One of the first things we learned about sentences was to identify the subject and predicate. Then we stopped talking about predicates.
If I were to ask 10 people what the opposite of the subject is in a sentence, I would imagine at least eight of them would answer with object. That’s one way to look at it, of course. But before we learned about the object, we learned about a little-used grammatical term called the predicate.
In fact, as soon as we started learning about the mechanics of how sentences worked, the very first thing we learned was how to tell the difference between the subject and the predicate.
Once we mastered that, we stopped talking about predicates. It was as if they no longer mattered. That’s when we began breaking down predicates into verbs and objects. By the time we got to diagramming sentences — do they still even teach that? — the poor little predicate had been all but forgotten.
So for this week’s little grammar post, I thought I’d revisit this little building block of a sentence you probably haven’t heard about for a long time.
So what are predicates?
Nearly every sentence contains two basic parts: subjects and predicates. The more complex the sentence is, the more you can break down both “halves” into additional parts. But most sentences, at the very least, have those two.
The simplest way to define predicates is to say they’re the part of the sentence that doesn’t include the subject.
If you’d prefer a little more technical definition, let’s use this one from Grant Barrett’s book, Perfect English Grammar:
The subject of the sentence is the main actor of the sentence: the person, animal or thing performing the verb.
The predicate if a sentence is what is being done.
Of course, Barrett explains further, but that alone sets up the difference between the two concisely. He gives this simple example:
Miguel sells cars.
Going by Barrett’s definition, Miguel would have to be the subject. That leaves “sells cars” to be the predicate.
In most sentences, what we call declarative sentences, subjects come before predicates. Even exclamatory sentences typically follow this format. Imperative sentences give commands and often use an assumed subject:
Take the coffee to Jan.
Because this is an imperative sentence, the entire thing is the predicate. The subject is assumed to be you, as if the speaker had said, “You take the coffee to Jan.
Interrogative sentences, which we more often call questions, are the most complicated when it comes to identifying predicates. They often splice the subject into the middle of the predicate:
Did Wally call about the car?
Wally is the subject of that sentence, but because of the format of the question, it’s crammed right in the middle of the predicate, which is everything else.
We learned about predicates to help us further be able to get more granular about parts of sentences. If you look at the predicate of that particular sentence, you’ll see there’s a verb, sells, and an object, cars. The object is the recipient of the action the verb describes.
Once we started talking about verbs and objects, we pretty much left our poor little predicate in the dust.
We may have forgotten, in our haste to move on to a more complex study of the parts of a sentence — if not our desire to get outside for recess — that there are three types of predicates.
A simple predicate is just the verb (including any helping verbs).
A complete predicate includes the verb and any other words that help describe the action involved.
A compound predicate contains multiple verbs that share the same subject.
Grammarly is kind enough to provide examples of the three types as well as a slightly deeper dive into them.