Here’s an example of a sentence: I write.
“I” is the subject, and “write” is what I do.
Simple as that. (“Simple as that” is not a complete thought; it’s a sentence fragment, the sort of thing your English teacher would murder with red ink, but which creative writers can get away with when they know what they’re doing. “Simple as that” has neither a subject nor a verb. It’s a modifying phrase, and phrases aren’t sentences at all; they’re not even clauses.)
Sentences come in several varieties determined by the kind and number of the clauses it contains.
A clause is either independent, containing both a subject and verb of its own, or dependent, meaning it has to lean on an independent clause to make sense.
The Simple sentence is comprised of a single, independent clause, like “I write.”
A Compound sentence contains two or more independence clauses: I write, and I walk the dog. (Two independent clauses joined by the coordinating conjunction “and.” The other coordinating conjunctions are but, or, for, nor, so yet.)
A Complex sentence is made from a dependent clause and an independent clause: When I can’t write, I walk the dog. (“When I can’t write” is a dependent clause; “I walk the dog” is the independent one.)
A Compound-Complex sentence uses one or more dependent clauses with one or more independent clauses: While I’m writing, my dog sleeps under my desk, but even when we’re out walking, I’m still sifting through words and sentences, thinking about the work I left on my desk. (This sentence has two independent clauses: “my dog sleeps under my desk” and “I’m still sifting through words and sentences,” and it has two dependent clauses: “While I’m writing” and “even when we’re out walking.” Additionally, it has the adverbial phrase, “thinking about the work I left on my desk,” which describes how the subject of the sentence is walking.)
“This is all very interesting,” you’re saying to yourself, “but what does it all mean?”
When you know how a sentence works, you have a better chance of writing an effective sentence.
An effective sentence uses unity and logical thinking. “I write, therefore I am” is both unified and logical. “I write and tomorrow I have to return a book to the library” is neither unified nor logical – even though it’s true.
A good sentence uses subordination effectively. Put another way, a good sentence puts what’s important in the independent clause, and tucks all the other stuff elsewhere.
- “After breakfast and before lunch, I started another revision of my novel.” Written this way, “I started another revision of my novel” is the important part of that sentence, and everything else is a prepositional phrase that embellishes the main thought.
- “Even though I started another revision of my novel this morning, I didn’t miss either breakfast or lunch.” In this sentence, eating is more important than writing. Some days are like that.
Coherence is another quality you want in your sentence. A sentence, which is a thought with a subject and verb, should stick together in a way that makes sense. Coherence depends on word order, which you can learn about in my post, The English Language on Word Order Depends.
Parallel structure is another nifty tool, especially if you want to write sentences that are long, elegant and euphonious. The previous sentence demonstrates one type of parallel structure; there are others.
In fact, parallel structure deserves its own post, as do Emphasis and Variety. Stay tuned.
Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. She lives in southern Vermont.