Tips for Understanding and Using Complex Sentence Structures in Writing

By way of structure, sentences written in the English language can be grouped into four specific categories – however, there are countless constructions of each classification. Each classification is based distinctly on the amount of dependent and independent clauses contained within the sentence. A dependent clause requires another clause in order to create a complete sentence, whereas an independent clause creates a complete sentence on its own.

In taking the time to learn and understand the various types of sentences, writers will learn how to write more effectively by adding variation and complexity to their sentence structure.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to first understand the basic elements that go into a sentence.

Independent Clause: An independent clause contains a subject and a verb, and is in itself a complete idea. An independent clause can be a complete sentence on its own.

Dependent Clause: A dependent clause is also referred to as a subordinate clause. It is almost a complete sentence, but not quite. In order to be considered truly complete, it needs to be attached to an independent clause.

Subject: A subject is a person, place, animal, thing or an idea that has some sort of action.

Verb: A verb expresses what the subject (person, place, animal, etc.) is doing or will do.

Object: The object is the subject receiving the action.

Prepositional Phrase: A prepositional phrase is a phrase that starts with a preposition (in, at, for, until, etc) and modifies a word in a sentence. The phrase will answer questions relating to where, when, how, etc.

What is a Complex Sentence Structure?

A complex sentence, by definition, is a sentence with one of more dependent clauses. Given that a subordinate clause is incapable of standing on its own (ie. It is not a complete sentence) it requires at least one independent clause to make it whole. Simply put, a sentence containing one of more dependent clauses and one or more independent clauses is considered to be a complex sentence.

A sentence with two or more independent clause and one or more dependent clauses is known as a complex-compound sentence.

What is a simple sentence?

A simple sentence is just as the name implies – simple. It is easy to define – it contains only one independent clause and no dependent clauses.

Example: I swim.

The example mentioned above has a single independent clause which contains a single subject and a single predicate.

To further expand on the concept of a simple sentence, a simple sentence contains a subject, a verb and can also contain an object and / or modifiers. However, it will always only have a single independent clause.

What is a Compound Complex Sentence?

As mentioned earlier, a compound complex sentence is a sentence that contains two or more independent clauses and also one or more dependent clauses.

Using complex compound sentences in your writing will allow you much more variety in your work.

Distinguishing between different sentence types

A common weakness that all novice writers experience is the lack of sentence variety in their writing.  In both writing and speaking, sentences provide us with the ability to package information so that we are capable of clearly expressing ourselves and understanding those around us.

In every day English, we call upon a variety of sentence variations, each for different reasons. If we were to categorize the most commonly used sentences with their intended purposes, we would be left with four categories: statement, questions, exclamations and commands.

Or, more specifically: Simple or Declarative Sentences, Command or Imperative Sentences, Question or Interrogative Sentences, and Exclamatory Sentences.

The basic 4 sentence types

Earlier we noted that there were four basic sentence types.

They are:

  1. Simple or Declarative Sentences
  2. Command or Imperative Sentences
  3. Question of Interrogative Sentences
  4. Exclamatory Sentences

But, what does that mean really? Let’s take a look.

Declarative Sentences

Declarative sentences are sentences that are used to state information, or rather to declare something. This is the most commonly used type of sentence. Most forms of academic writing deploy simple or declarative sentences. A declarative sentence will always end with a period.

Example: Research has concluded that students who read on their own time do better in school.

Imperative Sentences

An imperative sentence is used to make a request or to give a command. This type of sentence will also always end with a sentence.

Example: Shut the front door.

Interrogative Sentences

An interrogative sentence serves the purpose of asking a question. This type of sentence will end with a question mark.

Example: Why didn’t you finish your homework?

Exclamatory Sentences

An exclamatory sentence is used to convey or express emotion and will often end with an exclamation mark.

These types of sentences are not commonly used in academic writing. In fact, they should only be used when expressing a strong emotion, something that doesn’t often happen in academic writing given its objective and formal nature.

Example: She is going to hurt herself!

Sentence types examples

After your comfort level for sentence variety has improved, try to incorporate as much variety into your writing as possible.

A question, or interrogative sentence, can prove especially helpful at the start of a paragraph when you need to summarize what previously happened and then transition into what will come next. Doing so will remind your audience what you had been speaking about (or where you are in your discussion) and then it will prepare them for what is yet to come.

Directive sentences offer energy and direction. Readers engage better when they are told what needs to be done. Commands are not easily ignored. Remember that tone is key. Try not to come across as being over authoritative.

You might have some success starting the occasional sentence with something other than the typical subject – verb order of things. Consider starting with a modified clause or a participial phrase and see how everything flows.

There is merit in attempting to vary your sentences between compound, complex and simple sentences in order to keep your audience interested in what you have to say. Keep this in mind as you write, and try to avoid too many sentences of the same variety. This is especially true for simple sentences as these will only result in your readers being uninterested in bored.