Update: 2009-05-24 06:50 PM +0800

TIL

TIL English Grammar
09. Building Sentence

c09Buil-Sent.htm

A compilation by U Kyaw Tun and staff of TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, http://www.tuninst.net ). Not for sale.

In the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic.
In the United Kingdom, Canada, and islands under the influence of British education, punctuation around quotation marks is more apt to follow logic. In American style, then, you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "Design." But in England you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "Design".

 

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Contents of this page

0901. Why Sentence Structure Matters
0902. Structure of a Sentence
0902.1. Simple Sentence
0902.2. Compound Sentence
0902.3. Special cases of Compound Sentences
0902.4. Complex Sentence
0903. Order of a Sentence
0903.1. Loose Sentence
0903.2. Periodic Sentence
0904. Purpose of a Sentence
0904.1. Declarative Sentence
0904.2. Interrogative Sentence
0904.3. Rhetorical Question
0904.4. Exclamatory Sentence
0904.5. Imperative Sentence
0951. Review: Sentence Structure
0952. Review: Sentence Usage

Some English sentences are very basic:

Shakespeare was a writer.
Einstein said something.
The Inuit are a people.

You could write an entire essay using only simple sentences like these:

William Shakespeare was a writer. He wrote plays. It was the Elizabethan age. One play was Hamlet. It was a tragedy. Hamlet died. The court died too.

It is not likely, however, that your essay would receive a passing grade. This chapter helps you learn to recognise different types of sentences and to use them effectively in your own writing.

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0901. Why Sentence Structure Matters

Although ordinary conversation, personal letters, and even some types of professional writing (such as newspaper stories) consist almost entirely of simple sentences, your university or college instructors will expect you to be able to use all types of sentences in your formal academic writing. Writers who use only simple sentences are like a truck drivers who do not know how to shift out of first gear: they would be able to drive a load from Montréal to Calgary (eventually), but they would have a great deal of trouble getting there.

If you use phrases and clauses carefully, your sentences will become much more interesting and your ideas, much clearer. This complex sentence develops a major, central idea and provides structured background information:

Since it involves the death not only of the title character but of the entire royal court, Hamlet is the most extreme of the tragedies written by the Elizabethan playwrite (Alt sp - playwright)  William Shakespeare.

Just as a good driver uses different gears, a good writer uses different types of sentences in different situations:
• a long complex sentence will show what information depends on what other information;
• a compound sentence will emphasise balance and parallelism;
• a short simple sentence will grab a reader's attention;
• a loose sentence will tell the reader in advance how to interpret your information;
• a periodic sentence will leave the reader in suspense until the very end;
• a declarative sentence will avoid any special emotional impact;
• an exclamatory sentence, used sparingly, will jolt the reader;
• an interrogative sentence will force the reader to think about what you are writing; and
• an imperative sentence will make it clear that you want the reader to act right away.

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0902. Structure of a Sentence

Remember that every clause is, in a sense, a miniature sentence. A simple sentences contains only a single clause, while a compound sentence, a complex sentence, or a compound-complex sentence contains at least two clauses.

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0902.1. Simple Sentence

The most basic type of sentence is the simple sentence, which contains only one clause. A simple sentence can be as short as one word:

Run!

Usually, however, the sentence has a subject as well as a predicate and both the subject and the predicate may have modifiers. All of the following are simple sentences, because each contains only one clause:

Melt!
Ice melts.
The ice melts quickly.
The ice on the river melts quickly under the warm March sun.
Lying exposed without its blanket of snow, the ice on the river melts quickly under the warm March sun.

As you can see, a simple sentence can be quite long -- it is a mistake to think that you can tell a simple sentence from a compound sentence or a complex sentence simply by its length.

The most natural sentence structure is the simple sentence: it is the first kind which children learn to speak, and it remains by far the most common sentence in the spoken language of people of all ages. In written work, simple sentences can be very effective for grabbing a reader's attention or for summing up an argument, but you have to use them with care: too many simple sentences can make your writing seem childish.

When you do use simple sentences, you should add transitional phrases to connect them to the surrounding sentences.

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0902.2. Compound Sentence

A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses (or simple sentences) joined by coordinating conjunctions like "and", "but", and "or":

Simple: Canada is a rich country.
Simple: Still, it has many poor people.
Compound: Canada is a rich country, but still it has many poor people.

Compound sentences are very natural for English speakers -- small children learn to use them early on to connect their ideas and to avoid pausing (and allowing an adult to interrupt):

Today at school Mr. Moore brought in his pet rabbit, and he showed it to the class, and I got to pet it, and Kate held it, and we coloured (Am sp - colored) pictures of it, and it ate part of my carrot at lunch, and ...

