Tag Archives: sentence variety

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.

How to write well, according to Swain

If you could boil down how to write well into just a few ideas, what would they be?

How about

  • Choose vivid, specific words, words that excite our senses. Avoid generalities by using concrete words that create pictures in the readers’ minds. If you write about groups of people, focus on an individual.
  • Choose active verbs, verbs that put action into those vivid pictures. Avoid the verb “to be.” Use the simple past tense whenever you can, not past progressive or the perfect tenses.
  • Rarely use adverbs. Instead, through action show what the adverb suggests.  If you must use an adverb, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence for the most impact.
  • Vary your sentence structures. Use long sentences, short sentences; simple, compound and complex sentences; sentences that start with prepositional phrases, dependent clauses and gerunds; and sentences that aren’t sentences at all.
  • Don’t try to cram too much information into a single sentence.
  • If you repeat words, repeat enough times and close enough together so those words create impact.
  • Concise is better than verbose.
  • And most important of all, write clearly. The reader should “get it” the first read.

These suggestions come from a single chapter in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, 1965.

Identify the range of the sentence lengths to increase the variety of sentence lengths and reader interest

The range of sentences means the sentence with the largest number of words minus the sentence with the smallest number of words. That number is the range.

Knowing this number can be useful.

• If the range is in the single digits, that means most of the sentences in a piece of writing are about the same length. The reader will find the writing boring, though the reader might not know why.

• If the range is in the high teens or twenties, that means there are some longer sentences and some shorter sentences. This range shows the writer has used a variety of sentence lengths. The reader will find this kind of writing interesting, though again, the reader might not know why.

Most students need to increase the range of their writing. To do that, students need to be aware of sentence range and to force themselves to write sentences of varying lengths.

When elementary school-aged children write, most of their sentences are ten words or less unless they are writing a sentence that includes a series or they are compounding sentences. So the range for such children usually is a low number—maybe nine or less. Older students write longer sentences, but again, usually their range is a low number—maybe twelve. Experienced writers might have a range in the twenties. But in order to get such a high range, writers must have a sentence with 26, 27, or 28 words, and another sentence with just a handful of words.

Notice the following introduction to an essay written by a fifth grader:

Have you ever played Monopoly? If you have,
then you know all about it. If you have not,
then let me describe Monopoly to you.

The first sentence has 5 words, the second sentence has 9 words, and the third sentence has 11 words. 11 minus 5 gives a range of 6. If the rest of the sentences in this essay are about 5 to 10 words long, the range would be small and the essay would be stylistically unappealing.

Compare that to the beginning of a narrative written by a rising second grader:

Once when I woke up I found a baby unicorn in
my tiny bed. It looked as tall as me with a tail
and wings, a purple and pink horn, and a white
and yellow body. Right away I jumped on the
unicorn and flew to a castle that is made out of
glass. She said I owned the castle.

The first sentence has 14 words; the second has 22 words; the third has 18 words; and the fourth has 6 words. 22 minus 6 gives a range of 16, an excellent range for such a young writer. Notice also that all four sentences vary in length by 4 words or more. Analyzing only sentence lengths, the second selection is stylistically more interesting than the first.

By combining sentences or adding more detail, students usually bump up the number of words per sentence. For some students, increasing the number of words per sentence and eliminating all short sentences can become an obsession. This is a mistake. Including short sentences is essential to good writing.

Did you notice in the last paragraph that a nineteen-word sentence was followed by a four word sentence? Often, a really short sentence after a long sentence can add style to writing. Students need to see examples of this kind of writing to know that it is not only okay, but desirable. Below is an example of a 36-word sentence followed by a 9-word sentence (a range of 27) from Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Me and Winn-Dixie got into a daily routine
where we would leave the trailer early in
the morning and get down to Gertrude’s
Pets in time to hear Otis play his guitar
music for the animals. Sometimes Sweetie
Pie snuck in for the concert, too.

When a student uses dialog, the number of words per sentence plummets since most characters, like most real people, speak in short sentences, phrases or single words. Dialog should sound natural. But students fixated on the number of words per sentence might want to eliminate dialog in order to maintain a high number of words per sentence. Again, this is a mistake. To counter this tendency, when I ask students to calculate the number of words per sentence, I allow them to eliminate any sentence with dialog in them. On the other hand, when students calculate the range, they should include short sentences with dialog.

In the next blog we will talk about the mess all this revising creates in a student’s draft.

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.

Find the number of words per sentence, and then increase that number

First, why is having more words in a sentence important?

  • Little children write little sentences. Their writing sounds childish in part because each sentence is so short and contains only one idea.  (I have a dog.  His name is Rex.  Rex barks.)  By writing longer sentences, children increase the sophistication of their writing.  (My dog, a tan boxer, barks at other dogs.)
  • Tiny sentences are almost always simple sentences. As children grow, they are taught in school to add conjunctions to form compound sentences.  Unfortunately, these string-along sentences continue to sound childish.  (I have a dog and his name is Rex and Rex barks.)  Children need practice in forming longer sentences without relying on “and,” “but” and “so.”
  • When children write longer sentences, the sentence grammar changes from short simple sentences and string-along compound sentences to more adult-like sentence structures—complicated simple sentences and complex sentences. This change is the real reason I have students count words in sentences and is more important than the actual number of words per sentence.  But children need proof that change is necessary, and counting the number of words offers that.  By their own calculations, children see that they are writing too many short sentences.

Word count before and after revising the sentences.I begin by offering students a calculator.  Using a calculator in a writing lesson surprises students, yet they relish using it.  (However, because revising verbs and sentence openings often changes the number of words per sentence, this activity should wait until early revising activities are done.  Many students will want to do this as soon as they finish their first draft.  Restrain them until they have done the harder revising of verbs and sentence openings.)

Next, I ask students to count the number of words in each sentence and to record the number in the margin near the sentence (not within the copy itself or the number will become lost in a well revised essay).  I encourage students to write the number with a colored pencil so the number will be easy to find later.  Some students think I mean the number of words per line, so I usually count the number of words in the first few sentences with them, watching, so they get the idea.  Even then, I point out that I am counting sentences, not the number of words on a line.

After all the words are counted, I ask students to add up the total number of words (that is, to add up all the margin numbers they have just written down).  Then they add up the total number of sentences, either by counting the number of first words circled (not such a good idea since those words often change) or by counting the number of numbers in the margin (easy if the numbers are in colored ink).

Now the student uses a calculator to divide the total number of words by the total number of sentences, to find the average (mean) number of words per sentence.

Because little children tend to write little sentences, and adults tend to write longer sentences, I give every student a target number of words per sentence based on grade level.  For third graders it is 13; for fourth graders, 14; for fifth graders, 15.  I set a target of more than 15 for middle schoolers, and the high teens for high school students and older.

Granted, these numbers are arbitrary.  But they are easy for students to remember and they serve the purpose of making students work to increase the number of words per sentence.  Rarely do I teach a beginning student who matches the target number in his writing without revising.  But with revising, the number always increases.

A few exceptions:

  • Students who use dialog will have shorter sentences because people usually speak in shorter sentences. Try calculating just the sentences without dialog.  I have had some students try to eliminate dialog to increase the number of words per sentence.  No!  The dialog sparkles the writing and needs to stay.
  • What if children use interjections like “Wow!” or “Holy cow!” Should they be counted as a sentence?    Ignore them.

How do children increase the number of words per sentence?  We will look at that in the next blog.

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!