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Let's study sentence structure!

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Let's study sentence structure!

What do you think of when you hear the word structure? I think of builders and architects planning the parts of a building and figuring out how all of the elements will fit together in the final product.

You and I might not build buildings, but we do build sentences. We can think of ourselves as word architects, and word architects need to study sentence structure so that they know what possibilities sentences hold.

That way, we can learn to vary our sentences, which will make our writing more engaging, and we can make sure that our sentences are grammatically correct. Here we go! 

We're about to study sentence structure, but have you ever stopped to think about what a sentence is? 

A sentence is a group of words, with both a subject and a verb, that expresses a complete thought. Sentences make it easy to understand ideas and learn information.

We can categorize sentences based on different criteria, and one way to categorize them is based on their structure.

The Four Sentence Structures

What are clauses and why are they important?

When I say that we're looking at a sentence's structure, what we're really looking at is what combination of independent clauses and dependent clauses a sentence has. Because of that, it's important that you know a little bit about clauses before we get started.

Clauses are groups of words with both a subject and a verb. There are two main types of clauses.

  • Independent clauses are clauses that can stand alone as complete thoughts. 

I teach grammar is an independent clause. It contains a subject (I), a verb (teach), and it expresses a complete thought.

  • Dependent clauses are clauses that cannot stand alone as complete thoughts. 

Because I teach grammar is a dependent clause. It contains a subject (I), a verb (teach), and it does not express a complete thought.

Okay...back to sentence structure...

When we categorize sentences based on structure (different combinations of independent and dependent clauses), we find that there are four sentence structures. Let's learn about each one! 

The Four Sentence Structures

1. Simple Sentences

A simple sentence contains only one independent clause.

I kicked the ball.

Remember that an independent clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought.

I'll use sentence diagrams to show you what these different sentence structures look like because the diagrams really SHOW you the different structures! Here is a sentence diagram of a simple sentence. Note that there is only one horizontal line.

Here's a sentence diagram of a simple sentence. www.Grammar-Revolution.com/sentence-structure.html

I kicked the ball.

  • I kicked the ball is an independent clause. It contains a subject (I) and a verb (kicked), and it expresses a complete thought. 

2. Compound Sentences 

A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses.

I kicked the ball, and it hit Tom.

These clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon. (When you join two independent clauses with only a comma, it's a mistake called a comma splice.)

A coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) is a word that glues sentence elements (words, phrases, clauses) together that are the same. 

Here's a sentence diagram of a compound sentence. Note that there are now two horizontal lines, and one is directly below the other.

Here's a sentence diagram of a compound sentence. www.Grammar-Revolution.com/sentence-structure.html

I kicked the ball, and it hit Tom.

  • I kicked the ball is an independent clause.
  • It hit Tom is also an independent clause. 
  • And is a coordinating conjunction joining the two independent clauses. 
  • I kicked the ball, and it hit Tom is a compound sentence. 

Some sentences (Jeremy and I kicked the ball.) might seem like they're compound because they have compound elements (Jeremy and I), but they're actually simple. Learn more about the differences between simple and compound sentences here.

Psst! Did you know?

In order to be a complete sentence, a group of words needs to contain a subject and a verb, and it needs to express a complete thought.

If a group of words is missing any of that information, it's probably a sentence fragment, and if you have a group of words containing two or more independent clauses that are not properly punctuated, it's probably a run-on sentence.

3. Complex Sentences

A complex sentence contains a subordinate clause and an independent clause.

Tom cried because the ball hit him.

A subordinate clause is a group of words that has a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought.

Here's a sentence diagram of a complex sentence. Note that there are still two horizontal lines, but one of them is below the other and moved to the right.

Here's a sentence diagram of a complex sentence. www.Grammar-Revolution.com/sentence-structure.html

Tom cried because the ball hit him.

  • Tom cried is an independent clause. 
  • Because the ball hit him is a dependent adverb clause modifying the verb cried
  • Tom cried because the ball hit him is a complex sentence.

Sometimes, it can be hard for people to tell the difference between compound sentences and complex sentences, and a sentence's structures can be changed by swapping out just one word! You can learn more about that here. 

4. Compound-Complex Sentences 

A compound-complex sentence is just what it seems like it would be. :) It's basically a combination of a compound sentence and a complex sentence. You know what that means, right? It means that these guys contain at least two independent clauses and at least one subordinate clause.

Tom cried because the ball hit him, and I apologized immediately.

Here's a diagram of a compound-complex sentence. Note that it's a hybrid of a compound sentence and a complex sentence! Two of the horizontal lines are directly above and below each other and the third is hanging out there in the middle.

Here's a sentence diagram of a compound-complex sentence. www.Grammar-Revolution.com/sentence-structure.html

Tom cried because the ball hit him, and I apologized immediately.

  • Tom cried and I apologized immediately are both independent clauses. They're being joined by the conjunction and. 
  • Because the ball hit him is a dependent adverb clause modifying the verb cried. 
  • The whole sentence is a compound-complex sentence. 

Now you have a great understanding of sentence structure! If you'd like to quiz yourself on this material, check out this helpful PDF: http://www.lamission.edu Be sure to sign up for our free bi-weekly newsletter so that we can keep in touch! 

Elizabeth O'Brien from Grammar Revolution

If you don't want to teach or learn grammar by yourself,  click here to see how I can help you.

If you'd like me to help you teach or learn grammar in an easy and approachable way, check out The Get Smart Grammar Program. It lays everything out clearly and allows you to move at your own pace. Just watch the videos and complete your assignments. By the time you finish, you'll have an excellent grasp of grammar and sentence diagramming, and you'll feel much more confident. 

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