Hierarchy of main and supporting events

Just because the events in complex sentences are entangled, it doesn't mean they're a mess. There's order to the spaghetti!

Specifically, there's a hierarchy of events.

In the snippet below:

  • The main event is Bod hearing something.
  • "Scarlett choking back a scream" tells us exactly what Bod is hearing, which makes it a supporting event.

Bod heard Scarlett choking back a scream.

There's a grammatical explanation, and it comes back to clauses and clause components.

What happens when we try to highlight this snippet in terms of clause components (subject, verb group, objects, modifiers)?

We have two clauses (because we have two verb groups, and every clause has a single verb group). So let's start by highlighting Scarlett's clause:

Bod heard Scarlett choking back a scream.

And Bod's clause:

Bod heard Scarlett choking back a scream.

Except here we run into a problem! The verb 'to hear' needs an object—something that is being heard—but Scarlett's clause has already used up all of the other words in the sentence.

And here's where the hierarchy comes in; Scarlett's event is the thing that is being heard—it's the object to the main clause:

Bod heard Scarlett choking back a scream.

So, the supporting event is part of the main event. Like the leg of a table, holding the whole thing up.

See if you can identify which is the main event and which is the supporting event in the following snippets:

"I used it to hold fake flowers."

He'd been sent there for being a nuisance in Assembly.

Thanks to you, whoever has come to help us is doomed.

It's a funny one! 'Thanks' is a noun, but here it acts like part of a multi-word preposition ('thanks to...').

For example, you could rephrase this as, "Because of you..." and it would mean exactly the same thing, only less sarcastic. ('Because of' is another multi-word preposition.)

(Multi-word prepositions can be tricky to identify, because if you look up the individual words in a dictionary they can have wildly different roles—like how 'thanks' on its own is a noun, and 'because' is a conjunction.)

There are different kinds of supporting events, with different uses and structures. But the key is they all have a verb group at their heart, and they all play a role in the main event.

We'll look more at the specifics as we go through the lesson.

Complex sentences can have more than one supporting event!

Can you find 3 events in this next snippet?

Hearing that false name made him hesitate.

Did you find all 3?

It can be easy to miss verbs such as "made"—they tend to fade into the background.

But now that you know there are 3 events—hearing, made, hesitate—what's the hierarchy?

Which one is the main event and which ones are supporting events?

The easiest way to figure it out is by process of elimination.

To do this, take each event and either remove it or swap it for a noun or adjective:

  • If the sentence still makes sense, then it's not the main event.
  • If the sentence no longer makes sense, you've probably changed the main event.

Below are three variations in which we've eliminated or noun-swapped a verb group. Looking at those, does one jump out at you as being the main event?

That false name made him hesitate.

Hearing that false name grass him hesitate.

Hearing that false name made him angry.


  • You can cut or change 'hearing' and 'hesitate' to other word types, and the sentence still makes sense.
  • But if you change 'made' to anything other than another verb, the sentence falls apart.

So made is the main event, and the others are supporting events.

Hearing that false name made him hesitate.

That's a very rough and ready way to distinguish between main and supporting events.

The fact that a complex sentence can have many supporting events means:

  • We can create rich sentences with sophisticated meanings.
  • Complex sentences can be difficult to analyse, or read (if they're badly written).

So, let's look at 3 features of supporting events that can make complex sentences challenging.