The Four Categories of Sentence

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The four different categories of sentence structure are often treated by writers as a bit of trivia from early English classes, a way of describing different types of sentences that’s quickly forgotten once you no longer have regular lessons in grammar, but being conscious of the different categories and how they work can be extremely useful. For example, read the following passage:

The mad doctor drew a scalpel from the drawer and he laughed maniacally. The storm was coming and his experiment was almost complete. He had been mocked by his peers, but now he would be the one laughing. He would bring life to the wretched corpse on the table and he would finally prove everyone wrong.

There’s a few things wrong with this passage, but one particularly noticeable thing is that despite being about mad science and corpses, it is ridiculously dull. There’s a monotonous tone to the passage that robs the scene of any energy and leaves it as lifeless as the corpse the doctor is laboring over.

The problem is that the sentences lack any real variation and this is where an understanding of the different types of sentence structure can come in useful. There are four basic categories of sentence structure and if you don’t remember them, or if you went to your average American public school and never learned them, they are the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the complex-compound sentence.

The simple sentence is a sentence that contains a single independent clause, or a subject and predicate that expresses a complete thought. For example:

The monster groaned.

A compound sentence would be two independent clauses joined by a conjunction:

The monster reached for the doctor’s hand and the doctor recoiled in disgust.

A complex sentence is a sentence containing an independent clause and at least one dependent clause, a subject and predicate that does not express a complete thought:

Even though he was hideous, the monster wanted to be loved

And finally a compound-complex sentence has two independent clauses and a dependent clause:

The doctor hated his creation and he burned the lab to the ground while the monster was trapped inside.

Each of these types of sentence structures are useful for different things. A simple sentence is best used to retain the reader’s attention on a single concept. A compound sentence is basically a form of montage and is used to parallel two independent ideas in a way that implies a connection, while  complex sentence is useful for expressing direct cause and effect. Finally, the compound-complex sentence is best used to imply a connection between an independent idea and a causal relationship.

Of course this is only a very simple and shallow exploration of how each of these types of structure function, but the larger point is that all of them should be used in your writing to some extent. Each category of sentence structure is a tool and well-constructed writing uses all of them to add variety and emphasize content or rhetorical structure.

As a final example of this, let’s return to our example from the beginning:

The mad doctor drew a scalpel from the drawer and he laughed maniacally. The storm was coming and his experiment was almost complete. He had been mocked by his peers, but now he would be the one laughing. He would bring life to the wretched corpse on the table and he would finally prove everyone wrong.

It should be apparent now that the monotony comes from the fact that the passage is nothing but compound sentences. There’s no variation and the sentence structure isn’t being utilized to its greatest effect, but a few simple revisions can easily change all that:

The mad doctor drew a scalpel from the drawer as he laughed maniacally. The storm was coming. He had been mocked by his peers, but his experiment was almost complete. Now he would be the one laughing. He would bring life to the wretched corpse on the table and finally prove everything wrong.

Hopefully, this encourages you all to pay more attention to basic sentence structure. It might not be the sexiest part of writing, but there’s no better way to prove yourself as a writer than by having a strong handle on these sort of fundamental skills.

That’s it for sentence structure for now. There’s a lot more to cover, so we’ll most likely return to the subject later. Next time, we’ll take a look at a few things that Shakespeare can teach us about writing. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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