Sentences in English— How to Construct and Understand

Learning the Logic of Natural English Grammar-Part 5

Constructing Sentences — that is what Language is all about.

LIFE, with all its situations, is a source of information for LANGUAGE to construct Sentences. To transfer this information to Language, Life uses three elements:

The 3 (three) most important terms you need to understand to work with the formulas:

MOOD - lives separately from the other two elements. It deals with sentences and classifies an infinite number of them into just three categories:

Imperative mood, Subjunctive mood, Indicative mood.

VOICE - consists of two parts: Active and Passive.

ASPECT - is divided into four categories:

1. Simple, 2. Continuous, 3. Perfect, 4. Perfect Continuous.

VOICE+ASPECT together make up a very special combination in the English language - I call it a Formula.

Voice+Aspect cannot exist without each other and are shown together by the forms of primary verbs.

The Voice + Aspect combination is the core of English grammar. It is this pair that leads us from a Life Situation to one proper formula for a Sentence to describe this Situation.

The route you need to go from Life to Language (= to construct a sentence):

LIFE (= Situation) > 1. (MOOD) > 2. VOICE > 3. ASPECT >>>>> LANGUAGE > > > 4. FORMULA > 5. MOOD = SENTENCE

Where: Mood (Imperative, Subjunctive, Indicative), Voice (Active, Passive), Aspect (Simple, Continuous, Perfect, Perfect Continuous) — none of these terms is a grammar category, they only classify Life Situations into groups, that is to say, on your route from Life to Language, you do not have to use any grammar knowledge or grammar rules until you find the formula appropriate for your sentence.

I. To construct a (= ANY) SENTENCE in English:

1. Decide what Mood (= your attitude to what is being said) your sentence belongs in.
 Note: no grammar knowledge is needed, you only analyze the situation.

Example situation: Suppose your friend and you are on the way to the airport in a taxi with a large sum of money. You are a bit nervous. You notice that there is another car behind you and want to tell your friend about it.

Imperative mood = command, instruction, request.
Subjunctive mood = the situation is imaginary, conditional.
Indicative mood = the situation is neither Imperative nor Subjunctive (the overwhelming majority of situations are Indicative mood).

For the example situation, it is Indicative, too. 
Remember your choice, you will need it for Step 5 (the last one).

When you are going to construct a sentence, you know that you have only eight formulas to work with. Your task is to find the proper one for the situation and connect it to the subject of the sentence.

2. Decide what the Subject of the sentence is.
Note: no grammar knowledge is needed.

You choose to start your sentence “We…” = Subject

3. Choose Voice:
Note: no grammar knowledge is needed, you only analyze the situation.

Active (the subject does the action) or Passive (the subject receives the action)?

In your sentence, the subject “We” is acted upon = Passive. Now you know that the formula you need for your sentence is one of the four Passive formulas.

4. Choose Aspect:
Note: no grammar knowledge is needed, you only analyze the situation.

1. Simple, 2. Continuous, 3. Perfect or 4. Perfect Continuous -?

1. Simple = habitual or repeated actions.
2. Continuous = the action is still in progress.
3. Perfect = emphasizes the fact that the action is complete.
4. Perfect Continuous = the action started some time ago and has continued up until now.

For your situation, it is 2. Continuous >>> Passive Continuous = You have found the formula:

to be being ~~~~~ed/PII
to be + being + Ved/PII

5. Connect the formula to the subject:
Note: it is only at this moment that you start using grammar rules.

The formula is Infinitive (= cannot show time), in your situation time is Present.

The formula is Infinitive (= cannot show singular or plural), in your sentence the subject “We” is plural.

To connect the formula to the subject (= to show Present and plural) and to show that your sentence is the Indicative mood (from Step 1), you need to change the form of the first auxiliary (= helping) verb in the formula (to be = Infinitive) for are (= plural, Present) >>> are + being + Ved/PII

The main verb in your sentence is to follow. It is a regular verb, so you add -ed to it and put “followed” in the formula >>> are being followed

Now the formula contains all necessary information and can be connected to the subject of the sentence.

You say to your friend: “We are being followed.

II. To understand sentences in English

When you are trying to understand a sentence, you know the speaker/writer has only eight formulas to work with. Your task is to find the formula in the sentence and learn about the Situation from it.

Suppose you hear/read:
Your sister has broken the vase.

1. Find the formula in the sentence:

“has broken” (connected to the subject of the sentence: “sister”)

2. Look at it as being the Infinitive:

“to have broken” (= to have + Participle II), now go to the original set of the formulas to find it there.

3. to have + Participle II = Active Perfect.

Now you know that in the situation described by the sentence:

1) time is Present (because “has”),

2) the subject does the action (because “Active”),

3) the fact that the action is complete is important for the listener (because “Perfect”).

