Why study sentence structure?
A system of rules govern the way English sentences are constructed. Understanding how the different clause elements work to form a variety of sentence structures will give you more control over your writing.
A formal grammatical sentence has the following basic clause elements in a standard word order:
|(identifies topic/theme)||(expresses action/sensation/state of being)||(identifies who/what is affected by the verb)||(gives information about the subject/object/verb)||(adds information about the event/situation: how, where, when)|
|Stephen Hawking||is||the author||of A brief History of Time.|
|The book||was published||in 1988.|
|What Hawking wrote||was||revolutionary.|
|A Brief History of time||was organised||in a linear fashion.|
|The book||became||a multi-million bestseller.|
|Hawking||said||that he was surprised by the book's success.|
In this unit, we will explore
- the pattern of words that are put together to construct grammatical sentences
- some common sentence problems
- a range of sentences to increase variety and achieve a more mature and sophisticated academic writing style
Common sentence problems
Why do some sentences fail to communicate? Here are some examples of sentence failure.
Watch the clips below for a refreshing review of sentence problems and how to correct them.
Common sentence problems
Relative clauses (which-clauses) are commonly used to form complex sentences. One of the problems with relative clauses is incorrect placement of the relative clause:
A permanent magnet and an electromagnet cause the receiver to vibrate, which are located at the edge of the diaphragm.
A permanent magnet and an electromagnet, which are located at the edge of the diaphragm, cause the receiver to vibrate.
Now you try. Rewrite these sentences by positioning the bolded relative clauses correctly.
1. The final design is a vehicle with the dimensions 300 mm by 350 mm by 300 mm, which is chosen to complete the challenge.
2. The basic building materials would be plastics and metals, which are used for the construction of the device.
3. The robotic device must be able to travel across the pond to pick up the packages, which is 2 metres wide.
4. The new factory to be built is still not large enough, which is an improvement on the old one.
5. The fire spread rapidly through the interior of the aeroplane, which started in the cargo cabin.
6. The experiments proved the scientists' hypothesis, which were repeated many times.
7. The minister apologised to the Prime Minister who used taxpayers' money for private expenses.
Answers: Note that the relative (which) clauses are enclosed within commas.
1) The final design, which is chosen to complete the challenge, is a vehicle with the dimensions 300 mm by 350 mm by 300 mm.
2) The basic building materials, which are used for the construction of the device, would be plastics and metals.
3) The robotic device, which is 2 metres wide, must be able to travel across the pond to pick up the packages.
4) The new factory, which is an improvement on the old one, to be built is still not large enough.
5) The fire spread, which started in the cargo cabin, rapidly through the interior of the aeroplane.
6) The experiments, which were repeated many times, proved the scientists' hypothesis.
7) The minister, who used taxpayers' money for private expenses, apologised to the Prime Minister.
At university, you are expected to demonstrate that you can use a wide range of sentences skillfully to express different ideas and relationships between these ideas. If you tend to start a sentence or combine sentences in a certain way, you may find this unit on sentence types useful for increasing your sentence range. It is not about writing long sentences. It is about building ideas meaningfully and logically. Study these two versions of a text and decide which communicates more effectively:
|Version 1||Version 2|
Reducing harm to young people from drug use is a collective responsibility. Young people share this responsibility with schools, parents and families. The wider community is also involved. They contribute in an important way. Young people can develop into confident members of society. They also become secure in their identities and a sense of belonging.
Reducing harm to young people from drug use is a collective responsibility, which is shared with parents, families, schools and the wider community. Through their involvement, young people can develop into confident members of society, and become secure in their identities and sense of belonging.
English sentences: simple, compound, complex
View this presentation about three main types of English sentences.
The following chart of logical organisers or transition words can be used to create compound and also complex sentences. Used appropriately and correctly, these linking devices can also improve cohesion between sentences and comprehensibility in extended writing.
Compound sentences use
Complex sentences use
in other words
Comparison (showing similarities)
Contrast (showing differences)
on the contrary
on the other hand
despite the fact that
in spite of the fact that
(NB: despite and in spite are followed by a noun phrase, not a clause)
as a consequence
as a result
as a matter of fact
to sum up
first and foremost
first and most
the first….the next
Special note about using relative clauses to form complex sentences.
Relative clauses are introduced by these relative pronouns: who, which, that, whom, whose. They are commonly used in academic writing.
