Section 7: Sentence Variety

The first step for effective and appropriate punctuation is understanding patterns of sentence variety. There are four basic forms of sentence variety: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. We'll examine each form using examples adapted from What Writing Does and How It Does It.

Simple - a sentence which contains one independent clause only

Example: In extending the reach of discourse analysis to engage with written text, we would do well, however, to remember some of the lessons learned in analysis of spoken language.

  • we would do well, however, to remember some of the lessons learned in analysis of spoken language. 
  • One independent clause:

NOTE: the introductory structure is not a clause (no main verb phrase).

  • in extending the reach - prepositional phrase
  • of discourse analysis - prepositional phrase
  • to engage - infinitive phrase
  • with written text - prepositional phrase

ALSO:

  • to remember - infinitive phrase
  • learned - adjectival past participle phrase modifying LESSONS

Compound - a sentence which contains two or more independent clauses only

Example: Text analysis was developed earliest within scriptural religions, for people were highly motivated to find meaning from holy books such as the Bible, Talmud, Koran, or Baghavad Gita.

  • Two independent clauses: 
  • Text analysis was developed earliest within scriptural religions
  • people were highly motivated to find meaning from holy books such as the Bible, Talmud, Koran, or Baghavad Gita.

NOTE: Comma preceding the coordinating conjunction (FOR) is a KEY MARKER for coordinated independent clauses.

Complex - a sentence which contains only one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.

Example: To understand writing, we need to explore the practices that people engage in to produce texts as well as the ways that writing practices gain their meanings and functions as dynamic elements of specific cultural settings.

  • One independent clause:
  • we need to explore the practices that people engage in 
  • Two dependent clauses:
  • that people engage in to produce texts - adjectival relative clause modifying PRACTICES
  • that writing practices gain their meanings and functions - adjectival relative clause modifying WAYS

NOTE: to understand writing is an adverbial infinitive phrase

Compound-Complex - a sentence which contains two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.

Example: The absence of attention to writing as a  social and productive practice has come about for reasons we discuss below, but the effect has been to severely limit the analysis of written text, closing off many lines of inquiry into how and why texts come to be as they are and what effects they have on the world.

  • Two Independent Clauses
  • The absence of attention to writing as a  social and productive practice has come about for reasons
  • the effect has been to severely limit the analysis of written text

NOTE: Comma preceding the coordinating conjunction (FOR) is a KEY MARKER for coordinated independent clauses.

  • Four Dependent Clauses
  • [that] we discuss below - adjectival relative clause (deleted THAT) modifying REASONS
  • [that] texts come to be - adjectival relative clause (deleted THAT) modifying HOW AND WHY
  • as they are - adverbial subordinate clause modifying the infinitive phrase TO BE 
  • [that] they have on the world - adjectival relative clause (deleted THAT) modifying EFFECTS

NOTE: CLOSING OFF MANY LINES OF INQUIRY is an adverbial present participle phrase.

ALSO: While HOW AND WHY could be analyzed as interrogatives, we argue that the second AND is coordinating objects of the preposition INTO (HOW AND WHY and WHAT EFFECTS). This would mean that the two relative clauses (each with a deleted THAT) are also coordinated.

Now that we have looked at specific examples of sentence variety, let's review a paragraph in context to reinforce the key strategy that understanding sentence variety means recognizing all of the independent and dependent clauses in each sentence:

Margot’s mind reeled. She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door. It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside. They were faces she once knew in a different light, but now they were putrid reflections of squalor and decay. There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except the grim reminder that she was alone. She tried to ignore the thought, but it was difficult to swallow when she was the last bastion of humanity. Death awaited her outside.

First we separate the sentences:

  1. Margot’s mind reeled. 
  2. She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door. 
  3. It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside. 
  4. They were faces she once knew in a different light, but now they were putrid reflections of squalor and decay. 
  5. There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except the grim reminder that she was alone. 
  6. She tried to ignore the thought, but she was the last bastion of humanity. 
  7. And only death awaited her outside.

From these seven sentences, we need to identify all clauses by finding the main verb phrases:

  1. Margot’s mind reeled
  2. She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door. 
  3. It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside. 
  4. They were faces she once knew in a different light, but now they wereputrid reflections of squalor and decay. 
  5. There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except the grim reminder that she was alone. 
  6. She tried to ignore the thought, but she was the last bastion of humanity. 
  7. And only death awaited her outside.

Once we know where the clauses are, we can proceed to analyze for sentence variety:

  1. Margot’s mind reeled. SIMPLE
  2. She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door. SIMPLE
  3. It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside. SIMPLE
  4. They were faces she once knew in a different light, but now they were putrid reflections of squalor and decay. COMPOUND-COMPLEX
  5. There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except the grim reminder that she was alone. COMPLEX
  6. She tried to ignore the thought, but she was the last bastion of humanity. COMPOUND
  7. And only death awaited her outside. SIMPLE

Remember, use your key markers to identify both independent and dependent clauses, then determine the combination used to make up the sentence. 

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:

SENTENCE VARIETY PRACTICE EXERCISE

For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following passage adapted from Siddartha for sentence variety.

In the shade of the house, in the sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Sal-wood forest, in the shade of the fig tree, Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman. The sun tanned his light shoulders by the banks of the river when bathing, performing the sacred ablutions, the sacred offerings. In the mango grove, shade poured into his black eyes, when playing as a boy, when his mother sang, when the sacred offerings were made, when his father, the scholar, taught him, when the wise men talked. For a long time, Siddhartha had been partaking in the discussions of the wise men, practising debate with Govinda, practising with Govinda the art of reflection, the service of meditation. He already knew how to speak the Om silently, the word of words, to speak it silently into himself while inhaling, to speak it silently out of himself while exhaling, with all the concentration of his soul, the forehead surrounded by the glow of the clear-thinking spirit. He already knew to feel Atman in the depths of his being, indestructible, one with the universe.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the SENTENCE VARIETY SAMPLES ANALYSES page.