I am about to open a box of grammatical terminology. We’re in a smoky backroom somewhere; we’d arranged to meet on a street corner, and I led you through the back alleys of the neighbourhood till we reached a padlocked door. I unlocked the door and you followed me into a small room where a black case lay on a table lit by a single bare light bulb. “Yeah,” I say, “I got the merchandise…”

I’m opening the box now, and you feast your eyes on the gleaming grammatical terminology inside: complex sentence, subordinating conjunction, main clause (independent clause), subordinate clause (dependent clause). “That’s some nice terminology there,” you say scanning the goods, “but how do I use it?”

Well, that will take a little explanation.

Not long ago, we looked at simple sentences and complex sentences, like these two below:

Simple sentence: I went to bed early last night.

Compound sentence: I went to bed early last night, but my wife stayed up to guard the jewels.

After a bout of tears and tantrums, we got to understanding them pretty well, and established the following: a simple sentence contains one clause; a complex sentence includes two clauses; the two clauses in a compound sentence are independent clauses; they are joined by a coordinating conjunction; and those coordinating conjunctions (which can be remembered with the acronym FANBOYS) always go in the middle of the sentence. Not too difficult really (but go and read that if you haven’t yet.)

Complex sentences are like compound sentences in that they consist of two clauses, but different because the relationship between those two clauses is different. Here are a few examples to demonstrate:

My dog always growls when you walk into the room.

As the summer approaches, we all start thinking about holidays.

She won’t trust him because he won’t sign the pre-nuptial contract.

The complex sentence contains an independent clause and a dependent clause, also known as a main clause and a subordinate clause. The dependent/subordinate clause contains a subordinating conjunction – here as, when and because. Which terminology you use depends on your temperament: if you are a gentle, caring person, you can imagine that the independent clause is looking after the poor little dependent clause; or you can choose to believe that the main clause has subordinated the weaker subordinate clause to his will. Either way, this is not equal relationship between clauses that operates in a compound sentence. The main/independent clause can function on his own, but the dependent/subordinate can’t:

My dog always growls when you walk into the room. (correct)

My dog always growls. (correct, although this dog sounds disturbed)

When you walk into the room. (Incorrect – we call this kind of incomplete sentence a fragment)

Another complexity of the complex sentence that distinguishes them from compound sentences is that the order of their clauses can be changed. Just don’t forget to add that comma if you’re putting the dependent/subordinate clause at the beginning:

When you walk in to the room, the dog will growl.

The dog will growl when you walk into the room.

The subordinating conjunctions to be used in these sorts of sentences are often to do with timing or order of actions, such as when, while, as, until and before; others relate more to conditions, such as, as long as, unless and if; some are to do with cause and effect, like because, as and since; and there are some to draw contrasts, like although and even though.

Now I’ve really been talking about a particular kind of complex sentence here. There are others which don’t follow exactly the same rules: I have another cache of grammatical terminology in one of my other hides in the city. (I’m talking relative clauses, participle clauses, things like that, capisce?) It’s also true that there are sentences with more than two clauses – ‘compound-complex sentences’ and the like, but they’re not really hard to work out once you know the basics.

So there’s your merchandise anyway. Now, there’s the little issue of payment…



Go back to the passage you wrote for the post ‘Simple and Compound Sentences: a Primer’. See if you can turn any your sentences into complex sentences.


2 thoughts on “Complex Sentences: a Primer

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