Our Short Guide to Sentences and Clauses
In previous posts, I referred to some of the mechanics of sentence construction, noting that many students are surprisingly unfamiliar with even the most basic elements. Of course, one can get through life without knowing how sentences should be structured, but knowing them makes writing easier, and – I would go so far as to argue – can make your thinking more precise and well-organized. This post will discuss the nuts and bolts of sentences construction, identifying four different types based on combinations of independent and dependent clauses.
As I mentioned in a previous post, a sentence at its most basic level must contain one subject and one predicate (often simplified as the “action,” or the verb) – for example, “I write” is a basic sentence. Moreover, a sentence is comprised of one or more clauses, which themselves contain at least one subject and one predicate. However, not all clauses can stand on their own as sentences.
Clauses are either independent or dependent. An independent clause, such as “I write,” or “I drink coffee,” can stand on its own. However, while dependent clauses must still contain subjects and predicates, they cannot stand on their own, and only exist to modify independent clauses – for example, “while I drink coffee” is a dependent clause. It contains a subject (“I”) and a verb (“drink”) but it does not make sense on its own.
Based on how you combine independent and dependent clauses, you can create four basic sentence types: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.
Simple Sentences: A simple sentence consists of one stand-alone independent clause – to use the example above, “I write.”
Complex Sentences: A complex sentence consists of one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses – combining the examples above, “I write while drinking coffee.” Now the dependent clause makes sense because it has a context based on the independent clause that it modifies.
Compound Sentence: A compound sentence combines one independent clause with one or more independent clauses – for example, “I write, and I drink coffee.” Both clauses could stand on their own, but are combined to produce a different effect. Note: there are special rules for combining independent clauses, which I discuss in my entry on comma splices.
Compound-Complex Sentences: A compound-complex sentence combines two or more independent clauses with one or more dependent clauses – “I write, and I drink coffee, while I sit at the computer.”
There is a time and a place for each of these, and good writers vary their sentence construction. A piece of writing consisting entirely of simple sentences would become tedious and repetitive, while one consisting entirely of compound-complex sentences would get confusing.
Think about the effect you want to produce, the ideas you want to emphasize, and the relationships you want to establish between ideas.