If you’ve never heard this before, embrace this simple truth about writing: there are only four ways to structure a sentence. That’s right! Not twenty or seventy or infinity. Just four.
Oftentimes, we hear people say, “I just want my writing to flow.” Of course, the antithesis of that statement is, “I don’t want my writing to sound choppy.” So what’s the key to free-flowing, smooth reading, not choppy writing? Varying sentence structure.
If you can learn the four sentence structures and integrate all four into every document you ever write, you’ll be on track to making your writing smooth, sophisticated, and rhetorically effective. And who doesn’t want that? The key is using all four sentence structures to your advantage. Understand your reader, know what points you want to emphasize, and vary your sentence structures to give your writing sophistication, purpose, and smoothness.
So what are the four sentence structures? I’ve created a handy infographic below for easy study, but you should at least know their names: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Read below the graphic for an explanation of how to use each sentence structure in your writing.
Simple sentences are single complete thoughts (what grammarians like to call “independent clauses”). These are sentences that have a subject and a verb and possibly an object. They may have multiple (compound) subjects, but ultimately, a simple sentence is a single thought with one concrete idea.
Sample simple sentence: Humphrey shared the paperclip.
Writing Tip: Simple sentences are the most basic of all sentences and, as a result, are the most common. Most writers who struggle making their writing read smoothly (who, in other words, make their writing sound “choppy”) are using too many simple sentences. Simple sentences are great to draw attention to something, particularly after you have written a compound or compound-complex sentence. Simple sentences aren’t bad. They’re great for rhetorical effect. (Note my last two sentences there, both simple sentences–see how they draw attention to themselves after the longer sentence before them?) But don’t use too many simple sentences in a paragraph or page and don’t typically use more than two consecutively.
Compound sentences are, essentially, the combining of two or more simple sentences. Compound sentences have two or more complete thoughts, joined by a word like “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” yet,” or “so” (use the mnemonic FANBOYS to remember those). Grammarians call those word coordinating conjunctions. If you combine two sentences together using a coordinating conjunction, you’ve created a compound sentence.
Sample compound sentence: Humphrey shared the paperclip but the bellhop didn’t want it.
Writing Tip: Note in the sample sentence above how two complete thoughts are joined together with “but”? That makes reading nice when you link two related thoughts together. You’ve added some complexity to your simple sentence and your reading will be more varied (and interesting).
Complex sentences aren’t as complex as their name suggests. When we talk about “complex” sentences, we’re just referring to sentences that have one incomplete thought (a dependent clause) and one complete thought (independent clause) joined together.
Sample complex sentence: Because the bellhop did not want the paperclip, Humphrey thew his arms up in the air.
Writing Tip: The sentence above has one incomplete thought (“because the bellhop did not want the paperclip…”) See how that phrase needs something to complete the thought? The second part of that sentence is a complete thought–“Humphrey threw his arms up in the air.” When you add the two together, you are making a more interesting connection between two ideas. It’s similar to a compound sentence, but slightly varied. Use both complex and compound sentences often to give your writing some depth and personality.
Compound-complex sentences are, as you might imagine, a combination of both compound and complex sentences. To make these work, you need to have at least two complete thoughts (independent clauses) and one partial thought (dependent clause) tied together.
Sample compound-complex sentence: Humphrey angrily threw his arms up in the air because the bellboy did not want his paperclip, but the bellboy did not care.
Writing Tip: Compound-complex sentences show sophistication in writing and add depth the writing. They can help make a complex topic read more smoothly and connect dots between ideas. However, the very nature of a compound-complex sentence makes them longer and, at times, more difficult to understand or follow. Definitely use compound-complex sentences but don’t write an entire paper (or email) with them. Like with the other three sentence structures, variation is key. Use all four and use them strategically and intentionally.