Complex sentences

Adding more detail

Adding related events

Good writing is about adding the right kind of details.

We commonly use complex sentences to add extra detail and paint a clearer picture of an event.

But we don't need a complex sentence to do that, so to see how a complex sentence is different, let's begin with an event that has no detail:

Dickon came in.

Dickon came in.

Dickon came in.

You might notice this sentence has minimal structure—Subject-Verb-Complement (and the complement, 'in', showing where Dickon came, is not detailed). 

Your turn

This sentence is fine; it does the job!

But what if we wanted to paint a clearer picture of Dickon's attitude as he comes in?

There are all sorts of ways we could do this. The simplest way is to add an adverb as a modifier:

Dickon came in happily.

Dickon came in happily.

Dickon came in happily.

Your turn

That's okay too!

But what if we wanted to add even more detail?

We could add a prepositional phrase:

Dickon came in with his nicest wide smile.

Dickon came in with his nicest wide smile.

Dickon came in with his nicest wide smile.

Your turn

Again, not bad! 

But maybe it sounds like he's carrying a smile in his hands? Like the smile is just a thing that he has.

What if we wanted it to sound more active? What if we wanted to show Dickon smiling? We could do that by creating a compound sentence:

Dickon came in as he smiled his widest smile.

Dickon came in as he smiled his widest smile.

Dickon came in as he smiled his widest smile.

Your turn

This compound sentence lets us add descriptive detail in the form of another event.

However, notice how both events appear equally important.

Notice: The extra detail is no longer a 'modifier'

What if these events were not equally important? What if we wanted to emphasise one over the other?

Here's one way we could do that:

Dickon came in smiling his nicest wide smile.

The Secret GardenFrances Hodgson BurnettSource

Dickon came in smiling his nicest wide smile.

The Secret GardenFrances Hodgson BurnettSource

Dickon came in smiling his nicest wide smile.

The Secret GardenFrances Hodgson BurnettSource

This last version is a complex sentence. It lets us say Dickon is doing two things at once:

  • Dickon is coming in
  • And he's smiling his widest smile

And it also suggests a hierarchy: the most important event is “Dickon coming in”. His smile is not the focus—it’s a bit of extra detail.

(Also, the power of clauses means the supporting event can inherit the subject ('Dickon') from the main event, which makes the sentence efficient.)

In clause component terms
Your turn
Is one better than the other?

Here's another complex sentence, but this one has several supporting events to add detail.

Can you tell which is the main event? (In your mind, try deleting each one or swapping it for an adjective or some other non-verb word.)

Astrid was still calm, though, frowning, concentrating, trying to make sense of it all.

GoneMichael GrantSource

Astrid was still calm, though, frowning, concentrating, trying to make sense of it all.

GoneMichael GrantSource

Astrid was still calm, though, frowning, concentrating, trying to make sense of it all.

GoneMichael GrantSource
Your turn

You saw all along this page that there are many ways to add detail—adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and so on. 

But we can also add detail by adding extra events, which can take us into the realm of complex sentences.

I want to learn more about adverbs and prepositional phrases

Once we're combining events, timing becomes important, so let's take a look at how timing and tense works in complex sentences.

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