When I was at school, they didn’t teach us terms like ‘simple sentence’ and ‘compound sentence’, In fact, they hardly taught us any grammatical terminology at all, expecting us to ‘pick it up’ through reading and occasional red squiggles on our exercise books. I only started to accrue explicit knowledge of the rules of writing and grammar when I was teaching English as a foreign language and had to swot up on terminology before each lesson, lest the class grammar boffin show me up in front of the other students.
Times have changed: grammar is back on the school syllabus in Britain, and pupils of 12 or 13 are expected to know just what a simple sentence or a complex sentence is. But maybe you were off that day, or not paying attention, or composing poems in the back of your book. Or maybe you’re of a generation like mine, whose teachers deemed grammar totally, like, not groovy, man. Either way, here’s your chance to swot up.
We’ll start with a bit of necessary terminology, establish what makes a simple sentence, and then look at compound sentences. Next week sometime, when the stars are in the correct alignment, we’ll look at complex sentences.
Every sentence needs a subject and a verb. The verb is the doing or being word, while the subject is the thing that is being or doing (the rest of the sentence can be called be called the complement). The sentence is expressing only one idea; grammatically speaking it only has one clause. A straight forward example is:
Andy went to France. Or He went to France.
Because there is only one subject and one verb, this is a simple sentence. A subject needn’t be just one person though. The following still has just one subject, a compound subject, and is also a simple sentence:
Andy and his wife went to France. Or They went to France.
Simple sentences can contain two verbs, too, grammatically speaking, a compound verb. So the following are all, despite their length, simple sentences – they only contain one subject and one verb, therefore one clause:
Andy went to France and stayed at the Hotel du Louvre.
Andy and his wife went to France and stayed at the Hotel du Louvre.
They went there and did that.
Once you get your head around compound verbs and compound subjects, simple sentences are pretty straightforward. I’ll give your head a minute or two to get around them… All good? Great. Now we can move on to compound sentences:
I like to drink tea in the morning, but my wife will have a glass of orange juice.
I visited my sister this morning, and I’ll visit my mother later.
It’s a good idea to stock up on firewood for the winter, or you can keep a supply of coal.
He’d had enough of life in the fast lane, so he upped sticks and moved to the country.
You’ll notice that there are two clauses in each compound sentence. Each must have a subject and a verb, and each is an independent clause, meaning each would be perfectly serviceable as a sentence on its own:
I like to drink tea in the morning.
My wife will have a glass of orange juice.
The word that brings the two clauses together and defines their relationship is called a coordinating conjunction. Its usage is distinct from a subordinating conjunction, which (we’ll see) is to be used in a complex sentence. The most common coordinating conjunctions are and, but and so, but for, nor, or and yet can also be used this way (see tomorrow’s post FANBOYS for full guidance on their usage). The coordinating conjunction will always go in between the two clauses, and will usually be preceded by a comma. Grammar guides will often insist that this comma is compulsory – and it usually aids clarity – but many writers will dispense with its use, especially when two very short clauses are used:
I drink tea and she drinks orange.
There might be little difference in meaning between a simple sentence and a compound sentence, except perhaps to draw attention to the separateness or togetherness of the subjects or verbs involved:
Simple: Andy and his wife went to France.
Compound: Andy went to France, and his wife went with him.
Simple: I went to town and bought a book.
Compound: I went to town, and I bought a book.
There you have it: simple sentences, clauses, subjects, verbs, compound sentences and coordinating conjunctions. Beautiful, ain’t it? Knowledge of types of sentences might not in itself improve your writing, though it can help you decide what punctuation you need to use. It will, however, increase your awareness of your own sentence structure, and will come useful later on as you seek to use more and more sophisticated structures.
Write a short description of your day using only simple sentences. Rewrite it using only compound sentences. Does the change in sentence type seem to alter the meaning in any way?