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What is Sentence Structure?

By M.R. Anglin
Updated Feb 07, 2024
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Sentence structure is the order and arrangement of the clauses in a sentence, which is a group of words that express a complete thought. Three of the most common types of sentence structure are simple, compound, and complex sentences. Each of these can be identified by the number and types of clauses found within them.

Types of Clauses

The term "clause" simply refers to a group of words that form an idea, somewhat synonymous with "sentence." An "independent clause" is a phrase that includes a subject and predicate and can stand on its own as a full statement. In contrast to this, a "dependent clause" might have both a subject and predicate but what it expresses is incomplete. This distinction is important, as various types of sentence structure are created by combining these two forms.

Subject-Predicate Structure

Many times, but not always, sentences start with a subject. This subject is commonly a noun or noun phrase. In the clause, "Matt washed the dishes," the subject is "Matt." The predicate normally comes at the end in sentence structure and is usually comprised of the verb and its modifiers. In the example above, "washed the dishes" is the predicate; "washed" is the verb or action and "the dishes" is the direct object, which identifies what the subject acts upon.

Simple

A simple sentence structure consists of one independent clause. The previous example is simple and expresses a complete idea. While it is a short example, sentence length cannot be used to judge its type. "The man walked down the street to see if the newspaper had arrived at his favorite corner store," is simple, with only a single independent clause, though it is much longer than the previous example.

Compound

Compound sentences consist of two or more simple or independent clauses, joined by a coordinating conjunction such as "and" or a coordinating adjective like "however." "I walked to the store," and "The clerk waved hello," are both simple sentences. They can be joined together to create the compound, "I walked to the store, and the clerk waved hello."

Complex

A complex sentence has one independent clause joined together with a dependent clause. Since dependent clauses do not express complete ideas, they often become subordinate clauses that do not have as much strength as independent ones. For example, "Both gold and coal are valuable, although gold is worth more," consists of the independent clause "Both gold and coal are valuable" and the dependent clause, "although gold is worth more." This dependent clause does not express a full idea, and it is a subordinate because the conjunction "although" indicates that what follows it is less important than the other clause.

Compound-Complex

The combination of the compound and complex forms create a sentence structure known as "compound-complex." This occurs when a simple and complex sentence are combined together, or two complex types become connected. For example, "I walked to the store, and I bought some milk, though I really wanted ice cream," is compound-complex. It begins with a simple sentence, "I walked to the store," which is connected by "and" to a complex sentence consisting of the independent clause "I bought some milk," and the dependent clause, "though I really wanted ice cream."

Fragments and Imperatives

When dealing with sentence structure, it is important to avoid fragments. A fragment is an incomplete thought or a dependent clause by itself. "However, I went to the store," is a fragment, since there is clearly something missing from the idea expressed by it. It contains a subject and predicate, but the conjunction "however," indicates a missing element.

Fragments should not be confused with "imperatives," which give commands. The subject of an imperative statement is the understood or implied "you." "Come here" is an example of such a command, understood as "You, come here." Many people distinguish a fragment from an imperative by adding the word "you" before it and seeing if it makes sense.

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Discussion Comments

By wavy58 — On Sep 10, 2012

I've been doing some editing for a publishing company, and it really baffles me that many authors out there do not adhere to correct sentence structure. These are people who are publishing their own books!

I get paid to edit the manuscripts before they go to print, and I have had to correct so many sentence fragments. It seems that even people who have a way with words and a good vocabulary still suffer from confusion over exactly what constitutes a complete sentence.

I guess I shouldn't complain too much, though. After all, I get paid to correct their mistakes!

By JackWhack — On Sep 09, 2012

I had never heard that about putting "you" in front of an imperative to see if it worked. That's a helpful tip!

When looking at sentence structure, subjects are what I check for first. If a sentence doesn't seem to have one, it throws me off, especially if it seems like it could be a sentence anyway. Now I know that it's because the sentence is an imperative.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 08, 2012

@feasting - It's because if you just said, "Gold is worth more," out of the blue, then people would ask you, "More than what?" Yes, it is a complete sentence, but it depends on what came before it for clarification.

Generally, if you see a word like "although" in front of a clause, then you know that the clause will be dependent on what came before it for more information. It's the same with the word "however."

By feasting — On Sep 08, 2012

I was always a bit confused in my sentence structure lessons in grammar school. I had a hard time grasping the different parts of sentences, because it seemed to me that some clauses could fall under several categories.

For example, in the sentence mentioned in this article as being a complex sentence, I see another possibility. "Gold is worth more," is a sentence, because it has a subject and a verb. So, why can't this whole sentence be considered a compound sentence?

By SunDevils11 — On Sep 18, 2010

KeyLimePie- So incorporate them together instead of keeping them separate? That is a great idea, thank you very much. And yes, I agree with you on the book and street smart saying; even while watching my 10 year olds in class I can see it sprouting in them. Thanks again.

By KeyLimePie — On Sep 18, 2010

I had that same problem with one student last year. She was very bright and caught onto things very quickly, so I thought it was odd she couldn’t grasp this concept. The older I get the more I start to believe things I heard as a kid, like people who are book smart can’t be street smart and vice versa. So I think they’re trying too hard and cannot make the simple connection. An exercise that snapped in her head was to keep having her circle the subject and underline the noun. That way she trained to look for the underlined word when I asked for the noun. Good luck.

By SunDevils11 — On Sep 18, 2010

I am having a tough time explaining this concept to a few students. They are having trouble recognizing the relationship between noun and subject; I cannot explain clear enough the noun is in the subject and IS the person/place/thing. The exercises are separate but they circle the subject instead of just the noun.

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