Understanding Predicative Phrases

Snail close upSome writers and linguists like to think of English sentences in terms of subject and predicate. The subject is the thing, character, or concept that the sentence describes to the reader, and the predicate is some property or attribute of the subject.

When we think of predicates, we typically think of verbs and verb phrases. The boy might throw the ball, or the woman touches her lover’s cheek. Predicative verb phrases are the heart and soul storytelling. They describe action, which is the most valuable attribute of all in fiction. Even if the action takes places on a somewhat abstract level, you should structure most of your sentences so that a subject does something to an object using a predicative verbal phrase.

I’m using the somewhat pedantic term ‘predicative verbal phrase’ in this discussion because I want to call attention to a different kind of predicative phrase – an insidious one that leads many writers to believe that they are using powerful verbs when they are not. The predicative adverbial phrase (and its sister, the predicative adjectival phrase) technically contain a  verb, but they do not convey an action. Rather, they function as a modifier, using a copula like “is”  to communicate static information about the sentence’s subject.

Now, the predicative adverbial phrase is not necessarily a bad sentence structure. Indeed, you will need it to describe many important details regarding your setting and your characters. Phrases like “Barbara was at home” or “the necklace was made of fine gold” are occasionally necessary to help the reader understand the setting and the story. However, they do not have the same sentence-driving affect as a true predicative verbal phrase, and using them excessively will make your writing weaker rather than stronger.

Although it’s almost impossible to find a predicate that technically lacks a verb, it is important to distinguish the predicative phrases that communicate action from the predicative phrases that simply describe the subject. Good, clear writing relies upon active verbs and verb phrases. Being careful with your predicative phrases will help you make sure your story’s language focuses on doing rather than being.