Tag Archives: complex sentence

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.

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!