Topic: Understanding sentences

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How do you know that writing a sentence in a different way is better than your original? Does it sound right, does it read better, does it make the point? More importantly, is it grammatically correct?

We’re not born with the ability to tell the difference between good sentences and bad ones; it is something the writer learns, with practice, and over time, the writer begins to understand the concept of fitting the right words and ideas together. Sentences not only read better, but also sound better. Creating the right sentences with the right words is an art form and it is one of those important elements in fiction writing that give a writer a sense of style and voice.

We write our sentences without thinking about the technical side of sentence construction, but to fully understand and appreciate sentence structure, writers have to understand the form of language and grammar - this is important when creating narrative. 

There are several sentence patterns that a writer should become familiar with – simple sentences and clauses, complex sentences and compound sentences.  Hopefully by gaining a better understanding about the technical side of sentences, you will improve the way you construct your sentences and therefore improve your narrative.

Simple sentences contain a single clause. Complex sentences and compound-complex sentences may contain two or more, but to be grammatical, a sentence should have a subject (a phrase or noun), a verb, and should express one complete thought or idea. For instance:

Jane cried. (Jane is the subject, cried is a verb and the fact that she cried is expressing the complete thought or idea of the sentence). Although it is a short sentence made up of two words, it is still grammatically correct.

Often writers (even famous, established ones, unfortunately) use a participle (or hanging participle) to make a sentence, such as:

Looking down at his feet...
Walking away from him...
Wrapping the rope around the post...

Here, there is only a participle, there is no verb and the subject is unclear. Not only that, but hanging participle sentences cause ambiguity - you cannot describe a character doing two things at once, i.e ‘Reaching for the kettle, she realised she had made a mistake.’ This means she reached for the kettle and made a mistake (at the same time).

Refrain from using hanging participles because these are grammatically incorrect, they’re ambiguous in nature and can cause confusion with your reader. It also smacks of bad writing.


A clause refers to a bunch grammatically connected words which include a predicate and a subject. The predicate modifies the subject. Every sentence consists of one or more clauses and they can be dependent or independent.

Independent clauses have an ability to stand by themselves – i.e. they are what are known as simple sentences. Dependent clauses are used together with independent clauses because dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a sentence. Instead, they enhance the independent clause.

Simple Sentences

Basic sentences which contain one clause are known as simple sentences. For instance:

This sentence is a simple sentence.
This sentence is a simple sentence with a few more words added.

Even one word can be a simple sentence, for instance: No, Wait, Run.

Simple sentences are just that, but to make your sentences lure your reader and to enrich the narrative, you have to create compound sentences.

Compound Sentences

A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses joined by co-ordinating conjunctions such as ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and ‘or’, or they can include adjectives like ‘however’ or ‘therefore, as this example:

This sentence is a simple sentence, but this sentence is a simple sentence with the addition of a conjunction.

By using the conjunction, ‘but’, the flow of the sentence is extended and uninterrupted...and this very sentence is also a compound sentence.

Complex Sentences

A complex sentence contains one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. For example:

This sentence is a simple sentence (independent clause) which has a few more words that make it longer (independent clause).

Compound-complex sentences

When there is a combination of a compound sentence and a complex sentence, or two complex sentences, (i.e. with at least two independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses) then you have what is known as a compound-complex sentence.

For instance:

This sentence is a simple sentence (Independent clause)
Which just has a few more words to make it longer (Dependent clause)
It is basic in its form (Independent clause)

This sentence is a simple sentence; it is basic in its form, which just has a few more words that make it longer.

As in the example, you can also join two originally separate sentences into a compound sentence using a semicolon instead of a co-ordinating conjunction.

Conjunctions are handy when constructing short, effective sentences, but it is best to avoid using too many otherwise your sentences will become awkward and will leave the reader tripping over them. Worse still, don’t use commas to simply stitch together sentences, for instance:

This sentence is a simple sentence, it is basic in its form, it has a few more words added, it makes a sentence longer.

This reliance on commas makes the writing look heavy and awkward. Remember to use conjunctions correctly when constructing sentences. Sentences are an integral part of what you write; the aim is to make them as clear and as effective as possible.