Here's the final lesson on sentence structures, in which I bit off FAR more than I could chew. Thanks to my friend Steve Fitschen for helping me out (and writing a good chunk of this lesson). Future lessons will have far less grammar and far more art, I hope.Complex sentences
A complex sentence has one independent clause
(simple sentence, complete thought) and one (or more) dependent clauses
(groups of words that cannot stand alone, that is, incomplete thoughts).
Unfortunately, I have to introduce one more grammar term since there are two different groups of words that cannot stand alone: clauses and phrases. A clause is a group of words that contains a verb and its subject (even though the group cannot stand alone). A phrase is simply a group of words that does not have a verb with its subject.
So, this sentence is a simple sentence: Disney World is my favorite place to visit with my husband and granddaughter.
That’s because “with my husband and granddaughter
” is a prepositional phrase.
However, this sentence is a complex sentence: Disney World is my favorite place to visit when my husband and granddaughter come with me
. That’s because “when my husband and granddaughter come with me
” is a clause
Once I’m sure I have one independent clause and one dependent clause, I can write either clause first:When I’m visiting Disney World
, I avoid the roller coasters.I avoid the roller coasters when I’m visiting Disney World
As you can see, sometimes a complex sentence has a comma, and sometimes it does not. Compound-complex sentence
A compound complex sentence has two (or more) independent clauses
(simple sentences, complete thoughts) and one (or more) dependent clauses
(that is, incomplete thoughts that contain verbs with their subjects).I love
amusement parks, but I avoid the roller coasters when I’m visiting Disney World
amusement parks, but I avoid the roller coasters when I’m visiting Disney World and when I’m visiting Six Flags.Sentences with compound subjects
Any of the above types of sentences may have a compound subject
—two (or more) people or things (nouns) that are the subjects of the sentence.
(simple sentence) Four-year-old boys and girls
enjoy lots of activity.
(compound sentence) Preschoolers and their parents
often need naps, and naps can revitalize grumpy family members.
(complex sentence) Children and their siblings
tend to bicker when parents don’t stop them.
(compound-complex sentences) Piper and her cousin
usually get along, but they fight over books and over who sits on grandma’s lap. Sentences with compound verbs
Any of the above sentences may have a compound verb
—two (or more) actions that are performed by the subject of the sentence.
(simple sentence) Jan enjoys solving
crossword puzzles and playing
(compound sentence) Jan hoped
to remember her recital piece; her prayers were answered.
(complex sentence) When it comes to crossword puzzles, I either solve
them quickly or can’t complete
them at all.
(compound-complex sentence) When it comes to crossword puzzles, I either solve
them quickly or can’t complete
them at all; but when it comes to Sudoku, I either solve
them quickly or stick
with them no matter how long it takes.
I’d like to encourage you to try the following exercise (and this will be your homework this week):
1. Pick a bit of your own writing that you really like—perhaps a challenge entry that did well. Some of you have already started this, with the previous lessons about sentences.
2. Make a tally of the kinds of sentences that you use. While you’re at it, also count sentence lengths.
3. Make a note—is there a type of sentence that you use more than others? Is there a type of sentence that you use hardly at all? Please take note that I’m not saying that it’s necessary for you to have an exactly equal distribution of sentence types. But you should use all of the types of sentences in your writing.
4. See if you use a variety of sentence lengths.
5. Finally, note if there are sentence structures that you tend to overuse. For example, I had one editing client who tended to write a lot of sentences like this:As Jan walked into the house, she smelled apple pie in the oven.
As the wind picked up outside, leaves danced and swirled in the yard.
There’s nothing wrong with those sentences, but she used that As this happened, this also happened
structure far too often.
I had another client who used this structure too much:The puppy pounced on Bill’s toes, then it nipped his sock.
Tessa flopped on the bed in tears, then pounded her pillow in frustration.
Again, the sentences were grammatically correct, but she used that particular setup far too often. So note any similarities in the sentences you write, and work on finding different arrangements for some of them.
I did this exercise for my favorite challenge entry, Sacrament
. There were 54 sentences in this entry. If I tallied them correctly, 17 were simple sentences, 12 were compound, and 19 were complex—a fairly even distribution. Only 1 sentence was compound-complex, and that’s something that I might want to examine in future writing. However, since this piece is written from the POV of a young boy, I intentionally kept the sentences on the simple side. And that's the key: Match your sentence types and lengths to the sort of writing you're doing.
There were also 7 intentional sentence fragments. The sentence lengths ranged from 2 words to 28, again with a fairly even distribution (and an odd peak of 22-word sentences).
While I was counting sentence types, I noticed a type of sentence that I may have used too much--sentences like this:Her grayish sheet is crumpled, her bed empty.
The sky is pale, the sun invisible behind the city's haze.
...his brothers have begun to cry, their stomachs empty as his.
...the neighbors will be angry, may even call the police.
I don't even know if there's a name for what I did there--ending each sentence with a phrase with some words omitted (but implied). Obviously, I like that particular device--it's kind of artsy, and it fits in well with my voice. But if I overuse it, readers might find it forced and annoying.
One of the things that makes your writing pleasant to read is flow
. If all of your sentences are of similar types and lengths, your prose will fall into a sort of rhythm and may distract the reader, or cause her to put her reading on ‘autopilot.’ So within a typical paragraph, include both short and long sentences.
If you want to quicken the pace, put several short or simple sentences in a row.
If you want to stretch out the pace, put several longer, complex or compound sentences in succession.
Incidentally, all of this advice is true for paragraph lengths, too. Mix up long paragraphs with short paragraphs, chosen intentionally for pacing and for their impact on your readers.HOMEWORK
: Analyze a piece of writing to determine if you use a variety of sentence types and lengths, and also to see if there's a sentence structure that you overuse. What have you learned about your writing by this exercise? What will you work on? What did you do well?
Do you have any questions or comments for me?