simple, compound and complex sentences
active and passive sentences
loose and periodic sentences
weighting the information
The average length of a written sentence is eighteen words, but a sentence can be as short as one word (Go!) or as long as the writer chooses to
make it. (Kipling’s poem ‘If’ is virtually a single sentence of almost three hundred words.) By normal standards, however, a sentence of over forty
words is considered long. This one is short.
Informal scripts generally have shorter sentences than formal scripts, but this is not to say that the latter should comprise only long sentences.
Whatever the script, a succession of long sentences will overtax the reader –
In the 1960s and ’70s, when television and Hollywood role models
were rarely seen without a cigarette in their mouths except when they
were fighting or making love, offering a packet of Players around in the
pub could be an expensive business, leaving the hapless benefactor with
a seriously depleted packet. In these more health-conscious days,
however, with bans on advertising tobacco and smoking in public places,
government warnings on every packet and the consequent anti-social
stigma attached to the smoker, the situation is very different.
After taking the reader on a lengthy journey of over fifty words, the writer immediately sets him off again on a trek of over thirty. A more considerate
writer would have provided him with a respite –
In the 1960s and ’70s, when television and Hollywood role models were
rarely seen without a cigarette in their mouths except when they were
fighting or making love, offering a packet of Players around in the pub
could be an expensive business, leaving the hapless benefactor with a
seriously depleted packet. How things have changed! In these more health-
Here, the writer is balancing her script with a mixture of long and short sentences, making it much more reader friendly. Readers are sprinters, not
A series of short sentences, on the other hand, can be a powerful technique in narrative for creating a climax or a sense of rapid action –
They ran across the field. He wanted to look back, but dare not. A shot
rang out. The man beside him fell.
This is rather more effective than the uninspiring –
As they ran across the field, he wanted to look back, but dare not. Then a
shot rang out and the man beside him fell.
But in expository and argumentative essays, a succession of short sentences will almost certainly patronise the educated reader. In these
circumstances, shorter sentences are best used to provide those resting places described above where the reader can recover his breath before
proceeding, and to introduce and conclude the essay, so that the work begins and ends with a ‘punch’. Compare, for example, these alternative
openings of an argumentative essay on political freedom –
If we begin with the assumption that, other things being equal, people
should have as much political freedom as possible, then we find an
alarming number of cases where they do not.
Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract)
The main disadvantage of short sentences is that they tend to be simple sentences. They are thus not equipped to give priority to the most important
information and consequently impair the writer’s ability to communicate effectively. As the following section explains, for complex ideas, the writer
needs complex sentences.
A simple sentence is an independent clause (a clause that makes complete sense on its own), often with only one verb –
I pitched the tent.
A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses joined by conjunctions –
I pitched the tent while John fetched the water. (Double compound)
I pitched the tent while John fetched the water and Kevin studied the
map. (Multiple compound)
A complex sentence, on the other hand, contains at least one dependent (or subordinate) clause: a clause that cannot stand alone as a sentence –
I pitched the tent while John fetched the water and Kevin, who would
always find something else to do when there was real work to be done,
studied the map.
(See also essential and inessential clauses.)
Simple and compound sentences are often quite satisfactory for giving us information –
The highly competitive world of information technology undergoes a
new revolutionary development.
In spite of appearances, this headline is just a simple, one-verb sentence with noun phrases as its subject and object instead of nouns: The highly
competitive world of information technology (subject) and a new revolutionary development (object).
Most of Bach’s orchestral works were written at Cöthen, while most of
his choral works were written at Leipzig.
This time, a double compound serves perfectly well to convey the message.
But both sentences are adequate only because the writer has no need to arrange the information in any order of priority. The first (simple) sentence
conveys the mere fact that a major change is taking place in the world of information technology. The second (compound) sentence, on the other
hand, comprises two independent clauses of equal status; there is no suggestion that Bach’s orchestral works are more important than his choral
works, or vice versa. But where the writer needs to arrange her information into some order of importance, complex sentences are required.
Suppose, for example, that a student has been asked to write short review of Alan Sillitoe’s novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and that she
uses only simple and compound sentences –
Sillitoe’s novel was published in the late 1950s and is a minor classic. It
illustrates the alienation of factory work. The central character, Arthur
Seaton, operates a capstan lathe. He finds this work unbearably boring
and compensates by getting drunk on Saturday nights.
