Complex sentences


Complex sentences contain multiple events

What’s the difference between a house and a housing complex?

A house has 1 building. It might be a shack, or it might be a mansion, but however big or small, there’s just 1.

Beach shack

A complex has multiple buildings grouped together.

  • There might be 2 buildings, or 100 buildings.
  • Some of those buildings might be large, and some small.

The important thing is that they’re considered to be parts of some larger whole.

Manuelle Gautrand Futuristic Housing Block for Amsterdam

Complex sentences work the same way. 

However, instead of multiple buildings, we’re interested in multiple events.

Let's take a look at the three sentence types—simple, compound, and complex—in terms of events.

A simple sentence has just 1 event. Like this:

Snookle was delivered one morning with the milk.

Unbelievable!Paul JenningsSource
Your turn

A compound sentence has multiple distinct events linked by connectors.

For instance, this snippet has two related but distinct events:

Brian turned the wheel slightly and the plane immediately banked to the right.

HatchetGary PaulsenSource

Do you notice how easily we could separate those 2 events? We could just replace the connector with a full stop and we'd have 2 simple sentences:

  • Brian turned the wheel.
  • The plane banked to the right.

Each event is distinct, meaning it can be isolated from other events (even when they're related).

So a simple sentence will have only 1 distinct event and a compound sentence will have 2 or more distinct events connected within the same sentence.

Your turn

However, in a complex sentence, multiple events are layered together to create a more detailed "combined" event.

For instance, this snippet has 2 events, but unlike the plane snippet above, it has no connector—and do you think you could separate the events as easily as you could separate Brian turning the wheel and the plane banking above?

Bod heard Scarlett choking back a scream.

The Graveyard BookNeil GaimanSource
Your turn
Our answer

It's not clear how to separate these events, is it?

'Scarlett choking back a scream' is a distinct event, but 'Bod hearing' is not a distinct event because he needs something to hear.

This means the events can't be disentangled without completely rewriting Bod's action. 🤯  

So the snippet above is a simple example of a complex sentence.

Your turn

Can you identify which of the 6 sentences in this snippet are simple sentences, which are compound, and which are complex based on events?

(Hint: start by counting verb groups, which will form the heart of each event. Then look for connectors to separate compound sentences from complex ones.)

Someday she would wear armour too, but she wouldn’t be confined to temple grounds!

“I’m come with Master Alan of Trebond to begin his service at Court.”

Outside the wall on the other side lay the royal forest.

Here the Market Way changed its name, becoming the Palace Way.

Coram led the way to the courtyard beside the stables.

Alanna gritted her teeth and thrust her chin forward stubbornly.

Alanna: The first adventureTamora PierceSource
Our answers

To recap:

  • Simple sentence = 1 event.
  • Compound sentence = more than 1 event joined together by connectors.
  • Complex sentence = more than 1 event but they’re sort of tangled up.

Useful: 1 event = 1 clause = 1 verb

But just because the events in a complex sentence can be a bit tangled, it doesn't mean there's no order to them. 

For example, events in a complex sentence have a hierarchy.

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