New in English Grammar: a Sentence without a Predicate

There is a sentence without a predicate


In English grammar I have always been told that a sentence has a subject and a predicate.

In high school English course, we were made to diagram sentences to show the subject and the predicate then the object of a transitive verb. I made it a point to mark the verb because that was my clue where a predicate started. I was always right.

Of course, I would find the subject before the verb and most of the time I answered right.

So it has been a law, sort of, that a sentence has a subject and a predicate.

Now comes a sentence: “Lightning precedes thunder.”

Come on, show me the subject and the predicate.

I can see that ‘lightning’ is a subject because it is before the verb. I judge ‘precedes’ is a verb because it shows action. Therefore, the predicate is ‘precedes thunder.’ That’s peanuts!

No need to review? Any doubt?

‘Lightning' is a noun, so no doubt it is the subject. ‘Thunder’ is also a noun. Is it also a subject? But it comes after the verb. Wait, is ‘precedes’ a verb? I consult an encyclopedia (Encyclopedia Britannica 2009) that gives me the following:

“pre·cede \pri-'sēd\ vb, pre·ced·ed pre·ced·ing [ME, fr. MF preceder, fr. L praecedere, fr. prae- pre- + cedere to go]
vt(15c)
1 : to surpass in rank, dignity, or importance
2 : to be, go, or come ahead or in front of
3 : to be earlier than
4 : to cause to be preceded : preface
vi: to go or come before”

So, ‘precedes’ is a verb alright. I take the simple one ‘come before.’

Suppose you browsed a book, not a grammar book, that says there is a sentence that has no predicate?

How could my English grammar teachers from grade 5 to college be wrong? And the English language experts be wrong?

But this English (meaning British) maverick came shooting straight from the hip.

He wrote:

“Lightning precedes thunder” is a sentence without a predicate.

He wrote more.

‘Lighting’ is a subject and ‘thunder’ is also a subject. This sentence has two subjects without a predicate.

‘Precedes’ is not a verb but a copula that joins the two subjects.

These come from Bertrand Russell in his book “On Denoting.” Russell is a Nobel Prize winner for Literature (Philosophy).

I used to ruffle my former grammar teachers with this sentence. They would not budge.

When I was editor of Canopy International a newsletter in forestry, I also had a column where I posted some ruminations. I posted “A Sentence Without A Predicate.”

In the mails came a letter from Rolfe A. Leary, an American then with the United States Department of Agriculture. He said, no wonder he could not pinpoint the predicate in some sentences in books he was auditing.

I moved from the government agency that publishes Canopy in 1986 to the University of the Philippines Los Baños and lost contact with Prof. Leary for thirty years.

Recently I posted the same title in another website. To my pleasant surprise Prof. Leary commented on it. He said he had retired from the USDA and is now in Europe. He said he is conducting short courses on philosophy and research methods in Sweden.

I must say Prof. Leary has not retired.



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Comments 2 comments

NooneInParticular 2 years ago

Thunder is not a subject in this sentence. It is the object of the transitive verb 'precedes'.


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conradofontanilla 2 years ago from Philippines Author

NoneinParticular,

That's according to traditional grammar. "Precedes" is not a verb. It is a copula.

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