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Concourse 2

Complex sentences: the introduction

complexity

Note: if you don't know the difference between a subject and an object or your complement from your elbow, it may be wise to follow the basic ELT training course grammar section which introduces some fundamental concepts.
The other area you might like to cover before this guide is the one on analysing phrase structures.


4

4 Types of sentences

First of all, a little revision is in order.

There are 4 types of sentences represented by the examples below.  Can you identify them?
Click here when you have.

  1. I went to the cinema.
  2. I went to the cinema and I met John.
  3. I went to the cinema because I was bored.
  4. I went to the cinema because I was bored and had nothing better to do.

Note that this classification is one used in so-called traditional grammar.  From other points of view, e.g., functional grammar, all sentences which consist of more than one clause may be defined as complex sentences (Lock, 1996:247).  We retain the distinction here but it is not a necessary one for what follows.

The following examples show that compound and complex sentences are not, of course confined to two or three clauses:

  1. I went to the cinema and met John but he was bored by the film so he left early.
  2. I went to the cinema because I was bored and had nothing better to do as I'd finished my essay and already sent it in.

In sentence 1. we have a compound of went to the cinema and met John.  This is followed by a further independent clause, he was bored, and a subordinate clause so he left early.
In sentence 2., we have the independent clause, I went to the cinema followed by a subordinate clause, because I was bored and that has a further subordinate clause, as I'd finished my essay which is linked to another independent clause, and already sent it in.  Here's another way to understand it.

  • independent clauses are in  blue boxes 

  • dependent clauses are in  green boxes 

  • coordinating conjunctions are in  red boxes 

  • subordinating conjunctions are in  orange boxes 

Sentence 1:
complex 1

Sentence 2:
complex 2


Sloth Bear Claws

Types of clause

We have distinguished two clause types in the above:

Independent clauses
These are not dependent structurally on other clauses and can stand alone, potentially, at least.  I went to the cinema is perfectly comprehensible and the reason need not be given.  This sentence contains two independent clauses, highlighted in blue:
I took the bus to the station and I just managed to catch the train.
Dependent clauses
These are also, in traditional grammar, called subordinate clauses for the reason that they are structurally or semantically dependent on other clauses and cannot usually stand alone.  Here's an example with the dependent or subordinate clause highlighted in blue:
When I came home I saw that the window was broken.
In spoken language, of course, a dependent clause can stand alone when the independent clause is understood.  For example,
    Why are you so late?
    Because the bus broke down.

Multicolor Jigsaw

Types of connection

If you are unsure about the difference between the various types of conjunction in English, follow the guide to conjunction on this site.

In traditional grammars conjunction is the name given to clausal connections.  Here, we'll look at things from a slightly different, functional, angle and distinguish between linking and binding.

linking

linking

When two clauses are equal, they can be linked.  Here are some examples with the link highlighted in red.

  1. Stop nagging; I'll do it tomorrow.
  2. You can stay here with me  or you can go with your father.
  3. He gave it to me because I wanted it and he had no use for it.
  4. While I was walking the dog and thinking about the day ahead, I ran into an old friend.

The rule is simple: for linking to occur, both clauses must be either independent or dependent.  In examples 1 and 2 the clauses are both independent.  In 3 and 4, they are both dependent.

We an use punctuation to link or we can employ a conjunction.  There are examples of both above.

sequencing linked clauses

Sometimes, the clauses can be reversed without changing the meaning.  In sentence 3, for example, there is little difference if we say He gave it to me because I wanted it and he had no use for it or He gave it to me because he had no use for it and I wanted it.
Note that  and clearly belongs to neither clause because it remains between them when they are reversed.  That is a defining characteristic of a coordinating conjunction, but not the only one.

