The Art of the Sentence: Compound Complex Sentences

So far, we’ve covered three of the four types of sentences: simple sentences, compound sentences, and complex sentences. Today’s Grammar Monday post revolves the compound complex sentence, the fourth type of sentence in the English language. A compound-complex sentence contains two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses. Put another way, a compound-complex sentence contains one complex sentence (an independent clause and, at least, one dependent clause) joined by a conjunction to a simple sentence (an independent clause).

For example, take the following sentences:

  • Neither of them likes novels. – Simple sentence
  • While Jean likes to read magazines, Eddie prefers to read self-help books. – Complex sentence

Using a conjunction (in this case “but”) to combine these sentences creates a compound complex sentence:

  • While Jean likes to read magazines, Eddie prefers to read self-help books, but neither of them likes novels.

As you can see, a compound complex sentence contains two complete sentences (a complex sentence and a simple sentence) connected by a conjunction. Now let’s look back at Eddie and Jean’s story. When we left the happy couple last week, they had arrived at court late only to find out that the judge had dismissed their case. Afterward, they decided to go celebrate at a restaurant. Using compound complex sentences, let’s see what happened next:

  • Although Jean wanted some sweet potato fries, they couldn’t find any restaurant that served any, but they were too happy to let this disappoint them.
  • They were free of their legal woes, which had all resulted from an unlucky accident anyway, and now they were ready to celebrate.
  • Eddie and Jean checked their checking account later and, even though the balance was pitifully low, they decided they would plan a nice vacation soon.

Thankfully, things turned out well for Eddie and Jean. They were having some seriously bad luck.

From Eddie and Jean’s story, we can see the varying levels of sentence complexity. Compound complex sentences are the most complex of all sentence types. Spotting compound complex sentences is relatively straightforward: they look like regular compound sentences but far more complex. Sometimes, compound complex sentences contain semicolons and even dashes. This type of sentence, like a complex sentence, can be a writer’s best friend. There is almost a musical quality to compound complex sentences, a rhythm and flow that you cannot achieve at all or as easily with any of the other sentence types. I have one main piece of advice for using compound complex sentences: master simple, complex, and compound sentences before you try to go heavy into compound complex sentences.

Overall, use all sentence types wisely and with great care. Be sure to not to rely too heavily on one particular type of sentence structure. Like cooking, in writing, it’s best to mix and mingle different types of sentences. Add a dash of simple, a sprinkle of compound, a few drops of complex, and a bit of compound complex for a nice kick. Follow the rules at first. Then, venture out. Be creative. Experiment and try new things until you figure out what works. Even once you figure out what works, don’t hesitate to change things up a bit. That is how grammar and writing works. It’s like art. 

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