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Complex-Compound Sentences

Learn what they are and use them to your advantage.

By
Sal Glynn, read by Mignon Fogarty
September 19, 2008
Episode #136

Today’s topic is the complex-compound sentence. 

Guest writer Sal Glynn writes:

Most writers worth their fingertip calluses begin as avid readers. We read books, magazines, and websites indiscriminately until we start to notice the writing itself and marvel at the many forms a sentence can take. The complex-compound sentence, spinning in the whirl of words, elicits the most admiration and envy. How can I write like that?

Declarative Sentencescomplexcompound

First, start small. The declarative sentence is the building block of writing (1). It requires a simple string of one subject and one predicate, and usually has one direct object:

Henrik scrubbed the goat.

Henrik is the subject, scrubbed is the predicate, and the goat is the direct object.

Compound Sentences

All the necessary information is there, but your reader will go for a nap if you write too many short declarative sentences in a row.

Henrik scrubbed the goat. He danced a tarantella.*

Blah. But those two declarative sentences are related to each other because they're both about Henrik. So you can combine them to make a compound sentence:

Henrik scrubbed the goat, and he danced a tarantella.

Now the sentence contains two independent clauses, Henrik scrubbed the goat and he danced a tarantella. They're joined by the conjunction “and,” and can also be expressed as separate sentences—which is the big test for any compound structure.

Complex Sentences

The next step on the ladder of sentence complexity is the complex sentence. The straightforward, no-nonsense complex sentence is made of a main clause and a dependent clause. The main clause can stand alone, but just as dependent children need their parents, dependent clauses need their main clause to escape being sentence fragments.

Henrik cleaned his beard after the goat kicked straw in his face.

Henrik cleaned his beard is the main clause and after the goat kicked straw in his face is the dependent clause. Readers get more information from complex sentences, and including them makes for an engaging reading experience.

Acquiring the Skill

Moving even higher on the ladder of sentence complexity, we've got the complex-compound sentence. As you might have guessed, complex-compound sentences are a combination of compound sentences and complex sentences. They have at least two main clauses and one dependent clause, and sometimes many others. Punctuation can also expand past the lone comma and period to include semicolons, and even dashes.

Henrik never should have bought the goat after it kicked straw in his face; he wanted to impress Daphne, who always wore a leopard skin pillbox hat.

Henrik never should have bought the goat is the first main clause and after it kicked straw in his face is the first dependent clause. He wanted to impress Daphne is the second main clause and who always wore a leopard skin pillbox hat is the second dependent clause.

Although they do appear in non-fiction, some of the most beautiful examples of complex-compound sentences appear in fiction. In John Barleycorn by Jack London (2), the writer shows the breathless enthusiasm of youth while piloting a bandit skiff on San Francisco Bay:

How was I, who had worked hard and read books of adventure, and was only fifteen years old, who had not dreamed of giving the Queen of the Oyster Pirates a second thought, and who did not know that French Frank was madly and Latinly in love with her—how was I to guess that I had done him shame?

How was I is the main clause and “I” is the subject, with who had worked hard and read books of adventure being the first dependent clause. Was only fifteen years old has an implicit “who” to make it a second dependent clause, and who had not dreamed of giving the Queen of the Oyster Pirates a second thought is the third dependent clause. We’re not out of the sentence yet. Who did not know that French Frank was madly and Latinly in love with her is the fourth dependent clause, and finally, the second main clause ends the sentence: how was I to guess that I had done him shame?

Of the classic writers, Jane Austen was fond of the complex-compound, as were Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. Contemporary writer Flannery O’Connor used the complex-compound sentence judiciously, David Foster Wallace tosses the structure around like a profligate, and Thomas Pynchon is a master in his most dense novels. Alice Sebold uses the complex-compound to great effect in The Lovely Bones (3).

The Importance of Music

Your ear is the greatest asset in composing these sentences. The complex-compound is where the written word turns to music. Grammar is important, but what brings the meanings and actions of the sentence to the reader is the rhythm. An artfully constructed complex-compound sentence is sung instead of read. When the tune is missing, copy editors and readers will shriek when confronted with its appearance.

Now that you understand the complex-compound sentence, remember -- the quick and dirty tip is to listen for the music and construct them with care and attention.

Administrative

The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish

Thanks to guest-writer Sal Glynn, the author of the award-winning book The Dog Walked Down the Street, An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish. Find out more about Sal at his blog, http://dogwalkeddownthestreet.blogspot.com.

Questions for me, Grammar Girl, can be posted on Facebook or Twitter.

References

1. Strumpf, Michael and Auriel Douglas. The Grammar Bible. NY: Henry Holt, 2004.

2. London, Jack. John Barleycorn. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1913.

3. Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. NY: Little, Brown, 2002.

*Tarantella: A stately Italian courtship dance in 6/8 time that is also performed solo by women to cure neurotic symptoms.

 
 

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