How can I better understand sentence structures?
This is the first of three lessons about Simple and Compound Sentences. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the concept of sentence structures in EAP
– Provide five useful features for determining sentence structure
– Include examples of each feature to help guide the reader
Sentences in the English language come in many shapes and sizes, and its important that students have a confident knowledge of the various sentence structures so that they can improve their own writing accuracy and clarity of meaning. Whether simple, compound, complex or compound-complex sentences are used, a piece of writing that involves a variety of sentence structures should be more dynamic and engaging to read – and should ultimately receive a better grade.
This short course has therefore been created to introduce the two simplest structures of the four main types, the simple and compund sentence. However, before we can begin looking at specific sentence structures in detail, it’s important that we first review the key features of a sentence so that we can successfully break any sentence down into its most useful components. Once this has been achieved, Lessons 2 and 3 will then deal more specifically with the rules and forms of simple and compound sentence structures in turn.
Feature 1: Subjects and Verbs
The first aspect that must be understood is that all sentences (no matter how big or small) generally need both a subject and a verb phrase to be considered complete.
By having both subjects and verbs, each of the above expressions ‘I rested’ and ‘My ice cream has melted’ therefore form grammatical sentences even though they are very short. Sentences, of course, may be much longer in reality, and may increase their length by containing objects, complements and adverbials.
Feature 2: Clauses
In addition to containing phrase functions such as subjects and objects, sentences may also vary in length by requiring one or many clauses. To better understand how clauses make sentences, read the following example:
While this sentence is somewhat long and contains five clauses, it is in fact quite grammatical. What we can learn from the above example is that the rule of requiring a subject and a verb (as mentioned in Feature 1) applies to both sentences and clauses. In fact, as is possible with the expression ‘I eat it every day’, a clause and a sentence may sometimes be the very same thing. This is because sentences can be made up of one independent clause as a minimum, or of many independent and dependent clauses as a maximum – as in the previous example.
Feature 3: Independent and Dependent Clauses
Because a sentence may be composed of many clauses, and because how we join those clauses varies depending on their type, it’s important to recognise that there are two major types of clause: independent clauses (sometimes called ‘coordinate clauses’) and dependent (or ‘subordinate’) clauses.
In short, independent clauses are those which may stand alone as a complete and grammatical sentence. Dependent clauses, on the other hand, rely on another clause for that sentence to be considered complete. To better understand this, consider the table below which separates the previous five-clause example sentence into its dependent and independent clause types:
The dependent clauses in the table above cannot stand as complete sentences because they are unfinished thoughts that begin with subordinate conjunctions. Conversely, the expressions ‘I eat it every day’ and ‘my doctor told me’ can stand alone as (1) complete thoughts, (2) independent clauses, and (3) grammatical sentences. These expressions demonstrate the difference between independent and dependent clauses and show how independent clauses may also be sentences.
Feature 4: Conjunctions and Punctuation
What’s also noticeable in the previous example is how a combination of conjunctions and punctuation is used to join many clauses into one complete sentence. As is shown in the table below, conjunctions can be split into two major types: coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. These conjunctions may be used to either coordinate (join) two independent clauses or to subordinate (embed) dependent clauses within other clauses in a sentence:
Particular punctuation marks may also be used to join clauses to make a sentence, particularly commas (,), colons (:) and semi-colons (;), with full stops (.) being generally used to indicate when a sentence has been completed.
Feature 5: Sentence Structures
The final feature of sentences is that they may be categorised into four main types. Although exemplified below, these four sentence structures are explained comprehensively in this course on simple and compound sentences and in our short course on compound-complex sentences. Our course on sentence run-ons and fragments also deals with two common sentence-structure errors that students should learn to avoid.
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