Complex sentences


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.

The Graveyard BookNeil GaimanSource
Under the hood: Why is "Bod heard" the main event? Why isn't "Scarlett choking back a scream" the main event?

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."

The Old, Dead NuisanceM.T. AndersonSource

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

Flour BabiesAnne FineSource

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

The Forests of SilenceEmily RoddaSource
Possible confusion: Is 'thanks' a verb?
This supporting event looks a bit different to the other ones we've seen so far

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.

The Book of LiesJames MoloneySource

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.

The Book of LiesJames MoloneySource

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.

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