Category Archives: complex sentence

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.

“Automatic pilot” sentences can reveal character

Do you have “automatic pilot” sentences, the kind you use most of the time when you aren’t thinking about grammar or effect, the kind you use when you are speaking off the cuff or writing to a friend?  Most of us do.

Do you know that these “automatic pilot” sentences reveal how we think?  Take a look at the following sentences and some possible interpretations.

Dogs bark.   Simple sentence, subject followed by verb, no modifiers.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  Black and white thinker?

Some dogs bark, but not all dogs bark.  Compound sentence, simple grammar, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  A thinker who hedges?  A thinker who repeats for emphasis?  A thinker who wants to prevent misunderstanding?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark.  Complex sentence, less important idea stated first, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  A thinker unwilling to impose views on others?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark, and not all barking animals are dogs.  Compound-complex sentence, complex grammar, multiple qualifiers, repetition of idea, convoluted logic.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  Muddled thinker?  An attorney?  A trickster?

When I talk to immigrants for whom English is not a first language, my automatic pilot sentences are short and usually simple or compound.  I use no contractions.  My vocabulary is basic unless I recognize that they are comfortable with English.  My sentences use active, not passive, verbs.  My sentences seem to show I am a simplistic thinker.

But when I speak to native born English speakers and especially to savvy adults, I speak in long and complicated automatic pilot sentences, like this one.  I use contractions and, unless I am talking to a child, an academic vocabulary.  My sentences seem to show that I am a complex, well educated thinker.

Take a look at an email you’ve written.  What do your automatic pilot sentences reveal about your mind?

Lockstep sentences, one after another, bore readers

What is a lockstep sentence?  Usually, it’s a sentence which begins with a subject (a noun or pronoun) and is followed by a predicate (a verb and a direct object, or a verb and a linked noun or adjective).  If there is a prepositional phrase, it comes at the end of the sentence.

Here is such a lockstep sentence pattern.

1  John watched the television news.  2  He saw an interesting discussion.  3  New York’s Congressman Newman debated Delaware’s Congressman Doe.  4  Congressman Newman took the conservative position and Congressman Doe took the liberal position.  5  “That’s a good discussion,” thought John.

Notice the sentence patterns:

1  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

2  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

3  subject, verb, direct object     (eight words)

4  subject, verb, direct object, conjunction, subject, verb, direct object  (13 words)

5  subject, verb, predicate noun, verb, subject (six words)

These five sentences follow a lockstep pattern.  They all begin with a subject.  Two have adjectives before the simple subject, but all start with the complete subject.  Each subject is followed by a verb which is followed by a direct object in four cases and a predicate noun in the other case.  The longer sentence is actually two simple sentences following the same pattern, but connected with a conjunction to form a compound sentence.

In this case, the lockstep sentences contain few words, adding to their tedium.

A lockstep sentence pattern needn’t be this particular pattern, but it is a pattern which repeats over and over, sentence after sentence.

For some writers, the pattern is a single subject and a compound predicate.  “I ate dinner and took a walk.  The night was warm but humid.  I stood under a tree and waited for the rain to stop.  Then I went home and drank hot tea.”

For other writers, the pattern is an adverb to start the sentence followed by a subject and a predicate.  “Playfully, my dog licked my ankle.  Then she walked to her mat.  There she scratched herself.  However, she heard thunder in the distance.  Immediately, she returned to my side.”

For some writers, the pattern is a series of complex sentences with the subordinate clause always coming after the independent clause.  “I stopped the car because a blue light flashed ahead.  Soon cars parted as a fire engine passed.  Then an ambulance wailed while I checked my GPS.”

What can a writer do to avoid lockstep patterns?

First, analyze your own writing.  See if you consistently use a pattern.

Next, as your write, be aware of your tendency to use that pattern.  Look over your work, and if you notice that pattern, change the sentences.  If you usually begin with a subject followed by a verb, start some sentences with prepositional phrases, adverbs or gerund phrases.  If you usually begin with an adverb, cross out half of them, and then cross out half the rest.  If you write mostly short sentences, turn some of them into complicated simple sentences or complex sentences with double the words.

Lockstep sentence patterns are like familiar car routes.  We become so comfortable using them that we don’t explore new ways of expressing ourselves.  But we should to keep our writing fresh and our readers engaged.

When should I use a comma?

“When should I use a comma?” is the question about writing I am asked  more than any other.

student thinking about what to write

Below are the rules.  But experts disagree on many of them, and good writers ignore some of the rules.  If you are a student, ask your teacher what she expects.  Language is always changing, and that includes rules for writing language.  In general, as American English has become more informal, fewer commas are used today than in the past.