Of course, this is an extreme example, but if you over-use compound sentences in written work, your writing might seem immature.

A compound sentence is most effective when you use it to create a sense of balance or contrast between two (or more) equally-important pieces of information:

Montéal has better clubs, but Toronto has better cinemas.

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0902.3. Special cases of Compound Sentences

There are two special types of compound sentences:
1. Using a coordinating conjunction. First rather than joining two simple sentences together, a coordinating conjunction sometimes joins two complex sentences, or one simple sentence and one complex sentence. In this case, the sentence is called a compound-complex sentence.
2. Using a punctuation mark. The second special case involves punctuation. It is possible to join two originally separate sentences into a compound sentence using a semicolon instead of a coordinating conjunction:

using a coordinating conjunction ("but"): compound-complex sentence
The package arrived in the morning, but the courier left before I could check the contents.

using punctuation ("semicolon")
Sir John A. Macdonald had a serious drinking problem; when sober, however, he could be a formidable foe in the House of Commons.

Usually, a conjunctive adverb like "however" or "consequently" will appear near the beginning of the second part, but it is not required:

The sun rises in the east; it sets in the west.

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0902.4. Complex Sentence

A complex sentence contains one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. Unlike a compound sentence, however, a complex sentence contains clauses which are not equal. Consider the following examples:

Simple: My friend invited me to a party. I do not want to go.
Compound: My friend invited me to a party, but I do not want to go.
Complex: Although my friend invited me to a party, I do not want to go.

In the first example, there are two separate simple sentences: "My friend invited me to a party" and "I do not want to go." The second example joins them together into a single sentence with the coordinating conjunction "but", but both parts could still stand as independent sentences -- they are entirely equal, and the reader cannot tell which is most important. In the third example, however, the sentence has changed quite a bit: the first clause, "Although my friend invited me to a party", has become incomplete, or a dependent clause.

A complex sentence is very different from a simple sentence or a compound sentence because it makes clear which ideas are most important. When you write

My friend invited me to a party. I do not want to go.

or even

My friend invited me to a party, but I do not want to go.

The reader will have trouble knowing which piece of information is most important to you. When you write the subordinating conjunction "although" at the beginning of the first clause, however, you make it clear that the fact that your friend invited you is less important than, or subordinate, to the fact that you do not want to go.

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0903. Order of a Sentence

Not all sentences make a single point -- compound sentences, especially, may present several equally-important pieces of information -- but most of the time, when you write a sentence, there is a single argument, statement, question, or command which you wish to get across.

When you are writing your sentences, do not bury your main point in the middle; instead, use one of the positions of emphasis at the beginning or end of the sentence.

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0903.1. Loose Sentence

If you put your main point at the beginning of a long sentence, you are writing a loose sentence:

loose sentence:
I am willing to pay slightly higher taxes for the privilege of living in Canada, considering the free health care, the cheap tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs, and the wonderful winters.

The main point of this sentence is that the writer prefers to live in Canada, and the writer makes the point at the very beginning: everything which follows is simply extra information. When the readers read about the free health care, the cheap tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs, and the wonderful winters, they will already know that these are reasons for living in Canada, and as a result, they will be more likely to understand the sentence on a first reading.

Loose sentences are the most natural for English speakers, who almost always talk in loose sentences: even the most sophisticated English writers tend to use loose sentences much more often than periodic sentences. While a periodic sentence can be useful for making an important point or for a special dramatic effect, it is also much more difficult to read, and often requires readers to go back and reread the sentence once they understand the main point.

Finally, it is important to remember that you have to structure a loose sentence as carefully as you would structure a periodic sentence: it is very easy to lose control of a loose sentence so that by the end the reader has forgotten what your main point was.

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0903.2. Periodic Sentence

If your main point is at the end of a long sentence, you are writing a periodic sentence:

periodic sentence
Considering the free health care, the cheap tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs, and the wonderful winters, I am willing to pay slightly higher taxes for the privilege of living in Canada.

The main point of this sentence is that the writer prefers to live in Canada. At the beginning of this sentence, the reader does not know what point the writer is going to make: what about the free health care, cheap tuition fees, low crime rate, comprehensive social programs, and wonderful winters? The reader has to read all of this information without knowing what the conclusion will be.

