Constructing Compound Sentences
Simple sentences rarely present a problem for authors because they are commonly used in informal speech and are, well, simple. The following sentence is just such a simple sentence: ‘Teachers are worried about the rising illiteracy rates in the country.’ There is a single idea expressed through a subject and a predicate that includes a main verb. Were it possible to communicate all the procedures and concepts associated with advanced research through such sentences, the process of writing would be a good deal easier for academics and scientists. It is not, however, and perhaps this is a good thing – prose that consists of simple sentence after simple sentence without variation is very dull indeed for the reader. To create prose that conveys a scholarly author’s sophisticated ideas, constructs a persuasive argument and proves engaging for readers, compound and complex sentences should be used as well. I will tackle the first here.
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For authors who are struggling with writing in a language that is not their own, especially one as challenging and unpredictable as English, successfully constructing simple sentences may seem taxing enough, but compound sentences can easily be negotiated by anybody who can write a simple sentence. A simple sentence is an independent clause, and to form a compound sentence, one simply connects two independent clauses that are related in logic or some other way relevant to the author’s purpose. There are three basic ways in which to make this connection:
1. By using a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘but,’ which is usually preceded by a comma: ‘Teachers are worried about the rising illiteracy rates in the country, and even politicians are beginning to acknowledge the problem.’ If the clauses are short and the subject remains the same, the comma may not be needed even when the transition is oppositional – ‘I rode home from the library but I drove to the store.’ A comma should always be used for clarity when needed, however.
2. By using a semicolon between the two independent clauses: ‘Teachers are worried about the rising illiteracy rates in the country; even politicians are beginning to acknowledge the problem.’ This structure is very similar to two separate sentences, but it links the two clauses more closely and can result in a more concise style because it often requires less repetition of key terms and ideas.
3. By using an adverb or transitional phrase of some kind between the two independent clauses: ‘Teachers are worried about the rising illiteracy rates in the country; in fact, even politicians are beginning to acknowledge the problem.’ Notice that this structure also requires a semicolon before the transitional words and usually a comma after them for clarity, but it provides an opportunity to emphasise or specify the direction of the author’s thought. Reflect on the subtle differences that might be expressed by replacing ‘in fact’ in the above example with ‘consequently’ or ‘nevertheless.’ Such sentences are an excellent choice when negotiating transitional points to report results or advance a research-based argument.
As you are constructing compound sentences, consider the opportunities this particular sentence structure offers for qualifying, comparing, contrasting or otherwise commenting on two ideas presented side by side. For example, an author could tuck far more detail about his or her own thoughts into a basic compound sentence like the example above: ‘Teachers are worried about the rising illiteracy rates in the country, and no surprise given that it is their job to combat this plague; truly surprising, however, is the fact that politicians, after decades of ignoring teachers’ pleas for smaller class sizes and increased special needs support, are at last beginning to acknowledge the problem.’ At this point, one might want to replace that semicolon with a full stop and transform the sentence into two sentences for ease of reading, but the structure is certainly sound as it is.
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