Four basic sentence structures you should know

THE English language uses four basic sentence structures:

1. Simple sentence — a sentence with just one independent clause (also called a main clause): I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore.

2. Compound sentence — A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses: I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal, but the bookstore was out of maps.

3. Complex sentence — A complex sentence contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause: Because I was planning to visit Tokyo, I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal. The dependent clause is underlined.

4. Compound-complex sentence  — A compound-complex sentence contains two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause: While Mary waited, I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore, and then the two of us went to dinner. The dependent clause is underlined.


Sentence: The largest independent unit of grammar. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. The sentence is traditionally defined as a word or group of words that expresses a complete idea and that includes a subject and a verb.

Predicate: the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject (e.g., went home in John went home).

Independent clause: An independent clause is a group of words made up of a subject and a predicate. Unlike a dependent clause, an independent clause is grammatically complete—that is, it can stand alone as a sentence. An independent clause is also known as a main clause or a superordinate clause. Two or more independent clauses can be joined with a coordinating conjunction (such as and or but) to form a compound sentence.

Dependent clause: A dependent clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. Example: Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the urge passes. The dependent clauses are underlined.

Conjunction: a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause (e.g., and, but, if). The coordinating conjunctions in English are and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet. Example: I once loved photography, but I lost interest in it.

Coordinating conjunction: A coordinating conjunction is a conjunction (such as and) that joins two similarly constructed and/or syntactically equal words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence.

Varying sentence structure improves writing. That’s why knowing the four basic sentence structures is important. I talked about sentence variety in my August 10, 2017, post.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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