What is a complex sentence?
We use complex sentences to indicate a specific relationship between two ideas, and to clarify which of the two is more important. Consider the following example:
- “I went to the supermarket. We were out of milk.”
Although the reader can probably guess that the relationship between the two ideas above is one of cause and effect, that relationship could be specified by combining the two ideas into a complex sentence instead, as in:
- “I went to the supermarket because we were out of milk.”
By adding the subordinating conjunction “because,” we have transformed the previously independent clause “we were out of milk” into a dependent clause. It can no longer stand alone, but is dependent on the clause that it is now linked to. The relationship between the two ideas is now perfectly clear, and the importance of the independent clause “I went to the supermarket” is highlighted.
Using complex sentences
As mentioned, complex sentences are useful because they can indicate a very specific relationship between two ideas. Depending on what relationship we would like to indicate, we choose a specific subordinating conjunction. For example:
- “He’s going to pass his test even if he doesn’t study.” (a specific outcome despite a hypothetical action)
- “I watched a movie while my friend was shopping.” (concurrent events)
- “I will go as long as you go with me.” (an outcome will occur under a certain condition)
In the examples above, the subordinating conjunctions even if, while, and as long as introduce the dependent clauses and specify their relationship to the independent clauses.
Some of the most common subordinating conjunctions are:
- as soon as
- even if
- in case
- in order that
Go to the chapter on Conjunctions to learn more about how subordinating conjunctions are used in complex sentences.
Structure and punctuation
The order of the independent and dependent clause in a complex sentence is flexible. We can structure complex sentences with the independent clause first, as in:
- “He’s going to pass his test even if he doesn’t study.”
- “I watched a movie while my friend was shopping.”
- “I will go as long as you go with me.”
The same sentences can be structured with the dependent clause first as well. This results in no change of meaning. For example:
- “Even if he doesn’t study, he’s going to pass his test.”
- “While my friend was shopping, I watched a movie.”
- “As long as you go with me, I will go.”
Although there are exceptions, note that when the dependent clause is placed first, we generally follow it with a comma, as in the examples above. However, if the independent clause introduces the sentence, we usually do not need a comma.
While it’s a commonly quoted belief that a sentence should not begin with the word because, this is not an actual grammatical rule. Sentences can begin with because (and any other subordinating conjunction) as long as the sentence is not a fragment. For example
- “Because we were early, we decided to have a coffee.” (correct)
- “Because we were early.” (incorrect)
As the first sentence is a dependent clause without an independent clause to complete it, it is considered a fragment and must be corrected. However, the second sentence is a complete sentence because the dependent clause is followed by the independent clause “we decided to have a coffee.”