The building blocks of written language

There are different levels of structure within written language. A good way to remember these is through the diagram below.

Upside down pyramid. Top layer 'text', second layer 'paragraph', third layer 'sentence', fourth layer 'clause', fifth layer 'phrase' and sixth layer 'word'.

Text

A text is a complete piece of writing. A text can be very short, such as a “No Parking” sign, or much longer, such as an essay, a chapter from a book, or even a whole book.

Paragraph

In academic writing, most texts are divided into paragraphs. There are no “rules” which determine how many paragraphs you should have in a text, or where one paragraph should end and another begins. Decisions about where to end a paragraph and start a new one will depend on the writer’s perception of how ideas in different sentences are related to one another, of when you are moving from one point to a new one. In the main body of an essay in academic writing, we advise you to have one main idea for each paragraph.

Sentence

Sentences start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. Some sentences are short, and others are long and complicated, for example;

“In Europe, (food waste)[yellow] (is considered)[blue] a major nutritional and environmental problem.”
“Although (food waste at the retail stage)[yellow] (may be considered)[blue] small in comparison with the amount of food waste overall, (it)[yellow] (is)[blue] still a big issue (which)[yellow] (can lead)[blue] to significant economic loss as well as environmental and social problems.”

In most academic writing each sentence must include at least one subject and a verb. In the examples above the subjects are highlighted in yellow, and the verbs in blue.

Clause

Simple sentences are just one clause and more complex sentences have two or more clauses. Each clause must contain a verb.

This sentence comprises just one clause:

“In Europe food waste is considered a major nutritional and environmental problem.”

This sentence comprises three clauses:

“Although food waste at the retail stage may be considered small in comparison with the amount of food waste overall,

“it is still a big issue”

“which can lead to significant economic loss as well as environmental and social problems.”

Clauses can be joined to one another by conjunctions (eg and, but, although) or by relative pronouns (eg who, which, that).

Phrase

Phrases are groups of words which go together. Here are some examples from the sentences above.

Noun phrases food waste, a major nutritional and environmental problem
Verb phrases may be considered, can lead to
Prepositional phrases as well as, in comparison with

There are other types of phrases, too.

Adjective phrases extremely difficult, more and more expensive
Adverb phrases on the other hand, in contrast

Notice that each phrase includes several parts of speech, so that in each phrase you need to look for the key word, for example;

“a major nutritional and environmental problem

extremely difficult

In addition, you also need to look at the function of the phrase. So, “on the other hand” and “in contrast” function as adverbs (like “however”), even though there is no adverb in the phrase.

Word

You know what a word is!

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This article is from the free online course:

An Intermediate Guide to Writing in English for University Study

University of Reading