We have several items of information here, but there is no attempt at evaluation. The reader is more likely to remember that the book is a minor
classic of the 1950s, relatively unimportant information, than that it illustrates the effects of work alienation, the main point of the review. But by
means of a complex sentence, the writer can give priority to the most important information by consigning the least important to a dependent
clause (underlined) –
Sillitoe’s novel, a minor classic of the 1950s, illustrates the alienation
of factory work by showing us how the central character, Arthur Seaton,
compensates for the unbearable boredom of operating a capstan lathe
five days a week by getting drunk on Saturday nights.
(See also weighting the information.)
An active sentence is one in which the action is performed by the subject –
Nick drove the car.
A passive sentence is one in which the action is performed by the object –
The car was driven by Nick.
In each case, Nick is the agent (the entity performing the action) and the car is the patient (the entity the action is performed upon). They have
simply changed capacities. Nick the subject becomes Nick the object; the car the object becomes the car the subject.
Passive sentences are easily recognised by the verb to be followed by the past participle.1 Here are a few examples with their active counterparts
given first –
The manager gave Charles responsibility for completing the project. (Active)
Charles was given responsibility for completing the project by the manager. (Passive)
The manufacturer withdrew the offer on 12 July. (Active)
The manufacturer’s offer was withdrawn on 12 July. (Passive)
Hicham El Gurrouj broke the mile-run world record in 1999. (Active)
The mile-run world record was broken by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999.2 (Passive)
Doctors are closely monitoring the patient’s progress. (Active)
The patient’s progress is being closely monitored. (Passive)
Active sentences (or sentences in the active voice) are far more common than passive sentences (or sentences in the passive voice) –
Nick glanced at his watch and patted the envelope on the passenger
seat beside him. Ahead, two large men with ear pieces stood at the gate.
One leaned against the wall while the other spoke into his radio. Nick
clipped the forged ID to his breast pocket and turned the ignition.
When relating events in this way, we have little choice but to use the active voice; a passive version of this passage would be barely intelligible –
His watch was glanced at by Nick and the envelope on the passenger
seat beside him was patted by him. Ahead, the gate was stood at by two
large men, ear pieces being worn by them. The wall was leaned against
by one while his radio was spoken into by the other. The forged ID was
clipped to his breast pocket by Nick and the ignition was turned by him.
But passive sentences are preferred in a number of circumstances. Firstly, they are clearly more appropriate where the patient of the verb is more
important than the agent –
Thomas More was beheaded in 1535. (Passive)
An executioner beheaded Thomas More in 1535. (Active)
Secondly, passive sentences are usually chosen when the agent is unknown –
Joe’s flat was burgled in the early hours of Tuesday morning. (Passive)
Someone burgled Joe’s flat in the early hours of Tuesday morning. (Active)
Occasionally, both agent and patient have an equal claim to priority, so that the choice of sentence is determined by the writer –
Seventeen-year-old physics student, Patricia Wilson, yesterday won the
Melchester College prize for the most valuable contribution to sport. (Active)
The Melchester College prize for the most valuable contribution to sport
was won yesterday by seventeen-year-old physics student, Patricia Wilson. (Passive)
There can be little doubt about which version Patricia would prefer and which the college governors.
Thirdly, the choice of sentence can depend on whether we are writing formally or informally, passive sentences being more formal than active ones.
The choice arises when the agent is the reader, the writer or people in general.
Reader as agent –
All the ingredients can be purchased [by you] in any reputable supermarket.
(Passive for formal English)
You can buy all the ingredients in any reputable supermarket.
(Active for informal English)
Writer as agent –
Three milligrammes of sulphur were added [by me] to the mixture. (Passive and formal)
I added three milligrammes of sulphur to the mixture. (Active and informal)
People in general as agent –
Milk floats are rarely seen [by us] today. (Passive and formal)
We rarely see milk floats today. (Active and informal)
But this is not to say that formal scripts should be written entirely in the passive voice. A succession of passive sentences or clauses can appear
bland and lifeless –
After the origins of the computer have been discussed, its early
applications will be described. This will be followed by an explanation
of its contemporary uses and a consideration of how it might be used
in the future.
Since this is clearly a work of exposition, the writer has quite properly remained detached (no use of I), but there are ways of achieving anonymity
besides writing in passive sentences. Formal exposition permits the occasional use of the first person we where the pronoun refers to the writer
and reader. This enables the writer to use a combination of active and passive voices in order to stimulate interest without becoming too informal –
After the origins of the computer have been discussed (passive), we
shall describe its early applications (active). Next, we shall explain its
contemporary uses (active) and go on to consider how it might be used
in the future (active).
Fourthly, the passive voice might be chosen in order to emphasise an item of a paragraph where this would be difficult in the active voice alone –
The staff decided to challenge the management’s new policy of restricting
overtime payments for out-of-hours work (active). Management had not
consulted them about it (active), and some of the more militant members
were calling for strike action (active).
