Compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence types

Sentences have been defined as strings of words that begin with a capital letter and are punctuated with terminal punctuation—something we all recognize (though in a recent post we examined how the period has declined in electronic messages, especially texts).

A sentence has also been defined as an independent clause – a word group containing a subject and a verb – that gives a sense of completeness. A simple sentence consists of only one clause, though they can contain compound subjects and compound verbs as part of this main clause.)

In the previous post on simple sentence patterns, we discussed the simple sentence in English and its different patterns which depend on the verb used to express the meaning of the sentence: action verbs that can stand alone; action verbs that require an object (and sometimes contain an indirect object); and linking verbs that convey a sense of being (be), relate to the senses (taste), or indicate a condition (grow).

A simple sentence is not necessarily short or boring. We saw in the post Parsing the English Sentence that the bare bones sentence Dogs bark can be expanded by adding modifiers to create this sentence: All the dogs in my neighborhood near the college bark during the day at bikers and joggers. The expanded sentence still consists of the one main clause dogs bark, but the meaning and interest of the sentence have been enhanced by the addition of prepositional phrases which modify or add to the subject and verb.

Simple sentences by themselves, as discussed in this post on sentence construction and rhythm, can be basic and somewhat boring. Here is the sample given:

A boy on the playground bumped into me. I pushed him back. He did not do anything. Then I pushed him again. He started to cry. I was surprised.

This collection of simple sentences are repetitive and monotonous. However, not all instances would be characterized this way. The familiar opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities shows how simple sentences used can be used to great effect with repetition:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

The simple sentence is just one of four types or structures possible in an English sentence. Other sentence types or structures are compound, complex, and compound-complex.

Compound Sentences

We touched on compound sentences in several posts, including the one on punctuating compound sentences. Compound sentences consist of at least two independent clauses.

Here are two simple sentence (independent clauses) building on the earlier example:

Dogs bark.  Cats meow.

These clauses can be combined with either a comma and a coordinating conjunction or with a semicolon:

Dogs bark, and cats meow.

Dogs bark; cats meow.

With compound sentences, these clauses are equal in rank or importance, which the coordinating conjunction implies. There are only 7 Coordinating Conjunctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, or So (conveniently abbreviated as FANBOYS). Though compound sentences can be simple and equal, some relationship between the clauses can be determined by the choice of the coordination conjunction. For example:

The cat sat on the mat, and the dog slept on the rug. (equal)

The cat sat on the mat, but the dog slept on the rug. (contrast)

The cat sat on the mat, so the dog slept on the rug. (causal)

Complex Sentences

Complex sentences consist of at least one independent clause and one dependent clause:

When dogs bark, cats meow.

Like independent clauses, dependent clauses also contain a subject and a verb, but they do not express a complete thought and cannot stand alone. When dogs bark, the dependent clause, is not complete, it leaves the sense hanging. The meaning is completed by the independent clause cat meow.

Complex sentences add relationship and depth to our writing. Consider this example from On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

Compound-Complex Sentences

We touched on compound-complex sentences in the post Why Study Grammar?, in which Darcy Pattison of simplewriting.org is quoted as saying “yes,” to the title’s question: “Yes, you need to know conventional grammar rules. You need to be able to write a compound, complex sentence of 100+ words and correctly punctuate it.”

A complex-compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause (bolded):

I complimented Joe when he finished the job, and he seemed pleased.

The conjunction and (double underscored) shows the compounding. Here is an example from the popular series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

His blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-mooned spectacles, and his nose was long and crooked, as though it had been broken twice.

These sentence structures can be long and involved, expressing complicated thoughts. As Rossenwasser and Stephen say in Writing Analytically (6th ed. Wadsworth, 2012), “This syntactic shape is essential in representing complex relationships . . . . [I]t demonstrates that [a writer] can bring together in a single sentence a range of different pieces of information and order them in relationship to each other.”

Rossenwasser and Stephen go on to assert that though some believe that the compound-complex sentence invites confusion, “on the contrary, when handled carefully, it has the opposite effect—it clarifies the complexity and enables readers to see it clearly.”

The four sentence types – compound, complex, compound-complex, as well as simple – offer a variety of tools to writers as they craft their compositions and pieces. So much depends on the style and intent of the author, whether dealing with straightforward communication of information, persuasive discourse of argument, or seductive prose of fiction. Knowledge of the four types is a writing essential.

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