Category Archives: complex sentence

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!

How can writing improve reading?

When educators combed research on the writing / reading connection in 2010, they found three writing activities which improve reading comprehension.

EPSON MFP image

  • Having students write about the stories and texts they read by writing personal responses, analyses, or interpretations; by writing summaries; by writing notes; and by answering or asking questions in writing about what they have read.
  • Having students learn about the process of writing; about how texts are structured; about how paragraphs and sentences are put together; and about how to spell.
  • Having students write  frequently.

All of these writing activities improve students’ reading. In future blogs, we will look at why these activities improve reading, and how these activities can be incorporated into a student’s schoolwork or work at home. We’ll start in the next blog with the last idea, that students should write more to improve their reading.

Meanwhile, for more information, see Writing to Read.  At this site you can read the full report, Writing to Read; evidence for how writing can improve reading by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert for the Carnegie Corp. of NY, 2010.

You might also enjoy reading Shanahan on Literacy, a blog about reading by an expert in the field. In his current blog, Dr. Shanahan comments on ideas in this report.

Why use complex sentences?

In English, we have three types of sentences: simple, compound and complex. Each is better in particular situations.

Complex sentences join an independent clause with a dependent clause. These sentences are used to show a particular kind of relationship—usually a stronger idea joined to a weaker idea, or a controlling idea joined to a secondary, less important idea. Yet sometimes the independent clause is the weaker or less weighty idea compared to the dependent clause.

girl writing and thinking

Why are complex sentences used?

  • Complex sentences show relationships between clauses, such as cause and effect, contrast, and time relationships. For example, I took a walk because I need exercise.  Or, although my brother likes peaches, my sister prefers blueberries.  Or, Daniel headed home as soon as the movie ended.
  • Complex sentences can mimic the complicated thinking required to understand certain kinds of ideas, such as logic. Or, they can replicate the patterns of thinking of a deep thinker.  For example, if A is less than B, and if B is less than C, then A is less than C.  Or, the detective figured out that Morgan was the murderer because Morgan had a motive, even though his girlfriend, Emma, provided an alibi.
  • Complex sentences can force the reader to focus on one part of a sentence (one idea) rather than another part of a sentence.  For example, the Supreme Court–especially Justice Scalia–disdains creating law by its decisions since enacting laws is the job of Congress.
  • Complex sentences can gather small choppy sentences into more graceful, longer sentences.  For example, Dad grilled the chicken.  Mom mixed the salad.  The children set up a croquet game.  Later they would play.  First they would eat.  Joined together these tiny sentences become While Dad grilled the hotdogs and Mom mixed the salad, the children set up a croquet game which they would play after they ate.
  • Complex sentences can form the skeleton of informal, cumulative sentences which are patterned on the way people speak. For example, Jack said, “I expect a storm because the clouds are building up, which is a sure sign a thunderstorm is coming on hot, humid Atlanta summer afternoons like this one.”

Complex sentences can begin with the independent clause or the dependent clause; the choice belongs to the writer. Most children start with the independent clause, adding the dependent clause as they think through their ideas. Usually children limit themselves to only a few types of dependent clauses: adverbial clauses beginning with “because,” “after” and “when.” Almost never do they use relative pronouns to create complex sentences.

How can you encourage children to use complex sentences with more variety?

  • For younger children, I prepare worksheets with lists of two sentences needing to be combined. I suggest the word that needs to link the sentences, and they must write the new sentence.
  • For older children, I write a list of subordinate conjunctions from which they can choose in order to join sentences in a list which I provide. I might stipulate that half the sentences need to begin with the subordinate conjunction to force them to start sentences with the dependent clause.
  • When I am working with a group of children, I have a “spelling” bee, asking students to create a complex sentence using a particular subordinate conjunction.

Once children learn to use complex sentences, they need to be warned about overusing them. Too many complex sentences can make writing difficult to follow. So can the number of dependent clauses. Even though the number of dependent clauses which can be attached to an independent clause is unlimited, using more than two usually muddles meaning. Encourage students to limit dependent clauses to one or two per sentence, and to mix up complex, compound and simple sentences for variety.

I have been told that some languages do not contain complex sentences, that in those languages, if ideas are joined, it is by words like “and” and “but.” In those languages it is normal to show equality of ideas but not inequality. Just like having many English verb tenses makes English a richer yet more difficult language, so does having complex sentences.

Use expanded sentences to add informality to writing

An expanded sentence is one that begins as a simple, compound or complex sentence but then adds additional information, sometimes with phrases and sometimes with clauses, mimicking the way we speak. Here are some examples.three examples of expanded sentences

In the past, writing was more formal than spoken language, and to a degree it still is, even in the US. While we say, “It’s me,” in formal writing we are expected to write, “It is I.” Most of us say “who” when we mean “whom” and say “hafta go” when we would write “have to go.” But in the late 20th century, writing became more informal. One example is that today the word “you” is allowed in essays.

What is happening? Modern-day writing is following the lead of spoken language, becoming more like it. When we speak, we often start with a simple idea (Gershwin wrote many songs), but then we add to those words as we are thinking (Gershwin wrote many songs, such as Summertime, I’ve Got Rhythm and Swanee, becoming the best song writer of the 1920’s—although Cole Porter fans might disagree).

The effect of expanded sentences is to create informal writing. The sentences sound friendly, not academic. These sentences are often easier to understand than complex sentences of the past with many subordinate ideas. They have an easy-going, relaxed quality to them which puts us at ease.

One way to practice writing these kinds of sentences is to type them on your computer and one by one change the words, keeping the grammar and flow but changing the meaning.expanded sentence practice

A caution:  An expanded sentence is not a compound sentence with several independent thought sadded on. (I went to the store, and I bought a candy bar, and I ate the candy bar, and it was delicious.)  It can include a compound sentence, the but add-ons vary in type.

It’s spring. Update your writing with some bright, extended sentences.