  • The rule: In a series of three (red, white, and blue), use two commas.  The practice:  Many people skip the comma before the word “and.”  They think, if I don’t need a comma between “white and blue,” why do I need one for “red, white and blue”?
  • The rule: In a compound sentence, a comma goes after the first clause.  (I like snow, so I like winter sports.)  In practice:  If the clauses are short, most good writers skip the comma if the meaning is clear.  If the clauses are long, they use the comma.
  • The rule: Use a comma after a stand-alone adverb which starts the sentence.  (First, let me eat.  Then, we can talk.)  The practice:  Sometimes the comma is used, but many times it is not if the meaning is clear.
  • The rule: When a dependent clause starts a sentence, end that clause with a comma before writing the independent clause.  (The previous sentence is an example of that.)  The practice:  Good writers follow this rule.  What if the first clause is the independent clause?  No comma is needed.  Students make lots of mistakes with this rule, especially when using the word “because.”
  • The rule: When you start a sentence with “because,” you cannot put a period at the end of that clause.  Instead, you must end that clause with a comma and continue the sentence with an independent clause.  The practice:  Teachers tell students they can’t start sentences with “because” to avoid students’ writing fragments.   Of course, you can start a sentence with almost any word, including “because,” if you use correct sentence structure and punctuation.
  • The rule: Appositives require commas before and after.  (My teacher, Mrs. Smith, gives lots of homework.)  If an appositive ends the sentence, then the “after” comma becomes a period.  The practice:  Commas are often not used with appositives.
  • The rule: The identity of the person speaking a direct quote needs to be set off with a comma.  (Mom said, “Eat your dinner.”  “Eat your dinner,” Mom said.)  If the spoken words end with a question mark or exclamation point, then the comma is not used.  (“Look!” said Mom.  “Where?” I asked.)  The practice:  Most good writers use this rule.  If the quote is indirect, commas might or might not be needed.  (Eat your dinner, my mother said.  I said I would.)
  • The rule: Between cities, states and countries commas are needed, but not between states and zip codes.  The practice:  This rule is used.
  • The rule: Between days of the week, dates, and years, commas are needed.  (My vacation stopped on Saturday, August 13, 2016, when I returned home.)  Notice that if the date does not end the sentence, a comma is required after the date or year.   The practice:  This rule is followed by good writers.
  • The rule:  If just a month and year are used, no comma is required.  (He graduated in May 2016.)  The practice:  This rule is generally used, but some grammar books require a comma in the last sentence.  (He graduated in May, 2016).
  • The rule: If “yes” or “no” begin a sentence, those words are followed by a comma.  (Yes, I can hear you.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: When speaking directly to someone, a comma is used before or after the person’s name.  (Lou, come here.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: To offset a negative phrase, commas are used before and after.  (I saw Annushka, not Sei, at the movies.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: For house numbers, no comma is needed.  But for other numbers of a thousand or more, commas are needed to separate every three numerals beginning from the right or decimal point.  The practice:  This rule is followed.

If you are using a grammar book as a reference, check the date.  Older versions require more commas.  If you are using a source from outside the US (English booklets prepared by a foreign company, for example), more commas will be required.  If you are a high school or college student, ask your teacher which style book he or she will use to grade your work and follow that style book’s rules.

How to be better understood on the web

Readers from the US, Pakistan, India, Australia, Georgia and Norway have visited this blog today.  I assume many of them are not native speakers of English.

How do I (and you) write for an international audience so that our writing is clear?

  • Eliminate idioms. Idioms don’t easily shift from one culture to another.  They might be taken as literal by people who have learned English as a second or third language.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

  • Use a simplified vocabulary. Even if you know many synonyms, stick to common words, not rare ones.
  • Stick to standard English. Eliminate dialects or colloquiums.
  • Eliminate texting shortcuts. GTG is far from universal.
  • Keep your grammar simple. If you use complex sentences, limit yourself to one dependent clause per sentence.  Make sure pronoun antecedents are easy to figure out.  If they aren’t, repeat the nouns.
  • Use short sentences. Give yourself an upper word limit per sentence of 15 to 20 words.
  • Use American spelling.  It is the most common spelling of English words used on the web.
  • Assume your readers might not be fluent in English. Assume they might be ignorant of nuances of language that you take for granted.  Their English vocabularies might be rudimentary or restricted to one field of study.  Write accordingly.
  • Eliminate cultural bias. Pay attention to the connotations or double meanings of words.
  • Eliminate allusions.  So many references which well educated Americans use in writing are to the Bible, to Shakespeare or to pop songs.  Many readers will not understand them.
  • Use emojis.  Emojis can say in one picture what takes many words.

How to write clearly for future generations

Among the hardest materials for students to read today are the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (Lexile scores 1350 and 1560 respectively). Because Thomas Jefferson knew future generations would be reading his words in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote them as carefully as possible in 1776.  Even so, they are difficult to understand by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren’s generation.

