Most writing is done in declarative sentences. But those declarative sentences can be broken down into four types: simple, compound, complex and compound-complex. Good writers use all four types.
With older students who know what simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences are, I ask them to identify each sentence in an essay. I don’t do this for every essay, but occasionally it offers a student insight into his own writing. It also suggests sentence types that are overused or not used enough.
Using the four kinds of sentences, the student identifies every sentence in his essay using tally marks. Then we look at the results.
- Students who have a majority of simple sentences might be writing (and thinking) too simply if the sentences are mostly short and uncomplicated. An abundance of clear yet, complicated simple sentences, on the other hand, shows a writer mastering sentence construction.
- What is a complicated simple sentence? It might start with a phrase—a gerund phrase, an infinitive phrase or a prepositional phrase. It might add a compound subject or predicate and include a direct object or predicate adjective. It might delight with details such as appositives. Words might be out of the typical order. There is no one formula.
- Students who have a majority of complex sentences might be writing in too complicated a manner, especially if the average number of words per sentence (we’ll discuss this in a future blog) is more than 20. A high mix of complicated simple sentences and complex sentences, with a few short simple sentences thrown in, almost like spices in a recipe, usually results in attractive writing.
- Some students use complex sentences well but nearly always begin those sentences with the independent clauses. Turning some of those sentences around—starting with the subordinate conjunction—adds sentence variety without much effort.
- Overuse of compound sentences can make a student’s writing sound childlike. So can overusing a single subject and a compound predicate. If a student is aware that he tends to prefer these kinds of sentence formations, he can make changes as he writes or even before he writes a sentence.
- Ask students who overuse compound sentences to circle all the “and,” “but” and “so” words in their sentences. Now ask them to relate the same ideas without using “and,” “but” or “so.” Students are forced to imagine different sentence structures.
- Compound-complex sentences generally are long. Occasionally, such sentences are fine, but a high mix of them usually makes for difficult reading.
- Some compound-complex sentences are rambling, wordy sentences which should be cut into parts both for clarity and sophistication. Encourage the student to replace this kind of sentence with a complicated simple sentence and / or a complex sentence, not with a compound sentence.
We’ll discuss each of these sentence types in more detail in future blogs, but for now, let’s move on to my students’ favorite writing activity: math!