Sentence Structure | St. Lawrence University WORD Studio

Sentence Structure

Combining and Subordinating

In Writing Well, Donald Hall and Sven Birkerts write that while a “simple sentence is direct and clear…the simple sentence will not always embody a complete thought” (137). If you find yourself writing series after series of short (choppy) sentences, you might want to complicate your sentence structure habits with coordination (combining) and subordination.

Problems with short sentences:

  • Short, choppy sentences demand attention from the reader; they should be used primarily for emphasis.
  • Short sentences cannot show relationships that exist between ideas of different importance.
  • Short sentences draw attention away from the ideas in the paper.

COORDINATION: COMBINING THOUGHTS IN ONE SENTENCE

1. Combine two complete thoughts with a comma and a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, yet, so). Remember that each of these conjunctions has slightly different weight.

I went to the airport to pick up my brother. His plane was late.

I went to the airport to pick up my brother, but his plane was late.

2. Combine two complete thoughts with a semicolon. Hall and Birkerts write that “the semicolon implies a close relationship between the two clauses [as does and]” but provides a pause and, thus, a slightly different rhythm (141).

I left for the airport too early. I always think traffic will be worse than it is.

I left for the airport too early; I always think traffic will be worse than it is.

3. Introduce information with a colon.

I headed toward the terminal. I stuffed my parking voucher, my keys, and his flight information in my pocket.

I headed toward the terminal and stuffed the essentials in my pocket: parking voucher, keys, and flight information.

4. Combine two complete thoughts with a semicolon and a connective adverb (however, therefore, consequently, thus, and more).

I rushed toward baggage claim. I slowed down when I saw the “Delayed” sign.

I rushed toward baggage claim; however, I slowed down when I saw the “Delayed” sign.

SUBORDINATION: SETTING UP RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THOUGHTS

A subordinate or dependent clause is a part of a sentence that adds meaning to the rest of the sentence (the independent clause) but cannot stand alone as a sentence. You can join these dependent ideas to an independent sentence by using certain subordinating conjunctions (while, since, because, if, although, unless, after, until, before, and others) or relative pronouns (that, which, who, whom, where). Subordinate clauses show the relationship between two or more ideas by setting the scene, offering an explanation, or telling us who or which one, among other functions.

1. Combine two ideas with an introductory dependent clause.

I did well on my exam. I can relax about my grade for now.

Since I did well on my exam, I can relax about my grade for now.

2. Combine two ideas with a concluding dependent clause.

I did well on my exam. I can relax about my grade for now.

I can relax about my grade for now since I did well on my exam.

NOTE THAT INTRODUCTORY DEPENDENT CLAUSES REQUIRE COMMAS AFTER THEM, WHILE DEPENDENT CLAUSES AT THE END OF A SENTENCE HAVE NO COMMA BEFORE THEM.

3. Combine two ideas by using a relative clause (usually describes who or which one). Jake is the oldest student in the class. He is always more prepared than I am.

Jake, who is the oldest student in the class, is always more prepared than I am.

Renee has been spreading around that rumor. Everyone’s heard it.

Everyone’s heard the rumor that Renee’s been spreading around.

4. Often, you can shorten the dependent idea to make it more of a descriptive phrase than a complete thought.

Jake, who is the oldest student in the class, is always more prepared than I am.

Jake, the oldest student in the class, is always more prepared than I am.

The oldest student in the class, Jake is always more prepared than I am.

Since I was running late, I didn’t bother to answer the phone when it rang.

Running late, I didn’t bother to answer the phone when it rang.

The key to drawing in your readers is to vary your sentence structure. Many consecutive coordinated sentences or a series of sentences that all begin with a subordinate clause are just as distracting and boring as repeated simple sentences.

Combine each pair or set of sentences below into a single sentence in two different ways. First, combine them using coordination. Second, use subordination to make one a dependent clause dependent on the other(s).

1. The winter was unusually mild. The weather was warm most of the time. There was a heavy snowfall in March.

2. Students must complete all their major requirements. Students must round out their education with liberal arts courses.

3. I needed to e-mail my assignment to my professor. The server was down all night. I am going to turn in a hard copy tomorrow. I hope that she won’t mind.

4. We signed a petition in support of the animal rights bill. The bill is being considered by the state legislature now. It doesn’t seem to have enough support to pass.