Combine each set of simple sentences into a compound sentence and a complex sentence (containing either an adverb clause, adjective clause, or a noun clause).
|Example:||The bus drivers went on strike last week. Many commuters had to use alternative means of transport.|
|Compound sentence:||The bus drivers went on strike last week, so many commuters had to use alternative means of transport.|
|The bus drivers went on strike last week; therefore, many commuters had to use alternative means of transport. (note the punctuation)|
|Complex sentence:||Because the bus drivers went on strike last week, many commuters had to use alternative means of transport.|
|(adverb clauses)||Many commuters had to use alternative means of transport, because the bus drivers went on strike last week.|
|When the bus drivers went on strike last week, many commuters had to use alternative means of transport.|
Now you try. Remember that you may have to remove unnecessary repetition.
- The new Prime Minister is developing his own style of leadership. His first 100 days was hailed a success.
- Native and non-native English speakers have different needs. Most schools provide separate English classes for each group.
- Solar heating systems are economical to operate. The cost of installation is very high.
- Children grow older. They become increasingly involved with their peer group. The members of the peer group are about the same age. They have similar interests.
- Children reach the final year of school. They tend to adopt adult values. The adult values define who they are.
|Example:||There was absolute silence and the pianist started to play.|
|Better:||The pianist did not start to play until there was absolute silence.(adverb clause)|
Now you try:
- Robert hired a tutor and the reason for this was that he might have a better chance of passing the examination.
- The weather is fine and we will go to the beach.
- We waited at the airport for over an hour but the helicopter never arrived.
- There was a report in the newspaper yesterday but the newspaper report was incorrect.
- Dr Robert Li has written many articles on the differences in regional dialects and he is Professor of Linguistics at the National University of Singapore.
- Waitangi Day falls on a weekday this year, so Monday will be a public holiday.
- The President's scholarship was awarded to someone else and John had applied for the President's scholarship.
- He was given extra coaching but he still failed to make the grade.
- The President and his wife were enjoying their visit to New Zealand, and they told the press this.
- English spelling is not always consistent with its pronunciation, and many foreigners have difficulty with it.
- Global warming is a serious problem and all the prime ministers at the summit agree with that.
- Environmental science is one of the most popular courses in the university, and Dr Hillman teaches environmental science.
- Robert hired a tutor because he thought /so that he might have a better chance of passing the examination. (adverb clause)
- If /Provided that the weather is fine, we will go to the beach.(adverb clause)
- Although we waited at the airport for over an hour, the helicopter never arrived.
- What was reported in the newspaper yesterday was incorrect. (noun clause)
- Dr Robert Li, who is Professor of Linguisitics at the National University of Singapore, has written many articles on the differences in regional dialects. (adjective/relative clause)
- Since Waitangi Day falls on a weekday this year, Monday will be a public holiday. (adverb clause)
- The President's scholarship, which John had applied for, was awarded to someone else. (adjective/relative clause)
- Although he was given/Despite extra coaching, he still failed to make the grade.(adverb clause)
- The President and his wife told the press that they were enjoying their visit to New Zealand. (noun clause)
- Many foreigners have difficulty with English spelling, which is not always consistent with its pronunciation. (adjective/relative clause)
- All the prime ministers at the summit agree that global warming is a serious problem. (noun clause) .
- Environmental science, which Dr Hillman teaches, is one of the most popular courses in the university, (adjective/relative clause)
The following text has a choppy writing style, consisting mainly of simple sentences. Improve the sentence range by combining some sentences to make compound or complex sentences.
 A telephone is an instrument.  It enables people to talk to each other over long distances.  It has two parts: (a) the transmitter and (b) the receiver.  The transmitter functions as an 'electric ear'.  The transmitter lies behind the mouthpiece of the telephone.  The transmitter incorporates a diaphragm.  The diaphragm acts like the eardrum in the human ear.  Behind the diaphragm are tiny grains of carbon.  The grains respond to pressure from the vibration of the diaphragm.  To respond to the pressure, the grains regulate the amount of electric current flowing through them.
Modified from: Williams, R. (1978). Spotlight: Technical English for Asia. Hongkong: Longman.