A journalist drafting her article might feel that she has not given the cause of the problem (the management’s new policy) the prominence it requires.
It appears complete in the first sentence but is then demoted to the pronoun it in the second. To reinforce it, therefore, she might decide to rewrite
the first clause of the second sentence in the passive voice –
The staff decided to challenge the management’s new policy of restricting
overtime payments for out-of-hours work (active). The policy had been
drawn up without their consultation (passive), and some of the more
militant members were calling for strike action (active).
Finally, passive sentences have another, rather more devious, function. By focusing on the patient rather than the agent, they can be a subtle
means of subduing emotions, a point well understood by politicians who often use the passive voice to play down their shortcomings –
The Prime Minister said last night, ‘All options have been considered
and explored very carefully, but no satisfactory solution has been found’.
The Leader of the Opposition, on the other hand, would doubtless prefer to focus on the agent –
‘So he tried to solve the problem and failed?’ (Active)
Business organisations, too, are adept at minimising blame by the use of the passive voice –
Please accept our apologies for the error; the incorrect figure was
entered in your account.
We tend not to read –
Please accept our apologies for the error; we entered the incorrect figure
in your account.
In this way, passive sentences can tranquillise the reader or listener and lessen his sense of horror, another point well understood by politicians
and government-friendly news media –
Nineteen civilian were killed yesterday when an Afghan village was
bombed by NATO planes. (Passive)
NATO planes killed nineteen civilians yesterday when they bombed
an Afghan village. (Active)
A loose sentence is one in which the main statement comes at or near the beginning –
A poll of two thousand votes was not a bad result for the Green candidate,
considering that this marginal seat was being hotly contested by the three
A periodic sentence is one in which the main statement comes at or near the end –
Considering that this marginal seat was being hotly contested by the
three main parties, a poll of two thousand votes was not a bad result for
the Green candidate.
As with active and passive sentences, the order in which information is presented can be psychologically important but, while active and passive
sentences deal with the priority of subject and object, loose and periodic sentences deal with the priority of main and modifying clauses. In our
opening examples, there is little difference between the loose and periodic versions, but this is not always so –
The council rejected Mr Jones’s application for a dormer window on the
grounds that it would set a precedent that might create a wave of similar
requests and so jeopardise the city’s environmental policy of uniformity
of appearance in residential districts.
(Loose: modifications come after the main clause)
Anxious not to set a precedent that might create a wave of similar
requests and so jeopardise the city’s environmental policy of uniformity
of appearance in residential districts, the council rejected Mr Jones’s
application for a dormer window.
(Periodic: modifications come before the main clause)
With modifications of this length, the superiority of the loose sentence is plainly seen. The reader is quickly acquainted with the main statement,
so that the additional information follows in the knowledge of what is being modified. By contrast, the periodic sentence places a burden on the
reader’s memory by feeding him several items of information in a lengthy dependent clause before coming to the point. This is one reason that
loose sentences are far more common than periodic. Spontaneous speech, in fact, is almost entirely composed of loose sentences. They come
more naturally to us and generally have the advantage of being more easily understood.
But there are occasions when keeping the reader waiting is precisely the intention. Withholding the main clause can increase tension and
consequently intensify the reader’s satisfaction when it is finally delivered. Kipling’s ‘If’, cited above as an example of a long sentence, can serve
our purpose again as an example of a periodic sentence. After over a dozen modifying if clauses, we finally reach the destination of the main
clause,You’ll be a Man, my son! Rather than reproduce the entire poem here, consider this shorter periodic example –
If, when leaving the classroom, students are asking more questions than
when they came in, if they discover problems with what the lecturer has
said and later raise them in their essays, then the lesson will have been
This has a greater rhetorical effect than a loose version beginning, A successful lesson is one in which…
Finally, the periodic sentence, like the passive sentence, is a friend of the politician, enabling him or her shrewdly to thwart interruptions –
‘If schools want to develop or specialise in a particular area, or hire
classroom or computer professionals as well as teachers, let them.’
(Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 2001)
Party delegates might not have liked what Mr Blair had to say, but they were not to know this until he had finished.
Expletives are not necessarily curses and obscenities; they include all gratuitous and expendable expressions –
We use expletives to sort of fill out our sentences. You know, to make
them more natural, so to speak. To be honest, it’s not as if they give us
any real information or anything, but they kind of help us to convey our
feelings. It’s as if, I don't know, they express our doubts and concerns in
a way that ‘correct’ English can’t. I mean, we don’t always have to be on
our best linguistic behaviour, right?
