Sentences: Sentence Structure: The Fab Four

Sentence Structure: The Fab Four

In Clauses, you learned that there are two types of clauses: independent and dependent. Recall that independent clauses are complete sentences because they have a subject and verb and express a complete thought. Dependent clauses, in contrast, cannot stand alone because they do not express a complete thought—even though they have a subject and a verb. Independent and dependent clauses can be used in a number of ways to form the four basic types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Time to make their acquaintance.

Simple Sentences: Simple Isn't as Simple Does

A simple sentence has one independent clause. That means it has one subject and one verb—although either or both can be compound. In addition, a simple sentence can have adjectives and adverbs. What a simple sentence can't have is another independent clause or any subordinate clauses. For example:

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A simple sentence has one independent clause.

  • Americans eat more bananas than they eat any other fruit.
  • one subject, one verb
  • David Letterman and Jay Leno host talk shows.
  • compound subject, one verb
  • My son toasts and butters his bagel.
  • one subject, compound verb

Don't shun the simple sentence—it's no simpleton. The simple sentence served Ernest Hemingway well; with its help, macho man Ernie snagged a Nobel Prize in Literature. In the following excerpt from The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway uses the simple sentence to convey powerful emotions:

  • The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.
  • “Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
  • Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
  • “Yes,” I said. “Isn't it pretty to think so?”

Okay, so it's a real downer. You think they give Nobels for happy talk?

Compound Sentences: Compound Interest

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A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses.

A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses. The independent clauses can be joined in one of two ways:

  • With a coordinating conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so
  • With a semicolon (;)

As with a simple sentence, a compound sentence can't have any subordinate clauses. Here are some compound sentences for your reading pleasure.

Independent ClauseConjunction or SemicolonIndependent Clause
Men are mammalsandwomen are femammals.
Mushrooms grow in damp placessothey look like umbrellas.
The largest mammals are found in the sea;there's nowhere else to put them.

You might also add a conjunctive adverb to this construction, as in this example: The largest mammals are found in the sea; after all, there's nowhere else to put them.

Complex Sentences: Not So Complex at All

A complex sentence contains one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. The independent clause is called the “main clause.” These sentences use subordinating conjunctions to link ideas. As you check out these examples, see if you can find the subordinating conjunctions.

  • Parallel lines never meet (independent clause) until (subordinating conjunction) you bend one of them (dependent clause).
  • Many dead animals of the past changed to oil (independent clause) while (subordinating conjunction) others preferred to be gas (dependent clause).
  • Even though (subordinating conjunction) the sun is a star (dependent clause), it knows how to change back to the sun in the daytime (independent clause).

The subordinating conjunctions are until, while, and even though.

Compound-Complex Sentences: The Big Kahuna

A compound-complex sentence has at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. The dependent clause can be part of the independent clause. For instance:

  • When the heat comes,
the lakes dry up,
  • dependent clause
independent clause
  • and farmers know the crops will fail.
  • independent clause
  • I planned to drive to work,
but I couldn't
  • independent clause
independent clause
  • until the mechanic repaired my car.
  • dependent clause

The Choice Is Yours

Decisions, decisions: Now that you know you have four different sentence types at your disposal, which ones should you use? Effective communication requires not only that you write complete sentences, but also that you write sentences that say exactly what you mean. Try these six guidelines as you decide which sentence types to use and when:

Danger, Will Robinson

Don't join the two parts of a compound sentence with a comma—you'll end up with a type of run-on sentence called a comma splice. More on this later in this section.

  • Every sentence should provide clear and complete information.
  • Most effective sentences are concise, conveying their meaning in as few words as possible.
  • Effective sentences stress the main point or the most important detail. In most cases, the main point is located in the main clause to make it easier to find.
  • Your choice of sentences depends on your audience. For example, you would use simple sentences and short words if your readers were children, while an audience of engineers would call for more technical language and longer sentences.
  • Always consider your purpose for writing before you select a sentence type.
  • The rhythm and pacing of your writing is determined by your sentences.

Before you shift into panic mode, you should know that most writers use a combination of all four sentence types to convey their meaning. Even Ernest Hemingway slipped a compound sentence or two in among all those simple sentences.

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Your readers make up your audience.

Face the Music

But now it's time to see what's what, who's who, and where you're at with this sentence stuff. To do so, label each of the following sentences as simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex.

  • ____ 1. If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.
  • ____ 2. The hardness of the butter is proportional to the softness of the bread.
  • ____ 3. You never really learn to swear until you learn to drive.
  • ____ 4. It takes about half a gallon of water to cook spaghetti, and about a gallon of water to clean the pot.
  • ____ 5. Monday is an awful way to spend one-seventh of your life.
  • ____ 6. Genetics explains why you look like your father and if you don't, why you should.
  • ____ 7. To succeed in politics, it is often necessary to rise above your principles.
  • ____ 8. Two wrongs are only the beginning.
  • ____ 9. When oxygen is combined with anything, heat is given off, a process known as “constipation.”
  • ____ 10. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.
1. complex6. compound-complex
2. simple7. complex
3. complex8. simple
4. compound9. compound-complex
5. simple10. compound
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at and Barnes & Noble.