Author: Lauren Carter

Sentence Types and Ambiguity in Plain English

By Lauren Carter

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been unsure whether someone was actually asking you a question or whether they were asking a rhetorical question.

Or how about when someone has said “It’s pretty hot” and you’ve wondered if they were simply stating a fact or were asking you to turn the air con on in an indirect way.

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Yup, it happens all the time. Let’s talk about what’s going on here

What are the different sentence types in English?

There are four types of sentences in English:

  • Declarative
  • Interrogative
  • Imperative
  • Exclamative

There are also four sentence structures that correspond to each of these sentence types:

  • Declarative = subject + predicate
  • Interrogative = operator + subject + rest of predicate
  • Imperative = (second person subject) + predicate
  • Exclamative = what/how phrase + subject + predicate

The subject is the noun or noun phrase that the sentence is mainly about. On the other hand, the predicate is the part of a sentence that gives us the information about the subject. This includes the verb and everything else. The subjects are underlined and the predicates are italicised in the following examples:

  • Did they buy a car on the weekend?
  • Auto emergency braking, lane keeping assistance, and blind spot monitoring are standard features.
  • The standard features are auto emergency braking, lane keeping assistance, and blind spot monitoring.
  • Positioning the steering wheel so that it doesn’t bump into my knees obscures my view of the speedometer.

It’s important to remember that subjects and predicates are based on the sentence’s structure rather than its meaning. While the second and third example sentences have exactly the same meaning, they have different subjects and predicates.

What meanings do English sentences have?

Along with sentence types, there are also four different meanings an English sentence can have:

  • Statement
  • Question
  • Directive
  • Exclamation

Statements convey something to the reader or listener. Questions ask the reader or listener for information about something. Directives allow the speaker or writer to command, request, instruct, prohibit or permit the reader or listener to do something. Exclamations express surprise, annoyance, or disgust at something.

Here are some examples:

  • Statement: They bought a new car on the weekend.
  • Question: Did they buy a new car on the weekend? OR What did they buy on the weekend?
  • Directive: Buy a new car!
  • Exclamation: How they could afford a new car is beyond me!

How are sentence types and meanings relevant to plain English?

Now that we know about sentence types and sentence meanings, how is this relevant to plain English? In typical usage, the four sentence types and meanings line up like this:

  • Declarative = statement
  • Interrogative = question
  • Imperative = directive
  • Exclamative = exclamation

However, we can often use different forms to express different functions, which can make your communication ambiguous when your audience doesn’t infer your meaning correctly.

Here are a few examples:

Declarative forms

  • It’s cold in here = Put the heater on (directive)
  • She must have been pretty unhappy about it? = Was she unhappy about it? (interrogative)

Interrogative forms

  • Are your arms painted on? = Do it yourself! (directive)
  • Why don’t you shut your face? = Shut your face! (directive)
  • Are you still talking nonsense? = What nonsense! (exclamative)

Imperative forms

  • Put the heater on? (in response to someone saying “put the heater on” to you) = Isn’t it a little hot to put the heater on?

How can I identify sentence types so I can communicate more effectively?

To communicate more effectively, you can ensure you match the sentence type with it’s corresponding typical meaning. Here’s the breakdown again:

  • Declarative = statement
  • Interrogative = question
  • Imperative = directive
  • Exclamative = exclamation

And here are the sentence patterns for each to help you distinguish them from one another:

  • Declarative = subject + predicate
  • Interrogative = operator + subject + rest of predicate
  • Imperative = (second person subject) + predicate
  • Exclamative = what/how phrase + subject + predicate

So, if your meaning is “I want you to turn the heater on”, then just say that! There’s no need to dance around it by saying “it’s cold in here” and hoping the other person infers what you mean. Just be clear and direct with what you want the other person to do or understand from your communication. This is especially relevant when communicating with people who have low English literacy skills, especially non-native English speakers. These people generally won’t have high enough literacy skills to understand rhetorical questions or indirect requests for example.

You can also be curious about the language you hear and read. Try to notice when sentences can have two different meanings and work out why that is. It will no doubt be because the sentence structure that’s being used doesn’t match up with the typical meaning we usually associate with that type of sentence.

Is it ever appropriate to use a sentence type that doesn’t match the corresponding meaning type?

Now, of course you don’t need to follow this guide at all times. There are often times when it’s appropriate to use a sentence type that doesn’t match the corresponding typical meaning. There are many reasons that you might use a non-typical sentence type to express your meaning. This could be for stylistic purposes, for politeness reasons, or because you have a great relationship with the other person and understand each others’ communication styles.

Ultimately, whatever you do with your language comes down to your audience. If you know your audience and their literacy levels well, then you can probably be a little more creative. But if you’re ever unsure, just ask yourself whether this is the clearest way to get your meaning across. Is it possible that someone will misinterpret what you’re saying or writing? If so, adjust accordingly. Perhaps you can get some friends or colleagues to check over your work to make sure it’s not ambiguous.

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