Those Pesky Details
by Adam Nichols
Some of what we all do as writers is intuitive, but some of it involves a conscious control of our medium — words. And words get expressed in sentences. So… Here’s a detail question for you:
How many types of sentences are there in English?
Most people’s initial response to this question is: lots.
Actually, there are just four basic sentence types.
So why bother about this particular bit of detail regarding sentence types? Because knowing about sentence types gives you more control over your medium (words in sentences). Having more control over your medium gives you more control over how you express your ideas, and that, in turn, gives you more control over how you focus your readers’ attention and thus your readers’ responses.
So let’s look at the details.
The four basic sentence types are traditionally known as simple, compound, complex, and compound/complex. They are classified according to their structure.
A SIMPLE SENTENCE is a single sentence containing subject and verb, with a single, ‘simple’ connection between the subject and the verb. Like this:
George ate a pizza.
George and Martha ate a pizza.
George and Martha ate a pizza and then drove home and watched a movie.
All of these different versions have a single ‘simple’ connection between the subject (George and/or Martha) and the verb (‘ate’, ‘drove’, ‘watched’).
A COMPOUND SENTENCE is composed of two simple sentences joined together to form a unit. The two sentences can be linked by a semicolon, but often they are joined using coordinating conjunctions (the FANBOYS conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Like this:
George was watching television, and Martha was upstairs knitting.
Martha wanted to go shopping, but George refused to drive her.
George has not heard from Martha, nor does he expect a call soon.
A COMPLEX SENTENCE is composed of a simple sentence and what’s technically known as a dependent clause (that is, a sentence that cannot stand on its own). Like this:
After George finished barbequing the steaks, he called the family for dinner.
The first part (“After George finished barbequing the steaks”) is the dependent clause that can’t stand on its own. Such clauses typically begin with ‘dependent’ words like ‘after’, ‘although’, ‘when’, ‘because’, etc.
A COMPOUND/COMPLEX sentence is composed (not surprisingly) of a compound and a complex sentence. Like this:
When the power went out, George was listening to music, and Martha was reading in bed.
So how, exactly, does knowing any of this help you have more control? Well… the whole point of sentences is that they express ideas. Having control over the sentences gives you control over the ideas those sentences express. Look at the following example:
It was raining. I didn’t have my umbrella with me. I got wet.
Three simple sentences, three separate ideas. But the obvious cause/effect here isn’t brought out very clearly. So…
It was raining. Because I didn’t have my umbrella with me, I got wet.
Now we’ve made clear the cause/effect relationship implied in the original trio of sentences (and so focused readers’ attention on it) simply by joining the last two sentences together to form a complex sentence (the dependent clause Because I didn’t have my umbrella with me + the simple sentence I got wet).
This isn’t just a case of linking your sentences together to avoid primer-style writing, though. After all, look at the following:
It was raining, and I didn’t have an umbrella with me, so I got wet, and my car was stolen as well.
This is no improvement. The point is to link ideas together more effectively:
It was raining. I didn’t have an umbrella with me, so I got wet. My car was stolen as well.
The ideas that connect (‘I didn’t have an umbrella with me’ and ‘I got wet’) are linked together into a compound sentence (I didn’t have an umbrella with me, so I got wet.), and the ideas that are separate (‘it was raining’ and, especially, ‘my car was stolen as well’) are put in separate, simple sentences. See that pattern emerging here? If you want to keep an idea separate (for emphasis, or because it doesn’t connect directly with adjacent ideas), put that idea by itself in a simple sentence. If you want to combine two (or more) ideas, combine them into a compound, complex, or compound/complex sentence.
You can combine ideas together in sentences in more or less effective ways, however. Look at the following example:
My mother went to the hospital. She was in great pain.
As with the ‘umbrella’ example above, we have cause/effect here that isn’t made very clear. We could combine these sentences to create a compound sentence:
My mother went to the doctor, for she was in great pain.
Or we could create a complex sentence:
My mother went to the doctor because she was in great pain.
But we could also invert the sentences and render them as follows:
My mother was in great pain, so she went to the doctor.
Because my mother was in great pain, she went to the doctor.
Which is the better option?
Probably the last one.
The structure of the last sentence not only presents the sequence of events as they happened (pain first, doctor visit next), it also represents the cause/effect most clearly (with ‘because’).
But this version also has another effect: it emphasizes the ‘going to the doctor’ aspect by putting it in the second part of the complex sentence (the part that expresses a complete idea). This doubly emphasizes ‘going to the doctor’ because it places it in a complete (simple) sentence, and it places it at the end of the complex sentence. The end of anything (sentence, paragraph, essay/story) is a position of emphasis.
So if you want your readers to focus on your mother going to the doctor, this would be the version of the sentence to use. If, however, you want to still keep the cause/effect link clear but have your readers focus on your mother being in pain, you’d put the ‘pain’ part at the end, in the position of emphasis:
My mother went to the doctor because she was in great pain.
Structuring sentences in various ways allows you to control the focus of your readers’ attention — but only if you understand how sentence types work.
Combining ideas together in sets of sentences isn’t the only option you have. You can also combine ideas in a single sentence. Look at the following example:
Roscoe Auditorium stands as a monument to our city. Roscoe Auditorium has a lovely tulip garden.
Two simple sentences. We could add them together to create a compound sentence:
Roscoe Auditorium stands as a monument to our city, and it has a lovely tulip garden.
But, really, what’s the point? Combining them like this doesn’t accomplish anything useful. Look at the following, though:
Roscoe Auditorium, a monument to our city, has a lovely tulip garden.
This is a simple sentence (Roscoe Auditorium has a lovely tulip garden) with a bit of subsidiary information spliced into it (a monument to our city). Now look at this:
Roscoe Auditorium, with its lovely tulip garden, stands as a monument to our city.
Here, again, we have a simple sentence (Roscoe Auditorium stands as a monument to our city.) with a bit of subsidiary information spliced into it (with its lovely tulip garden).
The effect of these two sentences is quite different. The first sentence emphasizes that the auditorium has a lovely tulip garden while subordinating its identity as a monument to the city. The second sentence emphasizes that the auditorium stands as a monument to our city while subordinating the tulip garden. The principle here is this: you can use simple sentences to combine ideas while at the same time subordinating or emphasizing whatever you want. To subordinate an idea, put it into the phrase holding the subsidiary information. To emphasize an idea, put it in the main (simple) sentence.
Using basic sentence types to combine and emphasize ideas is a simple process, but look how much precision it allows you in presenting those ideas. It’s not a cure all, of course, and you probably don’t want to agonize over every sentence, but combining ideas in sentences allows you to carefully focus you readers’ attention at crucial points — in ways the average reader will never notice. If you’re a non-fiction writer, this helps you be more effective in your presentation of ideas. If you’re a fiction writer, this helps you be more effective in making your readers laugh or weep, shudder or swoon.
So those pesky details turn out to be worth the bother after all.
Adam Nichols is an Adjunct Associate Professor with the University of Maryland, where he teaches writing. He has published five novels with Orion/Gollancz, U.K. and a non-fiction book, a translation of a 17th century memoir of an Icelander captured by Barbary Pirates and taken to North Africa to be sold into slavery.