photo of writer Leo Tolstoy

Source: Tolstoy 1876, Wikimedia Commons

painting of writer Mark Twain with a pipe in his mouth

Source: Beckwith Twain, 1890 painting by James Carroll Beckwith,
Wikimedia Commons

While you may not be ready to emulate the rich variety of sentences found in Tolstoy and Twain, you can learn some basic sentence structures that will improve the readability of your writing.

Compound Sentence

Let’s start with compound sentences, which are formed when two equal ideas or independent clauses are combined. To make a new sentence from two simple sentences, you can use a comma and coordinating conjunction.

My chili is painfully hot.

His chili will incinerate your insides.

My chili is painfully hot, but his chili will incinerate your insides.

The description of each cook’s chili is an independent clause and is able to stand on its own; however, the use of the coordinating conjunction “but” connects the clauses in a more meaningful comparison. The acronym, FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So) will help you remember the coordinating conjunctions. Remember that independent clauses need stronger connectors than a comma. You can connect one clause to another with a semicolon or with a comma and a conjunction. One more caution: don’t mistake simple sentences with compound subjects or compound predicates for compound sentences.

My chili and cornbread recipes are praised by connoisseurs. (compound subject)

My chili boiled over and burned. (compound predicate)

Complex Sentence

A photograph of a poster advertising a Chili Cook-off

Source: Chili Cook Off poster, uwgb admissions, Flickr

Complex sentences provide another option for combining thoughts. In a complex sentence, though there are two clauses, one receives more emphasis. At least one subordinate or dependent idea is linked to the independent idea by a subordinating conjunction (as, while, since, because, if, although, unless, after, until, before, etc.)

Winning the chili cook-off seemed even more remote as I watched the judge lick my competitor’s bowl clean.

The second clause in this sentence, “as I watched the judge lick my competitor’s bowl clean,” is dependent on the first clause. You can reverse the independent/dependent order for equally effective complex sentences. When the dependent clause comes first, you need to use a comma to separate it from the independent clause.

As I watched the judge lick my competitor’s bowl clean, winning the chili cook-off seemed even more remote.

Another way to combine two ideas is to use a relative pronoun like who to connect the dependent clause to the independent clause. Notice that the dependent clause is set off by commas. You’ll spend more time on the punctuation of complex sentences in the “Punctuation” lesson.

Willie, who was the best cook in our town, opened a restaurant.

Compound-Complex Sentence

A photograph of a Texas quarter from 2004. It has an image of the actual state of Texas emblazoned with a five pointed star with the words “the Lone Star State” underneath.

Source: 2004 TX Proof, United States Mint, Wikimedia

A photograph of home-made cornbread in a skillet and Texas chili in a pot on a countertop.

Source: Texas chili w/ cornbread from scratch. My masterpiece,
david_norman, Flickr

As you are shaping your ideas, you may find that you need to express more sophisticated thoughts. For that you’ll have to move up the ladder of sentence complexity to compound-complex. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the potential of this marvelous structure is to build a sentence beginning with one independent clause as the foundation.

Simple Sentence:
Texas chili is made with no beans.

Compound Sentence:
Texas chili is made with no beans, nor is it made with tomatoes.

Complex Sentence:
Because it was difficult to soak dry beans on the wagon trail, Texas chili is made with no beans.

Texas chili is made with no beans, nor is it made with tomatoes because dry beans were difficult to soak, and tomatoes were scarce on the wagon trail.

Use this table as a checklist: Review each structure and place a check in the first column on the left.

Sentence Structure Definition In Other Words Connecting Words Example
Simple A sentence with one subject and one predicate One idea Texas chili is not made with ground beef.
Compound A sentence composed of at least two independent clauses Two equal ideas Coordinating conjunction, FANBOYS, or semicolon Chili with beans is OK, but chili without beans is pure Texan.
Complex A sentence with an independent clause and at least one dependent clause Two unequal ideas Subordinating conjunction (because, as, if, while, when, that, although, etc.) or relative pronouns I ate all that chili even though I know it came from a can.
Compound-complex A compound sentence with at least one dependent clause Two equal ideas and one unequal idea Coordinating and subordinating conjunctions While bland as a canned speech, canned chili can be eaten, but both are hard to swallow.