The periodic sentence has become much rarer in formal English writing over the past hundred years, and it has never been common in informal spoken English (outside of bad political speeches). Still, it is a powerful rhetorical tool. An occasional periodic sentence is not only dramatic but persuasive: even if the readers do not agree with your conclusion, they will read your evidence first with open minds. If you use a loose sentence with hostile readers, the readers will probably close their minds before considering any of your evidence.

Finally, it is important to remember that periodic sentences are like exclamatory sentences: used once or twice in a piece of writing, they can be very effective; used any more than that, they can make you sound dull and pompous.

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0904. Purpose of a Sentence

The other classifications in this chapter describe how you construct your sentences, but this last set describes why you have written the sentences in the first place. Most sentences which you write should simply state facts, conjectures, or arguments, but sometimes you will want to give commands or ask questions.

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0904.1. Declarative Sentence

The declarative sentence is the most important type. You can, and often will write entire essays or reports using only declarative sentences, and you should always use them far more often than any other type. A declarative sentence simply states a fact or argument, without requiring either an answer or action from the reader. You punctuate your declarative sentences with a simple period:

Ottawa is the capital of Canada.
The distinction between deconstruction and post-modernism eludes me.
He asked which path leads back to the lodge.

Note that the last example contains an indirect question, "which path leads back to the lodge". An indirect question does not make a sentence into an interrogative sentence -- only a direct question can do that.

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0904.2. Interrogative Sentence - The Question

Looking back into my childhood days, I had always thought "a question" was not "a sentence". I had wrongly remembered: a sentence ends with a period ("full-stop") and a question ends with a question mark ("note of interrogation")

An interrogative sentence asks a direct question and always ends in a question mark:

Who can read this and not be moved?
How many roads must a man walk down?
Does money grow on trees?

Note that an indirect question does not make a sentence interrogative:

Direct/Interrogative: When was Lester Pearson prime minister?
Indirect/Declarative: I wonder when Lester Pearson was prime minister.

A direct question requires an answer from the reader, while an indirect question does not.

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0904.3. Rhetorical Question

Normally, an essay or report will not contain many regular direct questions, since you are writing it to present information or to make an argument. There is, however, a special type of direct question called a rhetorical question -- that is, a question which you do not actually expect the reader to answer:

Why did the War of 1812 take place? Some scholars argue that it was simply a land-grab by the Americans ...

If you do not overuse them, rhetorical questions can be a very effective way to introduce new topics or problems in the course of a paper; if you use them too often, however, you may sound patronising and/or too much like a professor giving a mediocre lecture.

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0904.4. Exclamatory Sentence

An exclamatory sentence, or exclamation, is simply a more forceful version of a declarative sentence, marked at the end with an exclamation mark:

The butler did it!
How beautiful this river is!
Some towns in Upper Canada lost up to a third of their population during the cholera epidemics of the early nineteenth century!

Exclamatory sentences are common in speech and (sometimes) in fiction, but over the last 200 years they have almost entirely disappeared from academic writing. You will (or should) probably never use one in any sort of academic writing, except where you are quoting something else directly. Note that an exclamation mark can also appear at the end of an imperative sentence.

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0904.5. Imperative Sentence

An imperative sentence gives a direct command to someone -- this type of sentence can end either with a period or with an exclamation mark, depending on how forceful the command is:

Sit!
Read this book for tomorrow.

You should not usually use an exclamation mark with the word "please":

Wash the windows!
Please wash the windows.

Normally, you should not use imperative sentences in academic writing. When you do use an imperative sentence, it should usually contain only a mild command, and thus, end with a period:

Consider the Incas.

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0951. Review: Sentence Structure

You will not become a better writer simply by learning to name the different types of sentences, but you will develop a more sophisticated understanding of how language works. If you would like to make certain that you understand how to identify a simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, or a compound-complex sentence, you may try this simple exercise.

01. Question: Ottawa is the capital of Canada, but Toronto is the capital of Ontario.

02. Question: Democracy is a noble goal; it is important, however, to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

03. Question: I do not own a Porsche.

04. Question: Call your father as soon as you arrive in Antigonish.

05. Question: I ate the sushi and left the restaurant.

06. Question: Unless my girlfriend postpones her visit from Calgary, I will not have time to study for my exam.

07. Question: Susanne wanted to be here, but she cannot come because her car is in the shop.

08. Question: The football game was cancelled because it was raining.

09. Question: The football game was cancelled because of the rain.

10. Question: When the train arrives and if Ms. Langlois is on it, she will be served with a subpoena.


Answers to Review questions

01. Question:
      Ottawa is the capital of Canada, but Toronto is the capital of Ontario.
Answer: The answer Compound Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a compound sentence, because it contains two independent clauses joined by the coordinating conjunction "and".


