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Learning Grammar and Understanding Sentence Structure
Simple, Compound, Complex and Compound-Complex Sentences
I always loved to write. There was one small problem, grammar. I did my best to ignore the problem. In high school and college, my papers were returned severely wounded from the red ink that my instructor slashed across the pages. I huffed a bit but convinced myself that the amazing content of the piece would carry the writing. Ah, the naivety! After eight years of this steadfast belief (high school and undergraduate studies), I finally realized that my writing was suffering because of my grammatical mistakes. I made the decision to pursue a graduate degree in literature, convinced that I would learn grammar on the journey; I was right. Learning grammar has been a long journey that continues today. However, today I teach developmental writing and do grammar exercises for entertainment. I often tell my students how once I was lost in the complicated world of grammar, but with many books and long hours of study, I learned to be a much more confident grammarian. Many students feel defeated by the many rules of grammar, but I believe grammar is a subject anyone can learn and enjoy.
A student recently asked me how editors possibly remembered all the grammar rules (we were discussing apostrophes after a long, but fun, semester of discussing sentence structure, five paragraph essays, commonly confused words, and other exciting aspects of grammar and writing). I replied that editors look up grammar rules if necessary, and in addition to keeping a rule book in close vicinity of their being at all times, patterns begin to develop in the English language the more one studies it.
The patterns that begin to develop as I teach and continue to study grammar are probably not always founded in academia, but they help me to remember the rules. Humans need to make connections and organize information in their minds in order to retain new knowledge. It helps to know the boundaries of what is being learned. Students should have an idea of the start point and the end point of what they are learning. I find otherwise they feel grammar rules are never ending and arbitrary. I don’t claim to know all the grammar rules. I find myself looking rules up and reviewing old rules often, but I have taught myself to “chunk” the rules that I do learn. One of the rules I found most enlightening is that there are four types of sentences (or sentence structures). I can build and move within those boundaries, but at least I know I am working with four types of sentences.
I. Simple Sentence
A simple sentence has one subject, one verb, and it expresses a complete thought (otherwise known as an independent clause). In the following sentence the subject is italicized and the verb is underlined.
The dog jumped.
The painting is lovely.
A simple sentence, however, can also have a compound subject or a compound verb:
She and I jumped.
The dog and cat ran.
The dog ran and jumped.
The painting and couch are lovely.
He and I spoke.
Or a compound subject and compound verb:
She and I ran and jumped.
The dog and cat ran and jumped.
Don’t underestimate the power of a simple sentence. As many writers will tell you, the key to using the different sentence types is variety.
II. Compound Sentence
A compound sentence has two independent clauses that are joined together.
Writers often join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction. The coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS) are: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So
Examples of compound sentences (commas and coordinating conjunctions are in italics):
The man was talking to his dog, but the dog was not listening.
The painting and the couch are lovely, and I love the wall paint in the living room.
He and I spoke briefly, but there was little to say.
You can go to the store with me, or you can make dinner from scratch.
I did not see the point of investing more money, yet his reasons to invest were quite convincing.
Do not use commas with coordinating conjunctions unless they are between two independent clauses:
Incorrect: The dog, and cat ran.
Correct: The dog and cat ran.
Incorrect: Julie went to the store, and bought bananas.
Correct: Julie went to the store and bought bananas.
But if the coordinating conjunction is between two independent clauses, you need the comma.
Julie went to the store, and she bought bananas.
However, if two clauses are closely related, as in the above and following example, one might choose to omit the comma.
The dog ran and the cat jumped.
III. Complex Sentences:
A complex sentence consists of a dependent and independent clause. I find most my students can identify that an independent clause must have a subject and verb, but they struggle with the idea of a complete thought. Knowing an independent clause must have a complete thought helps as we begin to navigate complex sentences.
After I find the keys to my car.
The above clause is a dependent clause. Although it has a subject (I) and a verb (find), it cannot stand on its own because it is not a complete thought; therefore, it is not an independent clause. “After I find my keys,” what? The reader wants to know what is going to happen after you find your keys. This clause is dependent on more information in order to be complete, so it is a dependent clause. A complex sentence has a dependent and independent clause.
In the following examples, the dependent clause is italicized and the independent clause is underlined. Examples of complex sentences:
After I find the keys to my car, I’m going to go shopping.
If I go to work late, I will be paid less.
Complex sentences have a dependent clause, and a dependent clause often begins with a subordinating conjunction. The subordinating conjunctions are:
After, Although, As, As if, As though, Because, Before, Even though, If
Since, So that, Though, Unless, Until, When, Whenever, Where, Whereas
Wherever, Whether, While
If the dependent clause begins the sentence, a comma must be used between the dependent and independent clauses:
Although I enjoy work, I also enjoy vacations.
Before I go to work each morning, I let the dog out for five minutes.
Whether or not I pass the class, I still have to take a summer class.
While I was at work, the dog chewed my favorite pair of shoes.
Because I went to work early, I found a good parking space.
When I was fifteen, I left home.
If the dependent clause does not begin the sentence, a comma is not necessary:
I let the dog out for five minutes before I go to work.
The dog chewed my favorite pair of shoes while I was at work.
I found a good parking space because I went to work early.
I was fifteen when I left home.
Although there is one more type of sentence, I believe the above three are the three that should be mastered first. By knowing how to confidently write simple, compound and complex sentences, a person can improve their writing dramatically.
IV. Compound-Complex Sentence
As the name implies, the compound-complex sentence consists of a compound and complex sentence. Therefore, a compound-complex sentence will have a dependent clause and at least two independent clauses. In the following sentence I have italicized the dependent clause and underlined the compound sentence.
Although I enjoy watching movies, I prefer reading a book, and I love to write.
Until I found my husband, I didn’t understand how to effectively communicate with a significant other, and I had given up on having a healthy relationship.
When I was young, I loved climbing trees, but my favorite exercise was swimming in the summer.
I feel that this is article presents a decent overview of the general types of sentences. I think having a general understanding can help one tremendously in their writing; I know it did for me. Please feel free to send any questions or add to these rules. Thanks!