At other times ordering is important either because:

  1. There is a logical chronological relationship which is disturbed by moving clauses around.
        I went home and had a long, hot bath.
    is not the same as
        I had a long hot bath and went home.
  2. There is an implied causal relationship.
        I was angry and walked out in a huff.
    is not the same as
        I walked out in a huff and was angry.

subject omission in linked clauses

In linked clauses, we have a frequent example of the omission of the subject.  If the subject of the verbs in both clauses is unchanged, it can be omitted.
    I went out and I caught the bus
means the same as
    I went out and caught the bus
.

binding

binding

When clauses are unequal, they are connected by binding.

The simplest example is when we have an independent and dependent clause such as:

  1. The room was a mess because I'd been too busy to clear up.
  2. When I'd finished, it looked a lot better.

sequencing in bound clauses

Notice here that reversing the clauses is possible:

  1. Because I'd been too busy to clear up, the room was a mess.
  2. It looked a lot better when I'd finished.

Note, however, when clauses are linked in this way the conjunction moves with the clause.  That is to say it is part of it.  That is a defining characteristic of subordinating conjunctions.

Sequencing can be even more flexible:

  1. Although  not a good one, the idea was accepted by the board.
  2. The idea, although not a good one, was accepted by the board.

We can also have sentences in which a dependent clause has its own dependent clause.  This frequently occurs when causal relationships or relative clauses are used.  For example,

  1. The room was a mess because I'd been too busy to clear up while I'd been working.
  2. I went to the cinema which is in the next town because it was the only one which was showing the film that I wanted to see.

binding without conjunctions

If you have followed the guide to conjunction, you'll be familiar with the range of subordinating (and other) conjunctions used to bind independent and dependent (or subordinate) clauses.  However, there are other ways to bind clauses together.  For example

  1. Had you asked, I would have helped.
  2. By taking a taxi, I managed not to be late.
  3. Arriving at the meeting, I saw that lots of people were going to be late.
  4. The meeting which I attended was not very useful.

In 9, it is word order alone which connects the ideas.
In 10, the use of the preposition by and a participle connects the ideas.
In 11, the participle alone is enough.
In 12, we have a relative pronoun to connect the clauses.


issue

Problems for learners (and teachers)

given and new information

There is a tendency in English to end-focus new information, i.e., to place new information after old.  For example,

  1. I finished my essay and went to meet my friends.
  2. When I had finished my essay, I went to meet my friends.
  3. I went to meet my friends when I had finished my essay.

What problems can you see here?  Click when you have an answer.

conjunct vs. conjunction

What's gone wrong here?  Click when you have an answer.

  1. I went to the cinema therefore I missed your call.
  2. I was in London because of this I was able to see the exhibition.
  3. He came to the meeting additionally so did Mary.

repeated conjunctions

Some languages (e.g., most Chinese languages) mark the relationships between clauses twice and speakers of those language may produce sentences such as
    Because I was in London so I could meet her.
    Although it was hot but he wore a coat.

finite and non-finite verb forms

What has gone wrong here?  Click here when you have an answer.

  1. In order to getting to school on time he got up early.
  2. He worked hard so that making a lot of money.
  3. In spite of he worked so hard, he made very little money.
  4. Without I had a satnav I would have been lost.

Click here to take a test on this.


Related guides:
relative pronoun clauses a guide to how relative pronoun clauses are constructed with considerations of the pronouns we use
conjunction a guide to explain the main sorts of conjunction and distinguish subordinators from coordinators
adverbials for more on the distinction between a conjunct and a conjunction
finite and non-finite verb forms for more on this critical distinction
cleft sentences a guide to it-, wh-- and other forms of cleft sentences with two verbs
fronting a guide to how moving items to the front of sentences o all kinds can be done for emphasis and the effect on structure which follow
relative adverb clauses a guide to how relative adverbs expressing, when, where and how work
indirect questions a guide to reporting or embedding questions
modification an overview of modification with links to specific types
negation a guide to a complex and sometimes odd set of phenomena in English included transferred negation and inversion


Reference:
Lock, G, 1996, Functional English Grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press