An important aspect of the craft of writing is your ability to vary your sentence lengths. In this two-part article, I’ll first go over the four basic sentence types. Then in the second part of this article, I’ll go over how to vary them in your writing to make your writing more interesting.
Four basic sentence types exist. These are as follows:
Simple sentences. Simple sentences consist of one verb and one noun. A single noun and verb together form an independent clause.
Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in his laboratory.
In that sentence, “Dr. Gimcrack” is the noun, and “exerted” is the verb. No other nouns or verbs exist in the sentence.
Compound sentences. Compound sentences consist of two independent clauses joined by or, and, or but. Again, an independent clause consists of one noun and one verb.
Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in his laboratory, and every night he drank a half-liter of bourbon.
In the above sentence, one noun and one verb make up the first clause: Dr. Gimcrack and exerted. The second clause is recognizable by its own noun and verb pair: he and drank. The two halves of the sentences are joined by and.
Complex sentences. These consist of an independent clause as well as at least one dependent clause. You know what an independent clause is now, but what’s a dependent clause? A dependent clause is a part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own. It depends on the rest of the sentence. Think of it as an incomplete thought.
Every night, Dr. Gimcrack drank a half-liter of bourbon, which he bought from One-Eyed Jack down by the docks.
In this sentence, the dependent clause is introduced by the word which. You might think that this clause is a complete sentence because it has a noun and a verb, but that one word “which” disqualifies it. When a clause, even one with a noun and verb, starts with words such as which, that, because, since, and so on, then you can identify it as a dependent clause that cannot stand on its own as a sentence.
Compound-complex sentences. These consist of two independent clauses (each having a noun and a verb) as well as a dependent clause.
Don’t panic! You know what an independent clause is: a noun and verb pair that stands on its own. You know what a dependent clause is: a part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own. So, all a compound-complex sentence consists of is a couple of short sentences joined together, along with the incomplete thought that is a dependent clause. Here’s an example.
Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in the laboratory, and every night he drank a half-liter of bourbon, which he bought from One-Eyed Jack down by the docks.
See? Not that scary of a proposition! By this point, I’d bet that you can easily identify all the clauses in the above sentence.
That’s really all there is to the four basic sentences. The key, though, is varying them in writing, which I’ll write about in the second part of this article.