Completing this discussion of the basic sentence pattern and completing the predicate as well is the complement. The complement is the part of the predicate that lets us know just what (or whom) the verb has been up to. It completes the verb. Often it answers the question “What?”

Witches want. (This could be an existential comment on the nature of witches, but it’s simply an incomplete predicate.)

What do witches want?

Witches want equal rites.

Witches want some enchanted evenings.

Witches want a chicken in every cauldron.

Witches want not to be hassled by wizards.

Witches want to sit down for a spell.

Now we know. The complement clues us in, satisfying our curiosity as it helps the verb tell its tale. Complements come in several guises. There is the direct object. Direct objects are directly affected by the actions of verbs. They are like punching bags: they feel the effect of the blow.

In the following examples, the direct object is underlined.

The troll holds several captives.

The troll holds his tongue with difficulty.

The troll holds him in a headlock.

The troll holds her in shackles and suspense.

Some verbs may have both a direct object and an indirect object. Examples include assign, award, bake, bring, buy, furnish, give, grant, issue, lend, mail, offer, present, sell, send, ship, show, and take. These verbs raise a fresh question: To whom or for whom (to what or for what) is the subject performing this action? The indirect object is the person (or place or thing) to whom or for whom the subject performs the action.

The troll sends his compliments.
[The subject is troll; the verb, sends; the direct object, compliments.

To whom does the troll send his compliments?
The troll sends the chef his compliments.
[The indirect object is chef.]

The owl bought new sails.
[The subject is owl; the verb, bought; the direct object, sails.

For what did the owl buy new sails?
The owl bought the pea-green boat new sails.
[The indirect object is boat.]

The Greeks showed no mercy.
[The subject is Greeks; the verb, showed; the direct object, mercy.]
To whom (or to what) did the Greeks show no mercy?
The Greeks showed the Trojans no mercy.
The Greeks showed Troy no mercy.

Yet another form of complement is the subject (or subjective) complement. Just as transitive verbs2 by definition must have direct objects to be complete, linking verbs (be, become, feel, look, seem, smell, sound, taste, etc.) must hook up with a noun, adjective, or pronoun to avoid going through an identity crisis.

The troll is. (Yet another existential comment on the “is-ness” of trolls? No, just an example of a linking verb looking for its missing link.)

The troll is what?

The troll is a born storyteller. [The noun storyteller, the subject complement, identifies or explains troll, the subject.]

The troll is what?

The troll is so droll. [The adjective droll, meaning whimsically humorous, describes or qualifies troll.

Only certain verbs take subject complements: to be, in all its forms (am, are, is, was, were, etc.); sensory verbs (feel, look, smell, sound, taste); and other state of being verbs (appear, become, grow, prove, remain, seem, stay, turn).

Imogen looks a fright.

The potion proved palatable. In other words, it tasted good.

The troll grows bold, but Sybilla remains cold.

Our final group of complements consists of the object (or objective) complements. These tagalongs follow the direct object, identifying it or qualifying it. We find them in the vicinity of such verbs as appoint, call, consider, designate, elect, find, label, make, name, nominate, render, and term.

The walrus found the oysters. [The subject is walrus; the verb, found; the direct object, oysters.

The walrus found the oysters yummy. [Direct object is oysters. Object complement is yummy.

Sybilla considers the troll an uncouth brute. [Direct object is troll. Object complement is brute. Sybilla is not being very complimentary about the troll.]

Sybilla’s scorn makes the troll melancholy. In fact, it renders him downright glum.

On this note, we leave the basic sentence. In the following chapter we, together with the troll, the walrus, and several junior witches, will explore some common problems in grammar and usage that are likely to turn up on the SAT.

Verbs That Can Take Direct Objects

Examples: catch, diaper, drink, empty, expel, hit, kiss


(The direct object tells what or whom is caught.)

Verbs That Can Take Both Direct and Indirect Objects

Examples: bring, give, lend, mail, sell, show, take


(The direct object tells what or whom is brought. The indirect object tells to what or to whom the object is brought.)

Verbs That Can Take Subject Complements

Examples: appear, be, become, feel, look, seem, sound


(The subject complement tells how the subject feels.)

Verbs That Can Take Object Complements

Examples: appoint, consider, drive, find, make


(The object complement tells how the object is affected.)

1 With thanks and/or apologies to J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, William Butler Yeats, Diana Wynne Jones, Homer (the Great), Homer (the Simpson), and of course the ever-popular Anon.

2 A transitive verb must have a direct object to complete its meaning. For example, take the verb hate. It’s a typical transitive verb: without a direct object it feels incomplete. Only a refugee from a bad horror movie would wander around proclaiming, “I hate, I hate....” The subject hates something. “I hate spinach.” “I hate Donald Trump.” “I hate MTV.”

Verbs that do not have direct objects are called intransitive verbs. These verbs tell you all you need to know about the subject. No direct objects needed at all. Think of the seven dwarfs. Doc blusters. Grumpy frowns. Bashful stammers. Sleepy dozes and snores. Happy chuckles. guessed it. Linking verbs (forms of be, seem, feel, etc., that relate the subject to the subject complement) are by definition intransitive verbs.

Some verbs can be transitive in one sentence and intransitive in another:

“Auntie Em,” cried Dorothy, “I missed you so much!” (Transitive)

“Oops!” said the knife-thrower. “I missed.” (Intransitive)

Do not worry about these labels. What’s important is that you understand how the words are being used.