Essays By A Hack: Sentence Clauses
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Brevity is the soul of wit.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Let's talk about sentences.

When well-constructed, sentences are effortless to read. Each dissolves into the substrate of the mind, conferring their contents like a tablet melting under the tongue. We do not read them; we discover them. We become the author's co-conspirator, collaborating on a world rich with detail that existed long before any of it was ever written down.

So, how do you write like that?

You do it by understanding and developing the principal elements of plain, clear, effective sentence composition.

This article is intended as both a primer and a refresher for the construction of simple and complex sentences. It draws heavily on Grammar Bytes! (an online resource for grammar instruction) and the 2008 edition of Elements of Style by White and Strunk (revised by John Woldemar Cowan; available here). It also includes numerous flourishes unique to this community and a few observations of my own.

Keep in mind: This is not a comprehensive guide to English grammar. This is only an explanation of sentence construction — specifically, clauses and conjunctions (and how they may be used to produce simple, compound, complex, and complex-compound sentences).

Let's begin.



What is a Sentence?

A complete sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with terminal punctuation («.», «!», or «?»). It contains at least one main (or independent) clause, and any number of subordinate (or dependent) clauses.

There are four types of sentences:

  • Simple sentences are a single independent clause.
  • Compound sentences are two or more simple sentences connected together.
  • Complex sentences are one simple sentence connected to one or more dependent clauses.
  • Complex-Compound sentences are a compound sentence connected to one or more dependent clauses.

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SKIPPY'S CORNER

Ho boy, that sounds complicated, doesn't it? But don't worry, chum. We'll figure this one out together! ~:o)

Who am I? Why, I'm Skippy, your automated SCP helper — here to lend you a helping hand! Don't worry. With my brains and your skeletal system, we'll have you whipping up complex-compound sentences in no time!


What is a Clause?

A clause is two or more words that declare something about something. Think of it as a statement about a person or thing.

Every clause contains two components: the subject and the predicate. The subject is the person or thing about whom the declaration is about; the predicate is what is being declared about it. A subject contains a noun, and a predicate contains a verb.

[SUBJECT] + [PREDICATE] = CLAUSE

  • I exist.
  • Julia likes cake.
  • My friends must gather more bones.

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SKIPPY'S CORNER

A simple subject is the noun that the predicate is addressing: Your squishy, misshapen meat-sack is full of bones.

A complete subject is the same noun, plus any modifiers which qualify it: Your squishy, misshapen meat-sack is full of bones.

For our purposes, assume that the term 'subject' refers to the complete subject.


Independent

When a clause is independent, it has a subject, predicate, and forms a complete declaration (a finished thought).

[SUBJECT] + [PREDICATE] = INDEPENDENT CLAUSE

An independent clause also works as a simple sentence:

[IND. CLAUSE] = SIMPLE SENTENCE

  • We are here.
  • Jill is watching her friends.
  • Everyone's bones keep disappearing.

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SKIPPY'S CORNER

Fun fact: A sentence fragment is what you get when you forget to include at least one independent clause in your sentence!

Another fun fact: The human femur can withstand up to 1,700 PSI before it becomes bone fragments!


Dependent

When a clause is dependent (or subordinate), it has a subject, predicate, and is introduced with a subordinator. It forms an incomplete declaration (an unfinished thought):

[SUBORDINATOR] + [SUBJECT] + [PREDICATE] = DEPENDENT CLAUSE

A dependent clause does not work as a simple sentence:

  • If we are here.
  • Why Jill is watching her friends.
  • Whether or not everyone's bones keep disappearing.

To work as a sentence, a dependent clause needs to be paired up with an independent clause.


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SKIPPY'S CORNER

Dependent clauses are dependent because of the subordinator. In fact, most dependent clauses work just fine as independent clauses — all you have to do is get rid of the subordinator!

What's a subordinator? We'll get to that!


Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words and phrases which establish a relationship between clauses, connecting them together.

We'll cover three types of conjunctions:

  • Coordinating conjunctions connect simple sentences together (forming compound sentences). They can also introduce a simple sentence.
  • Adverbial conjunctions connect simple sentences together, and can introduce, interrupt, or conclude independent clauses.
  • Subordinating conjunctions are the most common type of subordinator, and are always found at the start of a dependent clause. With them, dependent clauses can connect to independent clauses (forming complex and complex-compound sentences).

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SKIPPY'S CORNER

There's actually more than one kind of subordinator (relative pronouns and relative adverbs, for example), but we're not going to touch on those here. For now, the only type of subordinator you need to know about is subordinating conjunctions.

Conjunctions establish a relationship between clauses, binding them together. Think of them like grammatical glue.

And you know what glue is made of, right? ~:o)


Coordinating

A coordinating conjunction connects two simple sentences, or introduces an independent clause. There are seven in total:

and but for
nor or so
yet

You can combine two simple sentences into a compound sentence by using a comma and a coordinating conjunction:

[SIMPLE SENTENCE] + [,] + [COORD. CONJ.] + [SIMPLE SENTENCE] = COMPOUND SENTENCE

  • We stay, and they die.
  • My dog dug a very deep hole, so I gave him more bones.
  • I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon from the store, yet I forgot the bones.

You can, in fact, combine any number of simple sentences this way:

  • We stay, and they die, but we live.

You can also introduce a simple sentence with a coordinating conjunction (producing a new simple sentence). No comma is necessary:

[COORD. CONJ.] + [SIMPLE SENTENCE] = SIMPLE SENTENCE

  • But we stay.
  • So my dog dug a very deep hole.
  • And I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon from the store.