A telephone is an instrument that enables people to talk to each other over long distances. [complex] It has two parts: (a) the transmitter and (b) the receiver.[simple] The transmitter functions as an 'electric ear' and lies behind the mouthpiece of the telephone. [compound] It incorporates a diaphragm, which acts like the eardrum in the human ear.[complex] Behind the diaphragm are tiny grains of carbon which respond to pressure from the vibration of the diaphragm by regulating the amount of electric current flowing through them.[complex]
Combine each set of simple sentences in two ways:
a. with relative pronoun 'who/which'
b. reduced relative clause with -ing or -ed participle.
|Example 1:||Car owners live in the same area. They should be encouraged to form car pools.|
|a. with relative pronoun:||Car owners who live in the same area should be encouraged to form car pools.|
|b. reduced with -ing participle:||Car owners living in the same area should be encouraged to form car pools.|
A ton of gutted fish is landed by a UK trawler. It costs a ton of oil.
|a. with relative pronoun:||A ton of gutted fish which is landed by a UK trawler costs a ton of oil|
|b. reduced with -ed participle:||A ton of gutted fish landed by a UK trawler costs a ton of oil.|
Now you try:
(Check your answers below)
1. Vehicles have been abandoned. They will be towed away by the police.
|a. with relative pronoun:||Vehicles which have been abandoned will be towed away by the police.|
|b. reduced with -ed participle:||Abandoned vehicles have been abandoned will be towed away by the police.|
2. Families already own property. They are not eligible to purchase flats.
|a. with relative pronoun:||Families which already own property are not eligible to purchase flats.|
|b. reduced with -ing participle:||Families already owning property are not eligible to purchase flats.|
3. They are not eligible to purchase flats. These flats have been subsidized by the goverment.
|a. with relative pronoun:||They are not eligible to purchase flats which have been subsidized by the goverment.|
|b. reduced with =ed participle:||They are not eligible to purchase flats subsidized by the goverment.|
4. One crop fetches a good market price and is very nutritious. The crop is soybeans.
|a. with relative pronoun:||One crop which fetches a good market price and is very nutritiousis soybeans.|
|b. reduced with -ing particple:||One crop fetching a good market price and is very nutritious is soybeans.|
Improve the sentence range of these paragraphs by combining some sentences.
1. Inequality at work
In the past, women have been denied the right to vote. They have been denied the right to go to school. They have been denied the right to borrow money. They have even been denied the right to enter certain occupations. However, women have fought for their rights over the years. Now gender equality is protected by a number of laws and rulings in many countries of the world. Nevertheless, inequalities still remain. Underlying these inequalities is prejudice against women. This prejudice is based on sexism.
2. Learning a new language
Some people argue that learning a new language is best achieved by living in a foreign country. One should establish residence for at least six months. A tourist only makes brief visits. These brief visits provide few opportunities to learn. One can only master purely superficial phrases. Examples are "How are you?" or "Where's the bank?". Many day-to-day living routines require the learning of some simple words. For example, one needs words to mail a letter. One may also need to know how to get some plumbing repaired. These simple words are essential for survival in a new country. This survival instinct forces one to face the language head-on. One should not just be satisfied with flowery tourist formalities. A lot of languages can be learnt from just living amongst the local people. This can happen when out shopping or on the bus travelling to work. One can go to plays, films, and public lectures. These events are available in most foreign cities. They provide opportunities to hear a language spoken in the local idiom. It is possible to learn to read in a foreign language. It is possible to learn to speak. It is possible to learn to think. It is even possible to dream in a foreign language.
Correct any errors of sentence fragments, comma splices, omissions (e.g. 'which' in relative clauses and redundant references.
Climate Change: A Global Response
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) it was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme. Charged with assessing the state of the science on the question of climate change, it is also responsible for compiling inventories of the greenhouse emissions of nations, and for publishing the findings of its assessments.
The IPCC it comprises the plenary panel, which meets annually, and three working groups, which are responsible for assessing three critical issues. The physical science bases of climate change, the particular risks facing human and natural systems, and the possible responses to limit greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a secretariat and a bureau, is responsible for the administration of all this work.
IPPC meetings they bring together scientists and political representatives from all WMO member countries, it is preferred that the political representatives have some relevant expertise. The Assessment Reports are assembled by scientists. Whereas the politicians have a hand in the compilation of the Summaries for Policymakers.
Modified from: Morgan, G., & McCrystal, J. (2009). Poles Apart: Beyond the shouting, who's right about climate change? Auckland, NZ: Random House.