Four Basic Sentence Structures

See Spot. See Spot run.” 

The simple sentences of the Dick-and-Jane basal readers helped beginning readers, but they do not satisfy mature readers. Careful writers will seek to provide sentence variety and clarity, and this can be achieved by giving attention to the structure of sentences. 

In the drafting stage, a writer’s primary concern may be to get the flow of ideas down in words and sentences, however they come. In the revision stage, however, the writer does well to think more consciously about making each sentence effective. This can be done through a creative blend of four basic sentence structures: the Simple, the Compound, the Complex, and the Compound-Complex.

The SIMPLE: The Simple sentence has a subject. It has a verb that describes action of some kind. It expresses a complete idea.

  • Example A: I closed my eyes as I walked.
  • Example B: I ate my lunch.

The COMPOUND: The Compound sentence puts together two simple sentences, and the ideas or actions in the combined sentences are of equal weight.

  • Example A: I closed my eyes and I kept them closed as I walked.
  • Example B: I ate my lunch and then I washed the dishes.

The COMPLEX: The Complex sentence puts together a simple sentence with another part that depends on it, in order to show the idea in the simple sentence is more important than the one in the dependent part.

  • Example A: I walked with my eyes closed because Ernie dared me to try it.
  • Example B: I ate my lunch after all the others had eaten.

The COMPOUND-COMPLEX: The Compound-Complex sentence combines two simple sentences and it also has one or more parts that depend on the main sentence, since that helps to show relationships or what is most important.

  • Example A: I closed my eyes and I kept them closed as I walked because Ernie dared me to.
  • Example B: I ate my lunch after all the others had eaten and then I washed the dishes.

Extending Your Sentence Knowledge

Language Texts: Probably every serious writer will want to have available one or more reference texts. Most grammar texts include guidance on the construction and varied use of sentences. While new texts can be expensive, used book stores often sell old language and grammar books very cheaply. A careful browse and the expenditure of a few dollars can avail you of valuable writing resources. 

On-line Writing Labs: For those with Internet access, an even more affordable source of writing guidance—sentences included—are the Writing Labs provided by many universities for their students.Those resources also are available free of charge to the general public.

The oldest writing lab (also know as an “OWL”) is that of Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Purdue OWL was started in 1995 and offers one of the most comprehensive collections of resources of on-line labs.

For Advanced Writers:

Advanced writers wishing to improve their sentence skills may find helpful guidance in the Writing Reference sections of favourite bookstores. I will offer a few titles I have found to be interesting and useful:

Constance Hale. Sin and Syntax: How To Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

[Ms. Hale reviews all of the basics but also includes the “music”: voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm].

Claire Kehrwald Cook. Line by Line: How To Improve Your Own Writing. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.

[With an Masters degree in English literature, Ms. Cook taught composition for several years at the university level, then became a manuscript editor for a major book publisher, and then became an editor for the Modern Language Association.]

Richard Lederer. Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon our Language. Charleston: Wyrick & Company, 1999.

[Dr. Lederer has published extensively on language, often finding the humour in our expressive errors. At the least, this volume of “anguished English” will give us a good laugh at the linguistic foibles of others and remind us to proofread our own writing with care]. 

Dr. Brooks Landon. Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Sentences You Love to Read. New York: Viking/Plume, 2013.

[Dr. Landon is a professor of English at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, which is one of the best writing centres in the U.S. Besides the book, published by Viking, Dr. Landon’s course “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft” is available as  instant video or on a DVD format through The Teaching Company ( The course offers 24 thirty-minute lectures that bring new learning for even the most advanced writers.

Sentencing without Offence

Four Basic Sentence Structures

Reading Like a Writer: At the Sentence Level

Considerations for Sentence Variety