A Sentence for Every Occasion
By Jacqueline Schaalje
Warning: This is a lesson at Expert level. If you’re a beginner, read only the first part in this article about simple sentences, and then do something else.
In this article you’ll learn how to write and recognize simple sentences, then compound sentences, and finally complex sentences.
As a general tip: Learn simple sentences first, and then try more difficult ones. Perfecting the English grammar takes time, so better start with simple sentences and gradually build complex ones.
First learn to say and write simple sentences with the basic word order.
SUBJECT – VERB – OBJECT(S) – PLACE – TIME
Javier eats an apple on the bus every morning.
Javier = the subject
Eats = verb
An apple = object
On the bus = place
Every morning = time
Note: Not all sentences have all the five elements.
Now try questions and negatives.
For negatives, the “not” always comes after the first verb.
Here are some examples of that:
Javier does not eat an apple at work every morning. = Javier doesn’t eat an apple at work every morning.
We will not move to another city next week. = We won’t move to another city next week.
Now try questions.
With questions you have to put the first verb at the beginning of the sentence.
Does Javier eat an apple at work every morning?
Will we move to another city next week?
Okay. Got that? Here there is more about making questions, in case you need it.
Now you’re ready to move to compound sentences.
Compound sentences are sentences where two sentences are connected by: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. The first letter of each of those words spells “Fanboys.”
Please note that you can still split the two parts of the sentence into two simple sentences and it’s meaning will not change. You will have two finished sentences.
The Fanboys conjunctions cannot move around in the sentence. They are always in the middle between the two sentences.
So now let’s make sentences with the Fanboys.
We have two simple sentences here:
1 Michaela isn’t ready to go out.
2 Keith is waiting for the bus.
Let’s connect with for, which means because, and gives a reason for the first clause (part) in the sentence.
Michaela isn’t ready to go out, for Keith is waiting for the bus.
Michaela isn’t ready to go out, and Keith is waiting for the bus.
Nor means “and also not” (the same meaning as either and neither).
Michaela isn’t ready to go out, nor is Keith waiting for the bus.
Indicates a difference or a contrast between the two parts of the sentence.
Michaela is ready to go out, but Keith is waiting for the bus.
Michaela isn’t ready to go out, or Keith is waiting for the bus.
Michaela and Ketih are always having problems. At least one of the two has a problem.
As a conjunction (connecting word), “yet” has the same meaning as “but.”
Michaela is ready to go out, yet Keith is waiting for the bus.
So this sentence would be the same with “but” in the place of “yet.”
“So” means “because of this” or “following this.”
Michaela is ready to go out, so Keith is waiting for the bus.
If you’re able to use the above conjuctions (connecting words), you basically know how compound sentences work.
Don’t forget to put in commas!
But do have a look at this rule:
The rule for commas in compound sentences is: Put in the comma before the conjunction. If the sentence is short and clear, you may choose not to use a comma.
Here are some examples of short, clear sentences where a comma is unnecessary:
The weather is clear so it’s a fine time for a swim.
It’s 8 and I need to go home.
You like peas or so I thought.
It’s past midnight yet I’m still awake.
Now you’re ready for the next step, which is…
Complex sentences have at least one dependent clause. That means that this clause cannot be an independent sentence that can exist on its own. It needs to be a part of another sentence, otherwise it doesn’t make sense.
Have a look at this example:
Until he was ten years old, he had never seen the ocean.
This is a complex sentence. What is different from the compound sentence?
But first, let’s ask ourselves, what is the same?
There is a conjunction: “until.”
There are two parts of the sentence that can be taken apart:
- Until he was ten years old.
- He had never seen the ocean.
Are they two independent sentences? No, only the second one is an independent sentence, or clause.
The first clause cannot exist on its own: “Until he was ten years old.” You want to ask: Until he was ten years old, what? This sentence needs to be finished.
The second clause, on the other hand, can be an independent sentence. “He had never seen the ocean.” This is okay as a sentence.
