English has four basic sentence constructions: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Each construction uses the same basic elements of sentence structure—parts of speech, phrases, and clauses.
The simple sentence is an independent clause with no subordinate clauses. It begins with a capital letter and closes with an end mark. Simple sentences can vary considerably in length.
- I bought four apples at the farmers’ market.
- I bought four apples, a basket of tomatoes, a bag of green beans, and three squashes at the farmers’ market.
- The farmers’ market is a classic example of producers selling directly to consumers and avoiding the attempts of agents to control the supply or to manipulate the price.
The compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses but no subordinate clauses. The two independent clauses usually are joined by a comma followed by a conjunction (and, but, nor, yet). They may also be joined by a semicolon, a semicolon followed by a linking adverb (therefore, however, because, since), or a colon.
I don’t know where he went, and no one has seen him since this afternoon.
Harold the First fought in northern Ireland; his campaigns generally were successful.
Vivian wanted to stay another week in Ashville; however, her parents refused to send her more money.
You must have heard the news: we’re all getting bonuses this year!
The complex sentence is made up of an independent clause and one or more subordinate clauses. When a subordinate clause introduces the sentence, it is usually followed by a comma unless it is very short. In the following examples, the subordinate clauses are printed in bold type.
- The library closes early in summer when the students are out of school.
- After the clear days of Indian summer, the autumn skies grow heavy and dark.
- Linda told us on the phone that they had had a flat tire last night and that the car wouldn’t start this morning.
- When you come in the front door, make sure you push it shut, because the lock doesn’t always catch.
The compound-complex sentence is composed of two or more independent clauses and one or more subordinate clauses. In the examples, the subordinate clauses are printed in bold type.
- John Lennon wrote many ballads, and he recorded them while he was in England.
- The letter carrier, who is always punctual, didn’t come today; I wonder if she is ill.
- He should call you as soon as he arrives; but if you don’t hear from him, let me know.
Modifiers in Sentences
A modifier is any word or group of words that limits or qualifies the meaning of other parts of the sentence. Be sure that your modifiers are clearly joined to the word or words they qualify. Descriptive phrases or clauses joined to the wrong words are known as dangling modifiers.
You can correct dangling modifiers by making the doer of the action the subject of the sentence, by adding omitted words, or by changing the phrase to a subordinate clause.
Coming over the hill, the blueberries were seen in the valley below.
As we came over the hill, we saw the blueberries in the valley below.
Referring to your request of April 12, the matter is being reviewed by our board.
Our board is reviewing your request of April 12.
When she was four years old, her mother died. (Was her mother four years old?)
She was four years old when her mother died.
Exhausted and bleary-eyed, the report was finished by the team in the morning. (Was the report exhausted and bleary-eyed?)
The team, exhausted and bleary-eyed, finished the report in the morning.