Basics of Sentence Structure

Sentence Structure

Clauses/Phrases

Clauses are combinations of words that convey information; they generally contain a subject and a verb. Phrases, in contrast, do not have both subjects and verbs. There are two main types of clauses: independent and dependent.

An independent clause contains everything necessary to form a sentence and can stand alone. For example:

I ate way too much at the feast last night.

They had to roll me home.

A dependent clause does not contain everything you'd need to form a full sentence and cannot stand alone. For example:

After she destroyed the barrier

Despite getting his haircut

A phrase contains even less than a dependent clause. Phrases lack either a subject or a verb and should definitely not under any circumstance be left alone. They're like toddlers, and you're a parent who can't go out on dates without hiring a babysitter. For example:

A pile of bricks

Going to the store

Phrases are a part of clauses, and both types of clauses are essential to writing in English. The clever writer, however, must know how to properly use them in crafting full and interesting sentences.

Fragments

A fragment occurs when a dependent clause or a phrase is left by its lonesome. Neither can stand on its own, as such would be an imcomplete sentence, or, and this may not surprise you, a fragment of a sentence. In order to fix this problem, a dependent clause either needs to be joined to an independent clause or to become an independent clause all on its own. A phrase would need to become a dependent clause hooked to an independent clause, or an independent clause as well.

Although she wore blue = Fragment

Althought she wore blue, she loved the color purple. = Sentence

Believing in magic = Fragment

Believing in magic was one of her character flaws. = Sentence

Ate an entire turkey = Fragment

The cat snuck into the kitchen and ate an entire turkey. = Sentence

Comma Splices

Sometimes the uninformed writer may accidentally cause an unforeseen problem when joining two independent clauses. When ideas are closely related, a writer may try to link them with a comma to show their relationship. Unfortunately, if a comma is used alone, the writer has spliced her sentences together.

Carmilla was written many years before Dracula, many people do not know this.

The novella follows the adventures of Laura, she lived with her father in a beautiful castle.

After Carmilla's mom's carriage crashes, Carmilla is taken in by Laura's father, she's immediately smitten with Laura.

In the above, the independent clauses are linked with a comma. The way they are written, however, is incorrect, as they are spliced together. To increase clarity and correctness, one should use a conjunction, a period, or a semicolon.

Carmilla was written many years before Dracula, but many people do not know this.

The novella follows the adventures of Laura. She lived with her father in a beautiful castle.

After Carmilla's mom's carriage crashes, Carmilla is taken in by Laura's father; she's immediately smitten with Laura.

Run-Ons

Run-ons are another pitfall for the unwary writer trying to craft complex sentences. A run-on occurs when there are too many parts to a sentence and is often marked by the use of multiple commas and conjunctions.

The Nordic gods were often depicted as dancing with the elements, and sometimes the artists added in small details that suggested a god's chosen animal companion, but not all gods had one, so the artists did not always do this.

As you can see, there is a lot of information in that 'sentence.' To make comprehension easier, a writer can simply separate the details into separate sentences. Doing so allows for clarity.

The Nordic gods were often depicted as dancing with the elements, and sometimes the artists added in small details that suggested a god's chosen animal companion. Not all gods had one, so the artists did not always do this.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are a great way to make sentences more complex and technically beautiful. For a lovely song about conjunctions, we encourage writers to watch the School House Rock song Conjunction Junction.

A conjunction connects two clauses and shows their relationship to one another. In order to remember which words are conjunctions, consider FANBOYS - for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Consider the splices talked about above. One of the fixes is to use a conjunction between the clauses. Be sure to use commas correctly though, as a misplaced comma is a cardinal sin. Not really, but I know you just want to be the best writer you can be.

INCORRECT:

Xena threw her bolas, she tangled the legs of her opponent.

Securing victory, she rescued the baby, her faithful companion watched proudly.

CORRECT:

Xena threw her bolas and tangled the legs of her opponent.

Securing victory, she rescued the baby, and her faithful companion watched proudly.

Semicolons

Connecting two independent clauses that are very closely related is one use of a semicolon. Think of the semicolon as an equals sign (=), which shows that the two clauses mean very similar things. The second clause should provide more detail or perhaps an example. Both sides of the semicolon should be flanked with clauses that can stand alone.

Not all dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago; indeed, the mighty chicken is considered to be a modern descendant of those mighty beasts.

I'm allergic to many things; the list includes mold, grass, wheat, pollen, fish, and dairy.

Semicolons can also be used to separate items on a list. If a list is clear with the use of commas, semicolons should not be used. If, however, a list is complicated, and the writer wishes to add clarity, semicolons are a handy tool.

My fourth grade teacher taught me how to tie my shoes; the difference between right, wrong, and neutral decisions; and that gender and race are social constructs.

The theory puts forth five ideas: 1) that extraordinary power can be gleaned from a mere banana; 2) that fruit flies have been eating this power for generations; 3) that sooner or later those fruit flies will gain the ability to breathe fire through evolution; 4) that those fruit flies will want vengeance on those who wielded fly swatters; and 5) that humans ought to be worried.

Colons

In contrast with semicolons, colons are used to set off a list rather than separate items on that list. 

I like to eat many food stuffs: apples, bananas, kumquats, and kiwis.

Use colons sparingly, however, as not all lists require one. If one uses a verb before the list, no colon is necessary.

I like to eat apples, bananas, kumquats, and kiwis.

A colon may also be used to set off a longer quotation or list of bulleted items.

In her most recent article, Mary M. Q. Contrary wrote:

I dare say that the Apple iWatch is a great stride forward in portable technologies. There were, however, some bugs that the company ought to look into fixing before they release the product for mass consumption. My least favorite aspect of the device is how often the thing buzzed. I thought the purpose of the watch was to help us step away from our dependence on our phones. Instead, now we're to depend upon a watch. This is the same problem; the only difference is the platform. (45)

When packing for a camping trip, I always include the following items:

-Bear repellant

-Croquet mallet

-Scrabble board

Dashes and Hyphens

Dashes and hypens are perhaps one of the more confusing elements of a sentence. Not many people know how to use them correctly. Let's start with dashes.

There are two forms of dashes: the en dash and the em dash.

The en dash is shorter and is used with a space between words. In most cases, the en dash is used to show a range of values and replaces the word 'and.'

The war was waged between 1914 and 1918.

The war was waged between 1914 – 1918.

However, the en dash would not replace the word 'to' in 'from ... to ..."

The war waged from 1914 to 1918. = CORRECT

The war waged from 1914 – 1918. = INCORRECT

The em dash is longer than the en dash, and there is no space between words; typically, the em dash is used to show a change in ideas.

She was often thought of as insipid and fickle—she was, however, much smarter than she let on.

On the proverbial third hand, hyphens are used to connect words that work together. One such use is the creation of compounds. Take for example a woman whose hair is red. To properly describe her, one might write:

The red-haired woman

The words 'red' and 'haired' work together to describe the woman. One would use a hyphen because one would not call her a red woman or a haired woman; the words must work together.

Another common area of confusion is when one tries to describe someone's age. The proper use of hyphens in this case are as follows:

The twenty-five-year-old student who's writing this has a knee that hurts.

Because twenty-five, year, and old all work together to describe the student, hyphens are used to connect them all into one massive compound modifier.

If, however, the age is not modifying anything, then hyphens are not used.

The cat is twelve years old.

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE!