Complex Sentences Simplified
Academics and scientists tend to write about difficult problems and complex research. No wonder, then, if they often need to express complex ideas and arguments with the utmost clarity. Doing so in English can be challenging, however, even for native speakers and especially for early-career scholars who are just beginning to write up the results of their research projects. For authors who are not native speakers of English, producing complex sentences can be an almost overwhelming task, but not, in the final analysis, an impossible one.
Rereading your simple sentences and reshaping them into more sophisticated and complex structures once you have laid out your basic content and argument in a first draft can be a highly effective way of improving your writing style and keeping your readers interested. After all, no one – neither writer nor reader – enjoys a text that consists of nothing but simple sentence after simple sentence, each one with the same basic structure. The following notes aim to clarify the structure of complex sentences in the hope that authors uncertain of their skills will be encouraged to try their hands at constructing such sentences. Do note, however, that I do not mean compound sentences, which, in the English language, are something quite different. Compound sentences consist of linked independent clauses, with an independent clause being a clause that can stand on its own as a complete sentence. A complex sentence, on the other hand, consists of an independent clause and at least one dependent clause, with a dependent clause being a clause that cannot stand on its own because it is not a complete thought.
There are two basic patterns for complex sentences. In one, the dependent clause follows the independent clause. For example, ‘Publishers are facing a flurry of changes in book production and distribution, although many remain positive that they will weather the storm’ is a classic structure for a complex sentence. The first (independent) clause could obviously stand on its own, but the second clause (from ‘although’ on), despite the fact that it contains a subject and a verb, is dependent on the first clause and cannot stand on its own as a complete thought. The dependency lies in the word ‘although,’ which qualifies and therefore renders dependent the idea in the clause that follows it. Such words are sometimes called dependency markers because of this role in dependent clauses, and they are often preceded by a comma when they follow an independent clause, but not always. ‘Because,’ for instance, is often used in this position without the comma: ‘I ride my bicycle to the library because I can take the river route and miss all the traffic.’
The second basic pattern for complex sentences places a dependent clause before the independent clause. The dependent clause begins with a dependency marker, and a comma separates the two clauses. The clauses in the examples above can simply be inverted to produce this sentence structure: ‘Although many remain positive that they will weather the storm, publishers are facing a flurry of changes in book production and distribution’ and ‘Because I can take the river route and miss all the traffic, I ride my bicycle to the library.’ However, a little rewording may be appropriate or create greater precision, so ‘Although many publishers remain positive that they will weather the storm, there is no doubt the industry is facing a flurry of changes in book production and distribution’ might be better. Remember that this type of structure means that whatever is mentioned in the dependent clause qualifies what is said in the independent clause, so if an author writes ‘Before I conducted the trial, I checked all of the equipment and then immediately tabulated the results,’ he or she may well be in error because that dependency marker ‘before’ qualifies not only ‘I checked all of the equipment,’ but also ‘and then immediately tabulated the results.’ It is more likely that the author meant that the checking of equipment took place before the trial, and the tabulation of results after the trial, so a separate structure would be better for describing the after-trial activities: ‘Immediately after the trial was over, I tabulated the results.’
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