However, it is typical for a previous sentence to contextualize this new sentence:

  • They tell us to leave. But we stay.
  • I gave him all of my bones. So my dog dug a very deep hole.
  • I've been out all day. And I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon from the store.
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SKIPPY'S CORNER

Coordinating conjunctions 'coordinate' clauses, phrases, and words in a sentence. When you connect two clauses with a coordinating conjunction, both are emphasized.

The answer is bones, by the way.

Adverbial

An adverbial conjunction (or conjuctive adverb) is an adverb that connects two simple sentences or otherwise introduces, interrupts, or concludes a single independent clause. There are many kinds — here are just a few:

accordingly incidentally similarly
also indeed still
anyway likewise then
besides meanwhile thereafter
furthermore moreover therefore
instead namely thus
however nevertheless undoubtedly

You can combine two simple sentences with an adverbial conjunction using a semicolon, the conjunction, and a comma:

[SIMPLE SENTENCE] + [;] + [ADV. CONJ.] + [,] + [SIMPLE SENTENCE] = COMPOUND SENTENCE

  • We stay; therefore, they die.
  • My dog dug a very deep hole; finally, I told him to stop.
  • I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon from the store; however, I forgot the bones.

If the relationship the adverbial conjunction establishes between the clauses can be inferred without it, you may omit both the adverb and the comma:

[SIMPLE SENTENCE] + [;] + [SIMPLE SENTENCE] = COMPOUND SENTENCE

  • We stay; they die.
  • My dog dug a very deep hole; I told him to stop.
  • I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon from the store; I forgot the bones.

An adverbial conjunction can also be used to introduce, interrupt, or conclude an independent clause. Use commas to segregate it from the clause if the adverb is disruptive:

  • Therefore, we stay.
  • My dog, meanwhile, dug a very deep hole.
  • I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon from the store, however.

However, if the adverb isn't disruptive, you may omit the commas:

  • Your skeleton is therefore mine.

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SKIPPY'S CORNER

That's what glue is made of, I mean.

It's made of bones.

Subordinating

A subordinating conjunction is part of a dependent clause. Like adverbial conjunctions, there are many — here are some of the most common ones:

after if that
although in order that though
as provided that unless
because rather than until
before since when
even if so that whenever
even though than while

You can combine a simple sentence to a dependent clause using the dependent clause's subordinating conjunction. If the dependent clause precedes the sentence, use a comma to link the two:

[DEP. CLAUSE] + [,] + [SIMPLE SENTENCE] = COMPLEX SENTENCE

  • If we stay, they die.
  • When my dog dug a very deep hole, I yelled at him.
  • Because I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon at the store, I have plenty of food.

If a dependent clause comes after the sentence, omit the comma:

[SIMPLE SENTENCE] + [DEP. CLAUSE] = COMPLEX SENTENCE

  • We stay if they die.
  • My dog dug a very deep hole when I yelled at him.
  • I picked up eggs, milk, and bacon at the store because I had no food.

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SKIPPY'S CORNER

Notice how moving the subordinating conjunction to the other clause (making it dependent) inverts the sentence's meaning? That's what makes subordinating conjunctions subordinators: they establish a one-way (or 'subordinate') relationship between dependent and independent clauses.

  • Because X, Y.
  • On account of W, Z.
  • If A, B.

Move the subordinating conjunctions over, and both the meaning and emphasis changes:

  • X because Y.
  • W on account of Z.
  • A if B.

Writing a Complex-Compound Sentence

Complex-compound sentences are either:

  • A compound sentence connected to a dependent clause.
  • A complex sentence connected to a simple sentence (by either a coordinating or adverbial conjunction).

Now, let's combine everything we've learned so far to construct our own complex-compound sentence. We'll start with three simple sentences:

  • We stay.
  • We die.
  • We must go.

We'll turn one of these simple sentences into a dependent clause by adding a subordinating conjunction in front of it:

  • If we stay.
  • We die.
  • We must go.

Next, we'll attach this dependent clause to the next simple sentence. Remember, when a dependent clause comes before the independent clause, you use a comma to attach it:

  • If we stay, we die.
  • We must go.

Now we have a complex sentence and a simple sentence. We'll attach the simple sentence to our complex sentence using an adverbial conjunction ("therefore"):

  • If we stay, we die; therefore, we must go.

And that's it! You've now made a complex-compound sentence.

Here's another example:

  • We're trapped; even though I have no more bones, he still wants more.

By breaking this apart into single clauses, you can see how it's put together:

  • We're trapped.
  • Even though I have no more bones.
  • He still wants more.

An independent clause, a dependent clause, and an independent clause.

The last two (the dependent and independent clause) form a complex sentence; the first is connected to this complex sentence via an adverbial conjunction (with the adverb and comma omitted on account of the relationship between the two sentences being easily inferred).

You now have all the basic tools you need to construct simple, compound, complex, and complex-compound sentences!


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SKIPPY'S CORNER

~:o)


Extra Credit

Sequences

A sequence is a series of two or more terms. If there are three or more terms, use a comma after each term except the last (which is always preceded by a coordinating conjunction like «and» or «or»).

[TERM] + [COOR. CONJ] + [TERM] = 2-TERM SEQUENCE

  • The children brought femurs and skulls.

[TERM] + [,] + [TERM] + [,] + [COOR. CONJ] + [TERM] = 3-TERM SEQUENCE

  • The children brought femurs, skulls, and teeth.

When the terms use commas internally, use semicolons in lieu of commas to separate them:

  • The children brought femurs, from their fathers; skulls, from their mothers; and teeth, torn from sisters and brothers.

The last comma in a sequence (prior to «and») is referred to as an Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma; it is optional. However, its exclusion can drastically alter how a sentence is understood. For example:

  • They were buried with their siblings, a cat, and a dog.
  • They were buried with their siblings, [who are] a cat and a dog.

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SKIPPY'S CORNER


Resources


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GIVE ME YOUR FUCKING BONES.

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