A Practical Look at Sentences

I’ve been teaching in higher education settings for more than a dozen years now, and I’ve done my own very unscientific research on the topic of sentences.  There are four basic sentence structures in the English language (with some minor variations, of course), and sentences typically serve one of four purposes.  According to my informal analysis, most of us are comfortable with using two of the basic sentence constructs, a few people venture into a third construct, but darn few of us use all four sentence structures in any given piece of writing regardless of length.

So here’s a quick review – just so we are all on the proverbial same page (of course, I’m writing the page and you’re reading it, so essentially, yes, we are already there – but I was speaking metaphorically).

The basic purposes of sentences are as follows:

1 – To make a statement or deliver factual information. For example:

       Kim loves chocolate. 

      JA is a psychopath.

     Teenagers will cause your head to ache chronically.

2 – To ask a question.  For example:

     Where did you hide my chocolate, dear?

     What happened to my car? (spoken to teenager)

     Why are you blaming me? (reply from teenager)

3 – To issue a command or direction.  For example:

     Give me my chocolate, darling.

     Please remove your shoes before walking on my nicely cleaned carpet.

     Go to your room. (again, spoken to teenager, who typically rolls eyes

                                           while complying)

4 – To make an exclamation or show an extreme in emotion.  For example:

     I want that chocolate now, or there will be bloodshed!

     My car has been stolen!

     Godzilla is coming up the street!

It is possible to have a sentence that is both a command and an exclamation at the same time.  For example, if Godzilla really were coming up the street, you might say:

     Run for your lives!

The sentence is issuing a command, or at least a really urgent request.  English scholars don’t always agree on the classification of this kind of sentence.  There are those who hold that, since the subject of the sentence (the noun to which the verb applies) is implied, it is a command structure and therefore a command classification.  Others claim that since the sentence ends in an exclamation and is obviously conveying emotion, it is exclamatory.  Those nutty English philosophers! Do they honestly think anyone cares how they classify it?  The rest of us would be safely out of Tokyo while they would be standing around arguing as a giant, radioactive mutant lizard blew the world up.

So let’s look at the sentence structures now.  As I said, there are four of them, just like there are four purposes, but those two facts are unrelated.  Don’t try to make any kind of mystical, numerological thing out of it because you’ll just give yourself a headache.

The Simple Sentence: This is your basic subject/verb construction with an article, and adjective, or an adverb thrown in for good measure.  It is possible to have a two word simple sentence. For example:

Cats danced.

I love chocolate.

We stayed out late last night.

Most of us are more than comfortable using the simple sentence.  We learned it first, so it has been with us the longest, and it’s the most direct way to convey information.

The Compound Sentence is also a favorite for most of us because it’s easy to use and sounds better than just a bunch of simple sentences all strung together.  To form a Compound Sentence, you need two simple sentences and the conjunction of your choice.  For example:

Cats danced, and dogs howled late into the night.

     * Note: the comma before the conjunction “and” is optional because the sentence is fewer than ten or twelve words.

I like Hershey’s a lot; however, I love Galaxy Bars from Great Britain.

          My ex-husband’s new wife wanted to be my friend; that didn’t last long.

In the last example the conjunction is implied, the compound sentence is formed because the semicolon takes the place of the conjunction.

The third sentece structure is called Complex.  It’s not that it’s really all that difficult, but fewer people are comfortable using this one because it requires a bit more thought.  To form a Complex sentence, join an independent clause (a complete, simple sentence) to a dependent clause (a sentence which can’t remain on it’s own and make sense – much like some people I know).  Some examples:

(dependent clause) After we left our Senior Prom

          See, if we stop there, the sentence doesn’t make sense.  The word “after” makes this a conditional phrase that requires an independent clause for it to make sense.

(complex sentence) After we left our Senior Prom, we decided to go roller skating. 

Here is another example of a complex sentence:

     We went roller skating after we left the Senior Prom.

Because the dependent clause is important information, there is no comma used to separate it from the independent clause.

Isn’t this FUN!

Okay – one more, just ’cause – well – there’s one more to get through.

The Compound-Complex construction requires that you mix a Complex construction with a Compound construction.  This, obviously, is the least used construction of all because – well – it’s a challenge to do it right and most of us get a bit freaked out by long sentences, recalling memories of red-pen-wielding English teachers who bled all over our assignments and wrote words like “run-on” and “fragment” on them.

So let’s walk through this slowly:

First – a dependent clause:

          Since leaving work as a flight attendant        (see, it’s not done yet)

Now – an independent clause:

          Hilda has found a new source of income          (this one is complete)

Now – a compound sentence:

         She got a degree in pyschology, and she is working at Big B’s drive-in.

So, let’s link the whole thing together properly:

          Since leaving work as a flight attendant, Hilda has found a new source of income, as she got a degree in pyschology, and she is working at Big B’s drive-in.

Ta-Da! Not so hard, is it? 

If words are the playing pieces which writers use to play the writing game, then these sentence structures are the rules by which we play. The better we understand the rules, the easier the game becomes.  It also makes it easier to cheat – a perfectly acceptable option in writing so long as you know what rule you’re breaking and why.

See – grammar can be fun!

Okay, the exclamation point was a little over the top, wasn’t it.


One thought on “A Practical Look at Sentences

  1. Kim Justesen says:

    There are a lot of folks referring to this particular post. Where did you all come from? Is this helpful? Would you like more posts on this type of subject? Please, let me know! I’m very curious where you all are coming from!

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