The conjunction is “until.” So now we know that until makes a dependent clause. So we can find “until” in a complex sentence.
The mother lion was resting in the grass, while her cubs were mock-fighting with each other.
(mock-fighting is not real fighting)
The conjunction is “while.”
Let’s divide the two sentence parts again and check whether they are dependent or independent clauses.
- The mother lion was resting in the grass.
- While her cubs were mock-fighting with each other.
Do you agree that only the first sentence is an independent clause? “The mother lion was resting in the grass.” This is a full sentence.
The second phrase is not a full sentence. “While her cubs were mock-fighting with each other.” You want to ask: While what? Something needs to come before the while. This is a dependent clause.
So again this is a complex sentence.
I found myself still thinking about the movie after I came home.
The conjunction is “after.”
When we divide the sentence into two parts, connected by after.
The part of the sentence with “after” is dependent on the other part. “After I came home” is not a complete sentence.
So this is a complex sentence.
Conjunctions in Complex Sentences
Here is a list of conjunctions that start a dependent clause, and that you can therefore find in complex sentences:
Conjunctions that show a contrast:
Though (short for although)
Conjunctions that give a reason:
Conjunctions that show a time:
As soon as
Conjunctions that show purpose:
Conjunctions that indicate manner:
As you can see, “as” can be used in three different meanings, but whatever its meaning it always creates a dependent clause.
Conjunctions that Aren’t Fanboys Make Complex Sentences
In other words, all the other conjunctions that are not Fanboys make complex sentences, which consist of one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.
You can add as many dependent clauses to a complex sentence as you want. But don’t make your sentences too long! They will not be more pleasant to read. In general, people prefer reading sentences under 15 words.
This article sums up some recommendations about sentence length.
Examples of Complex Sentences
Here are some examples of complex sentences that have more than one dependent clause.
- Early in the morning, the package arrived, before I was out of the shower.
It’s complex because of the conjunction “before.” It also has another dependent clause: Early in the morning. This is not an independent sentence (it’s not finished).
- As soon as George felt better, we started the car again, although we drove slowly down the bends, so as not to make him sick again.
Yay! Here there are three dependent clauses with three corresponding (= belonging to them) conjunctions:
- As soon as George felt better.
- Although we drove slowly down the bends
- So as not to make him sick again.
None of these three sentences can stand on their own. They have to be part of a larger sentence.
You may want to ask about “so.” You have seen the conjunction “so” in the Fanboys, but in the sentence about George it’s “so as” and it doesn’t create an independent sentence. Can you see the difference with the “so” in the Fanboys sentence?
Mix of Complex and Compound
There are also sentences that combine both complex and compound sentences. So they’ll have dependent clauses as well as independent clauses. Here is an example of that:
Mai wouldn’t like to live in Paris, nor would she like to like to live in any other big city, although she does like to visit them.
Can you spot the conjunctions and the dependent and independent clauses in this sentence? Here they are:
1) Nor would she like to like to live in any other big city. Nor = a Fanboys conjunction that starts an independent clause.
2) Although she does like to visit them. Although is a conjunction that starts a dependent clause.
Here’s another one for you:
Even if they’ve already bought the CD in the past, many people will buy the same album again when it’s re-released, and older artists will profit from that.
1) Even if they’ve already bought the CD in the past. “Even if” starts a dependent clause.
2) And older artists will profit from that. “And” starts an independent clause.
Longer is Not Better
On the whole, I don’t recommend you to use more than one or two conjunctions in your sentence. If you need more, you’d better start a new sentence. This is unless your name is Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust or only one of a handful of writers who can write long sentences that are still clear. As far as I know the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai is the absolute master of the long sentence: his sentences run a page long (!) and they’re still readable, even enjoyable.
Now try the quiz:
Click here to do this quiz online. (Expert Level)
In the quiz you’re choosing a conjunction and say what kind of sentence it is (compound or complex).