Sentences

A sentence expresses a thing (the noun, or subject) performing an action (the verb, or predicate). A sentence should usually be composed of at least one independent clause, though there are times when sentence fragments are acceptable. 

Types of sentences

Simple sentences

simple sentence is a sentence that is made of a single independent clause and no dependent clauses. It contains a subject and predicate and nothing else—for example:

The cat crouched.

The rain is falling.

The mail hasn’t come.

Each of these sentences contains a single clause composed of a subject (The catThe rainThe mail) and a predicate (crouchedis fallinghasn’t come).

Simple sentences can get quite long without becoming compound or complex sentences—for example:

A few years ago, the man now protesting the government was on unemployment and had no health insurance.

Although this sentence is relatively long, it still contains nothing more than a subject (the man now protesting the government), a predicate (was on unemployment and had no health insurance), and a non-clausal adverbial phrase (A few years ago,) modifying the verb was. Another example:

In an hour, I’m going home.

Because the prepositional phrase In an hour is not a clause, this is a simple sentence.

Compound sentences

compound sentence is any sentence that contains more than one independent clause—for example:

We were going to take a walk, but then it started raining.

Both of the clauses in this sentence—(1) we were going to take a walk and (2) but then it started raining—are independent and could stand alone as sentences, so this is a compound sentence.

A sentence that contains one independent clause and one dependent clause is not compound—for example:

Because it started raining, we didn’t go for a walk.

The clause because it started raining is dependent on the main clause, so this is not a compound sentence.

The clauses in a compound sentences may be linked with a coordinating conjunction (as in the first example above), with a semicolon, or with an em-dash.

Complex sentences

complex sentence is a sentence that has at least one dependent clause—for example:

So it isn’t surprising that his song about mass-murderer Charles Whitman is gloriously irreverent and wildly offensive. [AV Club]

Independent clause: So it isn’t surprising. Dependent clause: that his song about mass-murderer Charles Whitman is gloriously irreverent and wildly offensive.

It begins when young sisters Scarlett and Rosie March are attacked in their home by a Fenris … [Novel Novice]

Independent clause: It begins. Dependent clause: when young sisters Scarlett and Rosie March are attacked in their home by a Fenris.

The fat man seated in front of Patricia Marx, I learn, has “a bad case of sleep apnea.” [The Paris Review Blog]

Independent clause: The fat man . . . has “a bad case of sleep apnea.” Dependent clauses: (1) [who is] seated in front of Patricia Marx; (2) I learn.

Complex-compound sentences

complex-compound sentence is a combination of a complex sentence and a compound one. A compound sentence has at least two independent clauses, and a complex sentence has at least one dependent clause, so a complex-compound sentence has at least two independent clauses along with at least one dependent clause.

Here are a few examples:

I would like to go to Japan, but Sally wants to visit Rome before the Euro improves against the dollar.

Independent clauses: (1) I would like to go to Japan;( 2) but Sally wants to visit Rome.

Dependent clause: before the Euro improves against the dollar

Although most people say Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie, I prefer A New Hope, and that’s the movie I most often put in when I can’t decide what I want to watch.

Independent clauses: (1) I prefer A New Hope; (2) and that’s the movie I most often put in

Dependent clauses: (1) Although most people say Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie; (2) when I can’t decide what to watch

People enrolled in this plan are covered only if they go to a doctor or hospital within the network, but insurers are also experimenting with plans that allow a patient to see someone outside the network but pay much more than they would in a traditional plan offering out-of-network benefits. [NYT]

Independent clauses: (1) People enrolled in this plan are covered; (2) but insurers are also experimenting with plans

Dependent clauses: (1) only if they go to see a doctor or hospital within the network; (2) that allow a patient to see someone outside the network but pay much more than they would in a traditional plan offering out-of-network benefits.

Good sentences

These guidelines don’t apply in all cases or in all types of writing, and they are not rules by any means. But in general, they are worth considering.

1.  Strong sentences have strong finishes: One way to weaken a sentence is to end it with a flat phrase like in many cases or in all likelihood—for example:

The prices are only going to go up, in all likelihood.

A stronger revision of this sentence would be,

In all likelihood, the prices are only going to go up.

Another way to weaken a sentence is to end it with a perfunctory attribution. The sentence can be strengthened by moving the attribution to the beginning:

California farmers intend to plant 100,000 acres of Upland cotton this year, up 41% from the acreage seeded in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. [The Business Journal]

One possible revision:

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California farmers intend to plant 100,000 acres of Upland cotton this year, up 41% from the acreage seeded in 2009.

This sentence makes both mistakes:

Taxpayers who reside or have a business in the disaster area qualify for the May 11 deadlines in many cases, the IRS said. [Boston Globe]

2. Sentence length and readability: For maximum readability, sentences should average between 20 and 25 words in length. Much more important, however, is to vary sentence length. Mix longer sentences with shorter sentences, and vary the sentences’ structures. Compare these two versions of the same paragraph:

It’s tough for me to judge the efficacy of this ad since I’ve never fed, much less owned, a cat. The spot seems thoughtfully crafted, though, and the animation looks sharp. It certainly manages to stand out from other pet-food ads on TV. Were I a hep, bohemian cat peering at this ad from atop my owner’s entertainment console, I imagine I’d be curious to taste the grub those kooky hippies at Friskies are cooking up. [Slate]

It’s tough for me to judge this ad’s efficacy. I have never fed or owned a cat. The spot seems thoughtfully crafted, though. The animation looks sharp. It manages to stand out from other pet-food ads on TV. I imagine I’d be curious if I were a hep bohemian cat. I’d want to taste the grub those kooky hippies at Friskies are cooking up.

The difference may be subtle, but it’s part of what separates good writers from merely functional ones.

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