02. Question:
      Democracy is a noble goal; it is important, however, to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
Answer: The answer Compound Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a special type of compound sentence, where the two independent clauses -- "democracy is a noble goal" and "it is important, however, to protect the minority ..." are joined by a semicolon instead of a coordinating conjunction.


03. Question:
      I do not own a Porsche.
Answer: The answer Simple Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a simple sentence, containing only one independent clause.


04. Question:
      Call your father as soon as you arrive in Antigonish.
Answer: The answer Simple Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a simple sentence, containing only one independent clause.


05. Question:
      I ate the sushi and left the restaurant.
Answer: The answer Simple Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a simple sentence. It is easy to see, however, why someone might think that this is a compound sentence, since it contains the coordinating conjunction "and"; however, the conjunction actually joins two predicates -- "ate the sushi" and "left the restaurant" -- within a single clause. The clue that you are dealing with a compound predicate rather than a compound subject is the fact that there is only one subject, "I".


06. Question:
      Unless my girlfriend postpones her visit from Calgary, I will not have time to study for my exam.
Answer: The answer Complex Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a complex sentence, containing the independent clause "I will not have time to study for my exam" and the dependent clause "unless my girlfriend postpones her visit from Calgary." Note the subordinating conjunction "unless" at the beginning of the dependent clause


07. Question:
      Susanne wanted to be here, but she cannot come because her car is in the shop.
Answer: The answer Compound-Complex Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a compound-complex sentence. First, it contains two independent clauses -- "Suzanne wanted to be here" and "she cannot come because her car is in the shop" -- joined by the coordinating conjunction "but"; the second independent clause, however, contains the dependent clause "because her car is in the shop", making the sentence complex as well as compound


08. Question:
      The football game was cancelled because it was raining.
Answer: The answer Complex Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a complex sentence since it contains the dependent clause "because it was raining".


09. Question:
      The football game was cancelled because of the rain.
Answer: The answer Simple Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a simple sentence: since it does not have a predicate, "because of the rain" is a phrase rather than a clause.


10. Question:
      When the train arrives and if Ms. Langlois is on it, she will be served with a subpoena.
Answer: The answer Complex Sentence is correct.
Explanation: This is a complex sentence. At first glance, it might look like a compound-complex sentence because of the conjunction "and" joining the two dependent clauses "when the train arrives" and "if Ms. Langlois is on it"; however, there is only one independent clause in the sentence, so it cannot be compound.

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0952. Review: Sentence Usage

After reading the previous sections, decide whether the following sections are effective or ineffective sentences.

1. Question: Albert Einstein's famous quotation "God does not play dice" was his reaction to the disturbing theory that the universe is essentially the outcome of random events.

2. Question: Racism should be unacceptable in American society by now, but every year the newspapers still report on racially-motivated attacks, questionable police shootings, and groups who actively promote the superiority of whites over blacks or blacks over whites.

3. Question: The citizens of Kingston have gone too long without decent bicycle paths!


Answers to Review questions

1. Question:
    Albert Einstein's famous quotation "God does not play dice" was his reaction to the disturbing theory that the universe is essentially the outcome of random events.
Answer: The answer This is not an effective sentence is correct.
Explanation: Einstein's quotation is very effective (though he turned out to be wrong), and it deserves a position of emphasis in the sentence. Consider how much more effective the sentence becomes when you move the quotation to the end:
  
Quantum physicists argued that the universe is essentially the outcome of random events, but Albert Einstein replied that ``God does not play dice.
Moving the quotation to the end makes this a periodic sentence, with the quotation as its climax.


2. Question:
    Racism should be unacceptable in American society by now, but every year the newspapers still report on racially-motivated attacks, questionable police shootings, and groups who actively promote the superiority of whites over blacks or blacks over whites.
Answer: The answer This is an effective sentence is correct.
Explanation: The writer of this sentence is presuming that reader will agree that racism should be unacceptable, but then goes on to present evidence that, despite the best intentions of people like the reader, racism is still common. For this type of an argument, a loose sentence like this one works well: the writer begins with an uncontroversial statement to gain the reader's confidence, then proceeds gradually to introduce more controversial points.


3. Question:
     The citizens of Kingston have gone too long without decent bicycle paths!
Answer: The answer This is not an effective sentence is correct.
Explanation: While the issue of bicycle paths is an important one, the writer has made a serious mistake here by using an exclamatory sentence -- it makes the tone look forced and the writer, insincere. Use an exclamatory sentence only when a point is truly shocking

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