Modern readers seem to hate long sentences. I mean, there is a huge difference between, say, J.R.R. Tolkien and James Paterson. Tolkien`s writing may have been filed with a mixture of sentence structures but it was also constructed with a measured cadence that often waxed poetic. James Patterson sells a hell of a lot of books. If you look at his writing, his sentence structures are short and simple, for the most part.
The writers of today are not only fearful of long sentence structures, but many of them do not understand the syntax of compound and complex structures. I was editing a manuscript today at the press. I have to say that sometimes it`s a joy and at other times it can be mundane. That said, I was lucky enough to be working on a manuscript that was funny as hell but the writers sentences did not vary in terms of length and structure, much. He had a maze of compound and complex sentences. This makes for a difficult and eye burning read. Sometimes content and plot will save the day—but not always. He needed to use more pronouns, and vary his sentences from simple to the more complex to give a smoother flow to his writing.
Let`s review some simple definitions, rules, and examples of the main three sentence structures
The simple sentence structure is a subject + a verb + a direct object. Ex: John drove the car.
The above sentence has a transitive verb which requires a direct object. This is the most common simple sentence. There are VG (the verb that gives) and VC (the verb of consideration) structures that require a direct and indirect object, but we won`t get into these definitions in this post. See my post “Verb types and how to identify them” for more information in this topic.
As we move into the longer and more complicated sentences we start to see the most common mistakes: comma splices, run-on sentences, the improper use of conjunctions, and more. So, let`s take a look at the compound sentence first.
The compound sentence is comprised of two independent clauses that are joined by a coordination conjunction. The clauses could, therefore, stand alone; however, the writer saw a reason to connect them and not bring the reader to a full stop using a period. Most often writers do this for the sake of flow and sometimes clarity.
Some examples of compound sentences are as follows:
1) Karen baked a cake, but the cake was burnt.
2) I waited for Jack and Jill at class, and they had already left the building.
3) Jim loves to go hunting, yet he will not take his brother with him.
Some Prescriptive Grammarians will argue—and I agree—that the use of the coordinating conjunction “and” is the most ambiguous of the conjunctions in that it says little to nothing about why the two independent clauses are connected. If writers over use this type of construction it weakens their writing. Coordinating conjunctions such as, yet, for, nor, but, so, and or—for example—give more meaningful introductions to the stream of thought heading into a connected independent clause.
I think it is important to mention relative clause and restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. These structures are another topic as well. They are important additions to sentences that help with clarity, flow, and additional information about a noun or subject in a sentence.
The complex sentence is comprised of an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.
A dependent clause lacks the complete subject + predicate combination (or does not represent a complete thought) needed to form a complete sentence or an independent clause. Here are some examples of dependent clauses:
1) Because John came to the airport after lunch
2) While at the park
3) After they left on the motorcycle
These dependent clauses can be added to the front or the back of an independent clause to form a complex sentence structure. Dependent clauses will need a subordinating conjunction to connect to the independent clause which makes the complex sentence complete.
1) I was late because John came to the airport after lunch.
2) The dog chased her while at the park.
3) She was afraid after they left on the motorcycle.
These are very simple example sentences; however, once you see the smaller building blocks of a sentence, you will begin to recognize that they are always the same in longer sentences.