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The Clause Level

An important part of the meaning of a clause comes from the order in which the clause elements appear.

Look at these pairs of sentences. What is the difference in meaning between the two members of each pair?

The man killed the bear. -------- The bear killed the man.
Naturally, he can’t do it. -------- He can’t do it naturally.


They consist of the same phrase types, for example in the first, a noun phrase + a verb phrase + another noun phrase. This is proof that an important part of the meaning of a clause comes from the order in which the clause elements (‘setningsleddene’) appear.

So, you need to learn the terms for the clause elements to be able to explain how English works. They are:

Subject (S), Verbal (V), Subject Predicative (SP), Direct Object (dO), Adverbial (A), Indirect Object (iO), Object Predicative (OP), Anticipatory Subject (‘foreløpig subjekt’) (aS)


Now you will understand that the difference in grammar between the members of the first pair of sentences is that the man is the subject in the first, the direct object in the second.

English has a limited set of clause patterns (‘setningmønstre’), i.e. combinations of clause elements into patterns. Here are the main types, with simple examples of declarative sentences.

PatternExamplesWhat the pattern communicates
SVThe fog disappeared, John left, All facts must be consideredSomething happens, Subject does something, Action with doer of action not expressed (passive clause)
SVsPThe reception was a success, Bruce Springsteen is the Boss.Speaker gives subject a quality, Speaker identifies subject
SVdOThe man killed the bear, We can't accept the decisionSpeaker tells us that subject does something which effects another person/thing
SVAWe are home. The concert is tomorrowSpeacer locates subject in space or time
SViOdOThe committee gave her an awardSpeaker tells us that subject does something, that benefits somebody else
SVdOoPShe considered it insultingSpeaker gives a quality/characteristic to the direct objekt
aSVS (A)There is a pair of skis in the garage.Speaker brings new information into the text
aSVSP SIt is surprising that they leftSpeaker expresses an subjectiv evaluation of an action

Note: The last two are variations on more basic patterns, but they are frequent. The new information in the there- pattern is a new pair of skis. It would be awkward to say: A new pair of skis is in the garage. We tend to avoid putting new information first in a sentence.


The real subject in the last pattern is that they left. When the subject is a clause like this, the normal SV order feels awkward, cf. That they left is surprising. Instead, we stick in it as an anticipatory subject. Both variations are motivated by the information principle/end-focus principle – a general tendency to place new information and/or material expressed in complex phrases at the end.

Note: Noun phrases carry most of the information in texts. The reason is that they can function as a subject, a direct object, a subject predicative, an indirect object, an object predicative, even occasionally as an adverbial. The examples in the table show you this.

Verb phrases are generally much shorter, but they are required to form complete sentences. Also, the nature of the lexical verb in the verbal determines what other clause elements can be present. Here are two simple examples:
The verb be most often takes a subject predicative: the reception was a success.
A transitive verb takes a direct object: we can’t accept the decision.

Adverbials, which tell us about the circumstances around an action or state, how, why, where, when, etc. it took place, can be left out. Still, when they are included, they are information-rich. Here the final adverbials appear in the shape of different phrase types.
All six examples have the same clause pattern, but the final adverbial is different.

Subject Verbal Adverbial Adverbial
People walk past in the house

very slowly

(adverbial of manner in the form of an adverb phrase)

People walk past in the house every morning (adverbial of frequency in the form of a noun phrase)
People walk past in the house at a brisk pace (adverbial of manner in the form of a prepositional phrase)
People walk past in the house when the pavement is free (adverbial of time in the form of a sub-clause)
People walk past in the house to get a good view of the garden (adverbial of purpose in the form of a sub-clause)

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