Many reasons exist for this difficulty, including sentence structure, sentence length, relative pronouns, and vocabulary. I would like to analyze the first paragraph of the Declaration to see what we can learn from words Thomas Jefferson penned 240 years ago in order to improve our writing today.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

Here is the Declaration’s original first paragraph:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

To begin, this paragraph is a single, 71-word sentence. We know that the more words a sentence contains, the harder it is to understand (unless the sentence is a list). If a sentence of 30 words is pushing it, a sentence of 71 words is beyond what most people can follow. Many working memories stop after the second clause.

Secondly, this 71-word sentence contains six clauses plus infinitive phrases and prepositional phrases. Three clauses in a single sentence are sometimes two too many for clear understanding. But six?

Another difficulty is the pronoun “which.” It is used three times to introduce three dependent clauses.

But perhaps the greatest problem to modern readers is the vocabulary. Many words are familiar words used in unfamiliar ways. For example, the fourth word, “course” is a word we use all the time today (a math course, the course of a river, of course), but the meaning used in the Declaration is “progress or advancement” which is no longer its primary meaning.

When “course” is combined with “events” to form the phrases “in the course of human events,” the meaning becomes more muddled. What if Jefferson had written, “When, during human history”? Wouldn’t those words have said the same thing yet made more sense? To us, yes. But Jefferson was writing the most formal document of his life.  He chose to use formal language—formal even for the 18th century.

What if Jefferson had written something like this instead?

Sometimes a group of people need to sever their political connections with another group of people and to become an independent country. When this happens, they should explain why they are separating.

My 32 words are not nearly as elegant as Jefferson’s, but to modern ears, they are easier to understand (39 fewer words; two sentences instead of one; one simple sentence and one complex sentence with just one dependent clause; and everyday vocabulary).

Think ahead 240 years to the year 2256. Will Americans then still find my words easy to understand? How can we write diaries, letters, memoirs or war stories  which will make sense to our descendants?

  • Above all, write clearly.
  • Write short sentences.
  • Write mostly simple sentences.
  • Limit the number of dependent clauses to one per sentence.
  • Make sure pronouns have clearly identified antecedents.
  • Use everyday vocabulary.


Is it important to know if a clause is a noun clause, an adjective clause or an adverb clause? My sixth grade son is railing against learning this “stupid” information.

If the point is to be able to identify the type of dependent clause (sometimes called subordinate clause) for a grammar test, and not to use that information for any further work, then I agree with your son. Knowing the names of some constructions seems a waste of time.

Perplexed student writing

However, as he becomes a more mature writer and analyzes his writing in order to improve it, knowing how to identify certain constructions can be useful.

For example, suppose he writes a paragraph and has the impression that there is a sameness to the sentences, but he can’t figure out why. If he analyzes the paragraph for sentence construction, he might see immediately what the problem is. Take the following paragraph, for example.

1 My friend, Bob, invited me over for pizza after we finished soccer practice. 2 Of course, I said yes, since I was famished. 3 We ordered a mushroom pizza because Bob is a vegetarian. 4 The delivery man came late since he encountered a car accident down the road. 5 We tipped him extra even though neither Bob nor I have much money. 6 Man, that pizza tasted good!

Now let’s analyze it.

Sentence 1—independent clause, adverbial dependent clause
Sentence 2—independent clause, adverbial dependent clause
Sentence 3—independent clause, adverbial dependent clause
Sentence 4—independent clause, adverbial dependent clause
Sentence 5—independent clause, adverbial dependent clause
Sentence 6—independent clause

Five of the six sentences above follow the same construction: an independent clause followed by a dependent adverbial clause. The dependent clauses begin with four different words (after, since, because, since, even though), but they all come at the same place in the complex sentence.

Knowing this, the writer could easily add variety and reader interest to his sentences. He could put one of the dependent clauses at the beginning of the sentence. He could turn one of the complex sentences into a complicated simple sentence. He could turn one of the complex sentences into a phrase. He could combine two of the sentences into an extended sentence. He could add a direct quote.

In every field of study, we need specific vocabulary words to identify what we are thinking about. Grammar is no different. But knowing the words is useless unless we use the words for some purpose that makes sense to the user.

Perhaps you could talk to your son’s English teacher and tell her/him about the problem your son is encountering. Perhaps the teacher could connect the skill of identifying types of dependent clauses to further study—even if that study will not happen in sixth grade. Connecting what we learn to the real world (in this case, the world of writing) is important to motivate students to learn. I remember being in trigonometry class in high school, and asking the teacher why I needed to know sine, cosine and tangent. She couldn’t give me an answer. My desire to learn that math was low.

Good luck!