Expressing yourself clearly in writing is easier if you know how various sentence types are constructed. At its most basic, this means understanding the differences between simple, complex and compound sentences.
A simple sentence includes just one independent clause and expresses a complete thought. Minimally, this means having a subject and a verb (i.e. an action word), such as in:
Other verbs require an object (these are known as transitive verbs). A sentence with an object can still be simple, though, since it remains a single independent clause:
Not all ‘simple’ sentences are quite this simple, since we can add extra information to a sentence without changing the basic structure. Take the following, for example:
He and I both play the violin badly.
Here, we have a compound subject (‘He and I’), a determiner (‘both’), a verb (‘play’), a direct object (‘the violin’) and an adverb (‘badly’). Nevertheless, it’s still a simple sentence.
If we have more than one independent clause in a sentence, it becomes a compound sentence. Usually, this will involve joining the two clauses with a coordinating conjunction:
‘And’ is possibly the most common coordinating conjunction, but you can use the acronym FANBOYS to help you remember the complete set (i.e. For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So).
The important thing is that the statements on either side of the conjunction in a compound sentence could work as sentences by themselves. It’s also worth keeping in mind that you should use a comma before the conjunction when linking two independent clauses.
A complex sentence combines an independent clause with at least one dependent clause (i.e. a clause that contains a subject and a verb, but which doesn’t express a complete thought).
To join an independent and a dependent clause, we typically use a subordinate conjunction (‘because’, ‘until’, ‘unless’, ‘while’, etc.) to show how the two clauses are related:
He will never master the violin unless he starts practising.
Here, the main clause (‘He will never master the violin’) is linked to the dependent clause using the subordinate conjunction ‘unless’. The crucial thing is that the second part of the sentence wouldn’t make sense by itself, so it depends on the main clause to express something.
We can also begin a sentence with a dependent clause. If we do this, the two clauses should be separated with a comma:
Unless he starts practising, he will never master the violin.
Another way of making a complex sentence involves adding a relative clause using a relative pronoun (e.g. ‘who’ or ‘which’). This would look like the following:
He plays the violin badly, which gives me a headache.
As with other dependent clauses, relative clauses only make sense when joined to an independent clause.
Finally, when a sentence contains at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause, we refer to it as a compound-complex sentence. For example:
He plays the violin that I bought him, but he does it badly.
Here, we have an independent clause (‘He plays the violin’), a dependent clause (‘that I bought him’) and a second independent clause after a coordinating conjunction (‘but he does it badly’). This lets us express more complicated ideas in a single sentence.
Varying Sentence Type
A well written document will usually contain all of these sentence types. As such, varying your sentences is a good idea.
Using too many short, simple sentences, for example, can mean your writing doesn’t flow. In this case, using more compound and complex sentences could help.
If you use too many long and complicated sentences, though, your writing could be difficult to follow. As such, breaking them down into shorter, simpler sentences might improve readability.
How to Get a Sentence in a Complex
by Owen Fourie
If you live in a complex, you do not want to do anything that can burn it down because that will get you a long sentence in jail. Writing a long complex sentence in grammar is a safer activity that should not get you into trouble.
The opening paragraph has two complex sentences. Let’s understand more about this particular sentence structure in our series in which we have already looked at the simple sentence and the compound sentence.
Sentences: from simple to compound to complex
For a moment, let’s see how two simple sentences are transformed into a compound sentence and then a complex sentence:
- The silver car has new tires. It has spongy brakes. (simple sentences)
- The silver car has new tires, but it has spongy brakes. (compound sentence)
- Although the silver car has new tires, it has spongy brakes. (complex sentence)
What is a complex sentence?
The word although at the beginning of the above complex sentence is a subordinating conjunction, a part of speech that is used in this sentence structure.
A subordinating conjunction introduces a dependent clause, an essential element of a complex sentence.
A complex sentence must have an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.
Complex sentences may also be indicated by the presence of relative pronouns—who, that, which—introducing relative clauses:
The silver car, which they bought in Chicago, has new tires.
Clauses: independent and dependent
In the last example, the independent clause is in two parts, and its completion comes at the end of the sentence:
- The silver car
- has new tires.
The dependent clause is “which they bought in Chicago.”
An independent clause, such as “the silver car has new tires,” can stand on its own as a sentence and make complete sense.
A dependent clause cannot stand on its own. It is an incomplete thought: “which they bought in Chicago.” When it is attached to an independent clause, a complex sentence is formed.
Here is a partial list of subordinating conjunctions:
after, although, as, because, before, if, since, though, unless, until, when, whenever, whereas, wherever, while, …
When you use these words in a sentence, you are introducing a dependent (or subordinate) clause, one of the essential elements of a complex sentence.
Dependent clauses can go first in a sentence
Here are examples where the dependent clause is placed first in a complex sentence with an independent clause following it:
- Although the vehicles were not badly damaged, repairs would still be costly.
- As it entered the intersection, the motorcycle collided with the silver car.
- Before the accident occurred, the silver car had been in our driveway for a short time.
- Wherever you find a four-way stop, you should be cautious.
Whenever a dependent clause is placed at the beginning of a sentence, it must be followed by a comma. Notice this in the above examples and in the previous sentence.
Independent clauses can go first in the sentence
Here are examples where the independent clause is placed first in a complex sentence with a dependent clause following it:
- Repairs would still be costly although the vehicles were not badly damaged.
- The motorcycle collided with the silver car as it entered the intersection.
- The silver car had been in our driveway for a short time before the accident occurred.
- You should be cautious wherever you find a four-way stop.
There is no comma following an independent clause that is placed at the beginning of a sentence. Observe this in the above examples and in the previous sentence.
Effective use of a complex sentence
Putting a dependent clause at the beginning of a complex sentence turns it into what is known as a periodic sentence. This is a tool of rhetoric—the art of using language effectively and persuasively.
By placing the independent (or main) clause, or the completion of that clause, at the end of the sentence, you can create the effect of suspense:
The driver of the silver car, who began to look apprehensive, could produce neither his license nor his insurance papers.
Let’s conclude with the earliest set of examples in this article:
- The silver car has new tires. It has spongy brakes.
- The silver car has new tires, but it has spongy brakes.
- Although the silver car has new tires, it has spongy brakes.
Only the last of these sentences—the complex sentence—indicates what is important, that the silver car has spongy brakes.
Complex sentences are usually more effective than compound sentences and simple sentences because they give the reader a better grasp of the relationship of ideas and their order of importance.
In the concluding article of this series on sentence structure, we’ll look at the compound-complex sentence.
Do you have any special technique to help you to produce a good mix of sentence structures in your essays? If so, please tell us what you do to achieve this. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.
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