Sentence Structure

    To form a sentence, you need a subject and a verb. If you've got both of these, you've got yourself a sentence, whether it's as simple as "Robert spoke" or as compound-complex as "After the baseball game, before the family made the trek to the station wagon, little Gertrude managed to consume six cotton candies, two popcorns, a Jumbo Coke, and innumerable Raisinettes; she also ate several souvenir pennants, much to the surprise of the souvenir salesbooth attendant." 

    The Dynamic Duo:
    Independent and Dependent Clauses

    Before discussing the different types of sentences, it's important to become familiar with clauses. A clause is, simply, any group of words that has a subject and a verb. There may--and usually will--be many other words within the clause, but there must be a subject and a verb. That said, there are two different kinds of clauses: independent and dependent

    An independent clause is able to stand alone as a sentence. Some examples: 

    • The sky is blue.
    • The grass is green. 
    • The cow is pink-and-purple-polka-dotted and streaked with iridescent glitter. 
    • The farmer is insane.

    A dependent clause is like an independent clause, but with one important difference: it begins with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun. This slight change makes a big impact on the clause. Rather than remaining a complete thought, it acts as a part of speech (an adjective, adverb, or noun). A dependent clause generally modifies the independent clause it's connected to in some way, telling where, when, which, how, how long, or in what way

    It's crucial to remember that for there to be a sentence a dependent clause must be attached to an independent clause. A dependent clause left unattached is a sentence fragment. The following are some examples of sentences with both independent and dependent clauses (the dependent clauses are in italics): 

      As long as the sky is blue, we'll keep mowing the hayfield. (The dependent clause tells how long "we'll keep mowing the hayfield.") 

      Before the grass is green, it's a yucky winter-brown-and-yellow shade. (The dependent clause tells when the grass is "a yucky winter-brown-and-yellow shade.") 

      The cow, which was pink-and-purple-polka-dotted and streaked with iridescent glitter, frisked about on sequined hooves. (The dependent clause tells which cow the writer is talking about.) 

      The farmer, who is insane, makes a great peach cobbler. (The dependent clause tells which farmer the writer is talking about.) 

    Knowing the Difference 
    Between a Dependent and Independent Clause

    If distinguishing between the two types of clauses becomes confusing, try a simple test. Pretend you're talking to a friend, then insert the questionable clause into the dialogue. Will your friend understand you, or will he or she look at you blankly and say "What?" If your friend says "So? What else? Then what happened?" the clause is dependent; it doesn't make sense by itself. 

    For example, here's a clause: 

    • Although Maxine and Beulah were excited about the party.

    If you were stop after that clause, your friend probably would ask, "Although what?" More information is needed. This is because a dependent clause, like the one above, must be combined with an independent clause to make a complete sentence, as in this example: 

      Although Maxine and Beulah were excited about the party, they still arrived a fashionable two hours late.

    Good and Good for You: 
    The Four Basic Sentence Types

    Now that we've gotten a sense of the primary components of sentences, following are the four basic sentence types: 

    Simple sentences contain one independent clause. There is no dependent clause in a simple sentence. 

    Bubba ate fourteen tofu dogs with ketchup.

    Compound sentences contain two or more independent clauses and no dependent clause. 

    Bubba got really sick, but he didn't refrain from consuming a two-pound bag of nacho-cheese tortilla chips.

    Complex Sentences contain one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. 

    After he ate the chips, Bubba staggered woozily to the car, visions of Pepto-Bismol dancing in his head.

    Compound/Complex Sentences contain two or more independent clauses as well as at least one dependent clause.

    When he reached the car, Bubba slumped into the passenger's side with a groan; before long, his moans of food-induced agony could be heard throughout the parking lot, where he was ignored by the Sunday shoppers.

    For more information about using different types of sentences in your writing, check out our page on sentence variety.