You also know that the situation described by the sentence is neither imaginary nor a command > the Indicative mood (because “has”). = You have all necessary information to understand the situation correctly.


It is only a part of the Verb System functioning in the English language. The System can be seen as a clearly visible, coherent and complete structure. Exerting a little bit of mental effort, anyone can come to grips with it very quickly.

The content of what is written above does not affect in the least either the Verb System functioning or English grammar rules.

Though 8F uses the minimum number of already well-known terms needed to understand and construct sentences, it is recommended that you change the word order in some of them (for instance: use Perfect Present instead of Present Perfect, Simple Past instead of Past Simple, etc.), or make some other minor corrections (for instance, change Past Participle for Passive Participle or Participle II). This will help you stay on track (= be logical) when you are trying to construct or understand a sentence.

To learn about Life situations in more detail and then use it for finding a formula, you can read situation descriptions in any of all existing grammar textbooks as well as on numerous websites. Of all known to me resources for situation descriptions, “English Verb Tenses: An informal but extensive reference for ESL students, the good folks who teach them, the idly curious, and the linguistically perplexedby Kent Uchiyama, , The twelve tense system in English — an overview, Part 2 — a look at aspect, by a common-or-garden TEFL teacher (Warsaw Will), http://random-idea-english.blogs... , Guide to Tense Situations, David V. Appleyard, Guide to Tense Usage in English seem to be absolutely the best.

The formulas are used in the sentences as indivisible blocks. You can only take out “to” when you connect a formula to the subject of a sentence. All the rest of the elements must stay in place when you work with a formula.

Remember each of the formulas as a block with a set number of elements. It will help you to quickly find a formula in a sentence when you see or hear it.

The formulas consist of auxiliary verbs (have no meaning to understand or translate; their number is different (1, or 2, or 3, or 4) in formulas) and one main verb (has a meaning to understand/translate).

The most important of all auxiliary verbs in a formula is the first one. It is only the first auxiliary verb that changes its form in a formula.

Note that in all the formulas, the first auxiliary verb is either to be, or to have, (or to do). These three verbs change their forms when you connect a formula to the subject of a sentence. Sometimes, to connect a formula to the subject of a sentence, you need a modal verb, in which case it gets the status of the first auxiliary verb (this is very important to know when you construct negative or interrogative sentences); you put the modal verb in the formula instead of “to”, with be or have without changing their forms. (for example: should be…, could have (= could’ve..)…, must have.., etc.).

The auxiliaries between the first auxiliary verb and the main verb (been, being, been being) are simply the elements in a formula. You don’t have to do anything with them, just let them stay where they are when you connect a formula to the subject of a sentence.

Active Simple Infinitive is a special/ = basic formula. Unlike all the rest of them, it consists of only one word (= main verb). It has the auxiliary to do, which appears in negative sentences, questions, and sometimes in affirmative sentences too.

The main verb (= has meaning to understand/translate) is always the last word in a formula.

In Active Continuous and Active Perfect Continuous, every main verb must have “-ing” at the end;

in the formulas with “-ed/PII”, it is an option — your choice depends on whether the main verb is regular (wanted) or irregular (write — wrote — written, do — did — done, etc.)

In Active Perfect Past/Present/Future, you sometimes may see/hear been as the last word in the formula. It is the main verb here (be — was/were — been, (for example: The new security system had been nothing but trouble since it had been installed. or I have been there. or How long will it have been since we were together?).

Sometimes you can see/hear a sort of tricky thing happening to a formula:

The camera was being field tested under real conditions. (field — a word between the elements in the formula, Passive Continuous Past)

This is a small town, and sooner or later it would have all come out. (all — a word between the elements in the formula, Active Perfect Modal)

It seems like a good idea on the surface, but there will no doubt be problems. (no doubt — two words between the elements in the formula, Active Simple Future)

Don’t beg for more. Take however many good days you can get and enjoy them. The trick is knowing when you’re having one. (is knowing — you may think it is Active Continuous Present, but it is NOT; we have two formulas here: is (Active Simple Present) and knowing (Active Simple Gerund)

She was worried about something. (was worried — you may think it is Passive Simple Past, but it is NOT; worried is not a verb form here, it is an adjective; all the elements in a formula can be only verb forms, so it is: was — Active Simple Past)

(The temperature and humidity had not started to build) and cars were being washed and lawns mowed. (we have two subjects in the sentence (= cars and lawns) and two actions (= to wash and to mow) — both Passive Continuous Past, but in the second one we can see/hear only the main verb — it is enough to learn about the situation without using the auxiliary verbs (were being) for the second time).

Understanding of those little tricks will come to you with practice and experience. Learn the formulas all at the same time (someone of you will grasp the essentials in less than one hour; it may take others a little longer, but not months and years), and every single English sentence will become a good example for you to practice your skills in constructing and understanding English sentences.

This is a reprint (with minor changes) from