How to Analyse Basic Sentences

The most basic sentences are simple to analyse. Here is a simple sentence: Roger teaches Spanish to the class. By asking four easy questions, we can reveal a great deal of grammatical knowledge about this sentence and that knowledge will simplify our tasks as we proceed with our learning of Spanish.

Subject: To find the subject of the sentence, we go to the main verb teaches and we ask: "Who teaches?" The answer is Roger; Roger teaches. Roger is therefore the subject of the sentence.

Main Verb: To find the main verb, we ask what the subject does; thus: "What does Roger do?" The answer that "He teaches" reveals the main verb.

Direct Object: To find the direct object of the main verb, we ask the question: "What does Roger teach?" The answer that "Roger teaches Spanish" reveals that Spanish is the direct object.

Indirect Object: To find the indirect object of the main verb, we ask one more question: "To whom does Roger teach Spanish?" Again, the answer "To the class" reveals the indirect object of the main verb.

This particular sentence structure is identical in Spanish. Roger enseña español a la clase. By asking the same questions, we get the same results. Subject: Roger; main verb: enseña; direct object: español; indirect object: a la clase.

The use of pronouns complicates the basic sentence. Thus, when we change nouns to pronouns, we have the following: Roger / he -- teaches -- Spanish / it -- to the class / to them. To a certain extent, to use pronouns is to write in code. In this fashion, while the sentence he teaches it to them is absolutely clear in the context we have just used, she sells it to him is absolutely meaningless without a context.

To demonstrate the sentence's meaninglessness when taken out of context, try answering the following questions:

(1) Who is she?

(2) What is she (other than the subject of the sentence)?

(3) What is she selling (other than it)?

(4) What is it (other than the direct object of the sentence); possibilities may include a car, a bike, a bus, a newspaper, a Boeing 727, a hamburger, a ham and cheese sandwich, a beer?

(5) Who or what is he / him (other than the indirect object of the sentence)?

Answer 1: If I now tell you that, in this particular context, I am referring to a young waitress in the bar selling a beer to a customer-- she sells it to him -- everything becomes as clear as crystal.

Answer 2: If I now tell you that, in another context, I am referring to a five year old female child who is selling a rebozo / shawl to an elderly male tourist in the central square / zócalo in Oaxaca, then everything is again crystal clear.

Answer 3: If I now tell you that, in yet another context, the lady in Future Shop is selling a computer to a customer, then again, everything is clear.

However, she sells it to him is a common factor in all three sentences, but it means different things according to the context. This coding of meaning according to context, a context that is sometimes grasped only dimly by the beginning student because pronouns often refer to earlier events which must be revisited on the page or in the conversation, is often one of the most difficult concepts to understand.

To summarize: to use pronouns is to write in code. Each code has an explanation. When meeting pronouns, it is necessary to look beyond the pronouns to the surrounding context in order to solve their secrets. However, by asking the right questions and by examining the context in which words occur, even the most difficult problems can be solved.

Return to Grammar