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Grammar 101 for Writers: Sentence Structure

by Jacky Dahlhaus

Hi Everybody!

Grammar 101 for Writers started as an idea when Kathryn Bax sent out a request for people writing an article on a regular basis for One Stop Fiction, I immediately wanted to join. But what to write? I don’t have much experience in reading or writing as I only started writing less than two years ago. As English is not my first language it was a steep learning curve for me to learn how to write properly (and of course I still have a lot to learn). I had to start with grammar basics. Hence I thought it may be an idea to share my learning with you. Some of you are also writers whose mother tongue is a foreign language. For those of you who did grow up using the English language, it may be a long time ago since you sat in the classroom and may have forgotten why you write the way you write. I hope there is something for everybody in these articles.

Sentence Structure

There are four types of sentences structures:

  1. Simple sentence
  2. Compound sentence
  3. Complex sentence
  4. Compound-complex sentence

Simple Sentence

At first there was the spoken language. Man existed long before the first written language, which stems from 3200 BC. Writing gave man the opportunity to leave instructions and tell tales to those who were not there at the time of telling. At first the writing consisted of images, but they soon developed into words, which turned into sentences.

A sentence is a set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses.

A predicate is the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject.

A simple sentence structure contains at least a subject and a verb and together express a complete thought.

Example: John writes a book.

This is a simple sentence.

John is the subject, writes is the verb and together with the two words a book it makes for a complete thought. This is called an ‘independent clause.’

The independent clause is a unit of organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate. It is the basis of nearly every sentence.

Compound sentence

You can make a compound sentence by connecting two independent sentences in the following ways:

  1. With a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so and can be remembered by the acronym FANBOYS
  2. With a semicolon (;)
  3. With a semicolon, followed by a conjunctive adverb or other transitional expression, followed by a comma.

Example 1: John writes a book, for he likes writing books.

Example 2: John writes a book; he likes writing books.

Example 3: John writes a book; moreover, he likes writing books.

Here John writes a book and he likes writing books are both independent clauses. They both convey a complete thought. The two are brought together into one sentence by the coordinating conjunction ‘for’ (first example), a semicolon (second example), and a semicolon, followed by the conjunctive adverb ‘moreover’ (third example).

Every sentence must have at least one independent clause, otherwise you will have something called a fragment, which is, obviously, not a sentence.

Complex sentence

A complex sentence contains an independent clause and a dependent clause, also called a subordinate clause.

A dependent clause (or subordinate clause) is one that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence because it does not express a complete thought.

Example: What you wrote.

This sentence just doesn’t make sense and hence doesn’t confirm to one of the three conditions to form a simple sentence structure (see above). You can, however, make the following sentence with it:
Example: What you wrote doesn’t make sense.

There are three functions for dependent (subordinate) clauses:

Noun clause

In the above sentence, What you wrote takes the form of the noun of the independent sentence. If we replace What you wrote with the noun It, this becomes clear.

Example: It doesn’t make sense.

Noun clauses start with: that, what, whatever, who, whom, whoever, whomever.

Adjective clause

Example: He writes a book that is awesome.

In this example, that is awesome takes the place of an adjective. An adjective clause says something about a noun (or a pronoun), a book in this case. What sort of book? An awesome one. An adjective clause always follows the noun it modifies.

Example: He writes an awesome book.

Example: He writes a book that is awesome.

In the above examples it is clear that the adjective clause follows the noun, in contrast of the adjective which precedes the noun.

Adjective clauses can be restrictive or nonrestrictive., When an adjective clause is a restrictive (or essential) clause, it is essential for the meaning of the noun or pronoun it modifies. A nonrestrictive (or nonessential) clause is not essential; you can actually leave it out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Example: The person who wrote this book is Jane Doe.

Example: Jane Doe, who is an author, rides a bicycle.

In the first example who wrote this book is the restrictive (or essential) clause. Who is Jane Doe? She’s person who wrote this book. Not the person watching TV, not the person having a coffee. I’m talking about the person who wrote this book and nobody else.

In the second example who is an author is the nonrestrictive (or nonessential) clause. It describes the noun of the sentence (Jane Doe), giving you extra information about the noun, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. If I leave it out, the sentence still makes sense. Jane Doe still rides a bicycle.

Adverb clause

An adverb clause takes the place of an adverb in the sentence. It can modify a verb, and adjective clause or other adverb clause. It modifies the situation in an independent clause in terms of time, frequency, cause and effect, contrast, condition, and intensity.

The subordinating conjunctions used for this are:

  • Time - When, whenever, since, until, before, after, while, as, by the time, as soon as
  • Cause and effect - Because, since, now that, as long as, so, so that
  • Contrast - Although, even, whereas, while, though
  • Condition - If, unless, only if, whether or not, even if, providing or provided that, in case

Example: John reads until he runs out of books.

Example: Jane works at the supermarket because her books don’t sell.

Example: Although he tried frequently, John still hasn’t come up with a plot.

Example: Jane will write unless she hasn’t got any writing material on her.

Note that when the dependent clause is positioned in front on the independent clause, they are separated by a comma. But more on comma’s next time.

Compound-Complex sentences

Compound-complex sentences contain at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent (subordinate) clause.

Example: After I finished my book, I published it and it’s a bestseller now.

In this sentence After I finished my book is the dependent (subordinate) clause (it doesn’t make sense on its own), I published it and it’s a bestseller now are both independent clauses, joined by the coordinating conjunction and.

If you are a bit creative, you can even have even more clauses in a sentence. Have a look at this two-hundred-and-thirty-nine words sentence it’s amazing!


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