Using basic sentence types in writing

The previous two posts focused on basic sentence types in English: the first on the simple sentence and its patterns, and the second on the other sentence types: compound, complex, and compound-complex. These are the foundations of composition, whether fiction or nonfiction.

In her article on voice in writing, Darcy Pattison, who argues writers need to know grammar, states that “[F]or sentences, we have these options: fragments, short, long, simple, compound, complex, very long, and run-ons.” Posts at have dealt with these options in numerous ways, including fragments and run-ons, which can be seen as both errors and as stylistic choices depending on a writer’s context and purposes.

When we examined how to describe and understand the grammar of the English sentence (in Parsing the English sentence), we saw the complexities in the variety of expression, what one commentator called “uncharted territories.”

However, we can chart the basic types and ways writers can use them for advantage. As discussed in the post on using grammar for style, sentence combining, in which student writers are given short simple sentences (one clause) and asked to combine them into other constructions, such as compound (coordination) or complex (subordination) sentences. We’ll use sentence combining to illustrate the types and their best uses.

We have seen that a simple sentence is an independent clause consisting of subject and a verb (Dogs bark.), even if the subject is understood as in commands ([You] Bark!). As we also saw, simple sentences do not necessarily mean short sentences: All the dogs in my neighborhood near the college bark during the day at bikers and joggers.

Compound sentences are those that combine two (or more) simple sentences. For example, see how two simple sentences are combined into a compound sentence:

Two simple sentences

Dogs bark.  Cats meow.

Compound sentence

Dogs bark, and cats meow.

It’s important to remember that compound sentences are used to combine only similar or related ideas that are of equal importance.


Bob studies Spanish, and our school has a gym.


Bob studies Spanish, and Carol studies French.

Compound sentences are used when you want your reader to think of two ideas in connection with each other. Consider this example of sentence combining:

Two simple sentences

The engine runs smoothly. It uses too much gas.

Compound sentence

The engine runs smoothly, but it uses too much gas.

But because compound sentences are so easy to make, a writer should avoid overusing them. We could write the following sentence: The Millers have a dog, and it is brown. A better sentence, however, would be The Millers have a brown dog. This construction does not give too much importance to the color of the dog, and it is much more streamlined.

Complex sentences are even better constructions to show relationship and depth to your writing. 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.

Every dependent clause is used like an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. As we have seen in earlier posts like advice on adverbs, an adverb modifies a verb by answering questions – such as When? Where? or How? about its action. For example, Our sales increased recently. The adverb recently tells when the sales increased.

A subordinate clause can also be used as an adverb to answer the question when: Our sales increased when we lowered our price.

The adverb clause, just like the adverb it resembles, can generally be moved from one position to another in a sentence.

When they are tied up, dogs bark.

Dogs bark when they are tied up.

Dogs, when they are tied up, bark.

A second dependent clause is the adjective clause, which, as its name suggests, is a subordinate clause that is used as an adjective.

Adjectives modify nouns or pronouns: I just read an interesting article. We can create an adjective clause which does the same job as the adjective interesting in simple sentence above. Here is the complex construction: I just read an article which interested me.

The third type of dependent clause is the noun clause which are used exactly as nouns.

Noun in simple sentence

His remark puzzled us.

Noun clause in complex sentence

What he said puzzled us.

In the above sentences, the noun and the noun clause function as subjects. Noun clauses can also be used as subject complements, direct objects, objects of prepositions, indirect objects, and appositives.

Subject complements

This is my recipe for fudge. (noun)

This is how I make fudge. (noun clause)

Direct objects

We raise vegetables. (noun)

We raise whatever we need. (noun clause)

Indirect objects

She will pay the finder a reward. (noun)

She will pay whoever finds the dog a reward. (noun clause)


Our last hope, rescue by the Marines, was soon to be realized. (noun)


Our last hope, that the Marines would rescue us,

 was soon to be realized. (noun clause)

In most situations, except when used as indirect objects or appositives, the noun clause cannot be omitted because the sentence would no longer grammatically correct – they are essential to the meaning.

As we saw in the previous post, compound-complex sentences offer another option for expressing relationships, but can express even more complicated thoughts. 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.

They tend to be longer and more involved, but when handled carefully they “can bring together in a single sentence a range of different pieces of information and order them in relationship to each other,” say Rossenwasser and Stephen say in Writing Analytically (6th ed. Wadsworth, 2012). Even Pattison says that writers should be able to both write compound-complex sentences and be able to punctuate them properly.

We have seen through sentence combining how simple sentences can be combined into compound structures, expanded into complex sentences through subordination, and stretched into compound-complex sentences to express increasingly complicated and defined relationships. The more familiar you become with these sentence types and their options for communicating your ideas, the more varied and sophisticated your writing will become.

(Resource for examples: English 3200)


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