The Art of the Sentence: Complex Sentences

Another important type of sentence, a complex sentence, requires close attention on this week’s Grammar Monday. A complex sentence contains an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. As you learned in last week’s discussion of compound sentences, an independent clause is essentially a simple sentence; at the very minimum, an independent clause contains a subject and a verb and represents a complete thought. A dependent clause, on the other hand, cannot stand alone as a simple sentence because it does not have those noted minimum elements. A dependent clause, instead, must always be connected to an independent clause. 

If none of that made any sense, then I have one suggestion about how to spot and distinguish these clauses: look for thesubordinating conjunction, a conjunction that begins or introduces a dependent clause. Here are some common subordinating conjunctions:

as long as
as soon as
even though

except that
just as
so long as
Whenever you see these words, a dependent clause siren should go off in your head. Where there’s a dependent clause, there’s also an independent clause connected to it. Put these clauses together and, voila, you have a complex sentence.  

Now if you’re still wondering how all of this looks in practice, do not fear. Eddie and Jean’s story offers more helpful examples.

  • When Eddie and Jean arrived at the courthouse fifteen minutes late, the judge had already dismissed the case.
  • Although they did not understand why the judge dismissed their case, they were fine with this outcome as long as it meant the whole ordeal was over.
  • After their attorney assured them that they had nothing else to worry about, Eddie and Jean hurried out to celebrate at the nearest restaurant.  

Understanding complex sentences is one thing, but knowing when or how to use them is a whole other matter.Complex sentences should be used to serve two purposes: 1) to keep a continuous flow, and 2) to make a relationship clearer and more specific. We often speak in complex sentences, which give our speech a continuous flow or rhythm and allow us to glide deftly from thought to thought in a manner that makes some logical sense to the listener. Complex sentences clearly and precisely indicate a relationship between thoughts, ideas, or parts of a sentence; in this way, complex sentences are similar to compound sentences, except that complex sentences tend to make the relationship even clearer and more specific.

To put it simply, you should use complex sentences to keep things moving and to drive home a point to your reader. A complex sentence can be, and often is, a writer’s best friend. However, use them wisely and with care. It is always unwise to overuse any one sentence type.

Tune in next Monday to see what happens to Eddie and Jean, as we dive into the crazy world of compound-complex sentences. If you want more discussion of the four basic sentence types, be sure to check out Let’s Nerd Out: Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound Sentences, airing on Sunday, October 25th, at 10:00pm EST. For more personalized grammar help, email me at for information about writing coaching.

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