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Back to Basics: Sentence Structure

Susan Price Harvey

The life of a technical editor is fast-paced and demanding, and no one wants to add another item to the editing checklist. However, sentence structure is important and deserves special attention in all documents. Here's a short refresher course in sentence structure that you can take to the author of any document.

Six Basic Guidelines

  1. A sentence must have three elements:
    1. a subject
    2. a verb
    3. a complete thought
  2. Sentences are composed of phrases and/or clauses.
  3. Phrases do not have subjects and verbs; all clauses have subjects and verbs.
  4. Dependent clauses (DCs) have subjects and verbs, but they don't express a complete thought:
    Since Sally wrote this report. This clause doesn't express a complete thought.
  5. Independent clauses (ICs) contain subjects, verbs and complete thoughts.
    Sally wrote the report. This clause has a subject (Sally) and a verb (wrote), and it expresses a complete thought. It is a sentence in its simplest form.
  6. To vary sentence structure, combine clauses in various ways.

Compound Sentences

To form compound sentences, combine two or more independent clauses using coordinating conjunctions (CCs), adverbial conjunctions (ACs) or semicolons, as in any of the following three methods:
Comma and coordinating conjunction (IC, CC IC).
Sally wrote the report, and David will edit it.

Semicolon, adverbial conjunction and comma (IC; AC, IC).
''Sally wrote the report; therefore, David will edit it.

Semicolon (IC; IC).
Sally wrote the report; David will edit it.

The seven coordinating conjunctions are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so.

Adverbial conjunctions are words such as therefore, however, consequently, meanwhile,
nevertheless and thus.

Complex Sentences

Another type of sentence structure is the complex sentence, which has at least one dependent clause and one independent clause. In the complex sentence, one clause is more important than the other. In the case of the sentence below, a subordinating conjunction (because) creates the dependent clause. Other subordinating conjunctions are since, while, when and if.
Because Sally wrote the report, David will edit it.


"Because Sally wrote the report" is a dependent clause; it doesn't express a complete thought. "David will edit it" is an independent clause.

Notice the comma after the dependent clause. When you reverse the clauses and the independent clause comes first, you don't use a comma.
David will edit the report because Sally wrote it.


The formula for using complex sentence structure is:
  • IC DC. Don't use a comma if the independent clause comes first.
  • DC, IC. If the dependent clause comes first, use the comma.

Compound/Complex Sentences

To create even more sophisticated sentences, try using a combination of the compound and the complex sentences.
Because Sally wrote the report, David will edit it, and Mary will create the graphics.


Varying sentence structure is not difficult in the editing process, and although I've given only a few ways to create structure, many more are available. Relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which, that) also can introduce dependent clauses, and phrases can be used as subjects and objects, but that's another article.

Page last modified on Thursday, August 31, 2000 08:00:00pm EDT
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