Category Archives: complex sentence

Combine sentences to improve the number of words per sentence and to improve sentence structure.

In addition to eliminating sentences, combining two or more sentences usually reduces the number of total words in an essay; it also reduces the number of sentences. This causes the number of words per sentence to rise slightly.

I ask students to combine sentences without using “and,” “but,” and “so” to avoid adding more compound sentences to the essay. Students can easily combine sentences, but they cannot easily combine them without using coordinating conjunctions. I work with students on using subordinate conjunctions, relative pronouns, and gerund and participle phrases.

Combining sentences in an essay by a six grader.

Here are revisions that combine sentences about a swim meet by a sixth grader:

Students start by figuring out the number of words in each sentence and writing those numbers in the margins of their essays next to the sentences. Students look for small numbers indicating short sentences. Usually, but not always, the short sentences need to be next to each other in order to combine them. Always they need to be in the same paragraph.

When the student finds a short sentence, he reads nearby sentences to see if the two sentences can be combined. Not all neighboring sentences can be combined. They need to be close in topic, or show some kind of relationship—a cause and effect, a sequence, or a dialog by the same person, for example. If the sentences seem related, the students and I discuss how they could be combined. Beginning writing students almost always suggest “and,” “but” and “so,” since these are the connecting words they normally use (and the words their school teachers suggest).

When I suggest alternatives, I need to keep in mind what will sound normal to a student of a particular age. What improvements I can suggest to a younger student, or to an ESL student are often more limited than what I can suggest to an older or more widely read student.

“Sometimes my little sister asks a silly question. I say a silly answer and she laughs at me.” How can these eight and ten-word sentences, respectively, be combined? I might suggest adding the word “when” after the word “sometimes.” “Sometimes when my little sister asks a silly question, I say a silly answer and she laughs at me.” For a younger student, combining a simple sentence with a compound sentence to form a complex-compound sentence is a big improvement in sentence structure. It also produces a 19-word sentence that sounds normal to a third grader’s ear.

How about this example? “First, snowball fighting. We had the fight in our front yard. I was the one who made perfectly round snowballs.” The third-grader who wrote this fragment followed by two tiny sentences changed them to “First, my brothers and I had a snowball fight in our front yard where I made perfectly round snowballs.”

In our next blog we’ll talk about another way to revise sentences: adding more details in order to increase the number of words per sentence and to improve sentence structure.

Analyzing simple, compound, complex and compound/complex sentences can improve writing

four declarative sentence types

Click on the image to enlarge it.

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!