These are all expletives of speech, of course. No one writes like this unless in dialogue. Even the weakest writers avoid them, instinctively
recognising that they fail to meet the higher standards required of the page. Consequently, the expletives encountered in writing are of a higher
kind and are objected to for their lack of originality rather than their incorrectness. Typically, they comprise pronouns or adverbs followed by the
verbs to be or to have –
This is… …
... who are ...
There is nothing inherently wrong with expletive sentences (this is one), but their overuse is unimaginative and creates the impression of weak
writing skills. Particularly uninspiring is a succession of paragraphs each beginning with an expletive, or essays that open with them, especially
when the sentence does little more than restate the essay title. For example, the inexperienced writer tackling an essay on ‘The Uses of the
Modern PC’ will almost invariably begin –
There are many different uses of the modern PC…
If asked to discuss the statement, 'Ethics is nothing more than enlightened self-interest', she will begin –
It has been said that ‘Ethics is nothing more than enlightened self-
Ideally, the beginning of an essay should grab the reader by the throat, giving him a reason to read on, and in this respect expletive sentences
fail abysmally. Such beginnings need not concern the writer in her first draft (the important thing at this stage is that she start writing), but they
should be edited out in later drafting. The above beginnings, for example, could become –
Of the many uses of the modern PC, by far the most common are…
If an ethical act is by definition a selfless act, then the statement for
discussion is not merely false but absurd…
In some cases, expletives can simply be deleted –
There is one important point his theory overlooks, and that is…
One important point his theory overlooks is…
There are many people who believe that…
Many people believe that…
Students who are prepared to join the demonstration should assemble
outside the main building at 8.30 a.m.
Students prepared to join the demonstration should assemble outside the
main building at 8.30 a.m.
Thomas Hobbes, who was one of the leading intellectuals of the
seventeenth century, believed in sovereignty at all costs, whether this
was a King or Parliament.
Thomas Hobbes, one of the leading intellectuals of the seventeenth century,
believed in sovereignty at all costs, whether King or Parliament.
(See also drafting.)
In everyday speech and informal writing, the number of cognitive (thinking) verbs we use is quite small. In fact, we rarely use more than three: think,
feel and suppose. But in order to meet the rigours of expository prose, we need to compose our sentences with greater precision and consequently
require the richer vocabulary of formal English. The number of thinking verbs available for this purpose is quite extensive, but the inexperienced
writer often fails to take advantage of them.
The following are among the many options at the writer’s disposal, and are especially useful for expository and argumentative essays. Some are
synonyms of think, while others show how thoughts and ideas can be treated –
acknowledge conceive develop imagine propound
adopt conclude discern imply reason
affirm conjecture discover impute reflect
allow consider dispute indicate refute
analyse contemplate distinguish infer scrutinise
appraise contend doubt inquire show
apprehend contradict embrace interpret signify
argue corroborate entertain investigate speculate
ascribe criticise establish maintain suggest
assert declare evaluate observe support
assess deduce examine perceive suppose
assign defend expect posit sustain
attribute demonstrate expose postulate understand
believe deny expound presume uphold
challenge depict express presuppose verify
characterise derive feel proclaim vitiate
comprehend detect hold promulgate
concede determine identify propose
Whether writing or speaking, we usually link our ideas by means of conjunctions, the most common being and, but, because, so and or. Thus the
two independent clauses, The train was running an hour late and I went window shopping, become, The train was running an hour late so I
went window shopping, or I went window shopping because the train was running an hour late.
But these simple conjunctions are not always sufficient to express the relationships between the ideas discussed in essays and academic papers.
In works of these kinds, the reader needs frequently to be shown the causal or rational connections between the ideas, and the and's and but's
are often not up to the job.
Academic scripts require a clear thread, linking each idea with what has gone before and with what is to follow, so that the reader is led through a
sequence of related and coherent ideas with the guidance of ‘road signs’ that help him understand where he is going and where he has been. These
signs might be adverbs, conjunctive adverbs (e.g. however, moreover, additionally) or short phrases –
Twenty High-Street stores were invited to take part in the survey, three
of which, however, did not respond. It was nevertheless felt that seventeen
was a sufficiently representative sample to proceed with, and questionnaires
were accordingly distributed.
When the questionnaires were returned and analysed, a number of
interesting findings emerged. Fourteen traders, for example, described
the bus services into the city as very poor. By contrast, only one thought
the services good and none thought them excellent. In other words, 94%
of High-Street traders are unhappy with the city’s bus services.
Some of these road signs provide forward referencing by telling the reader that the point about to be made is only the first –
on the one hand
firstly (or first)
to begin with
Others provide backward referencing by telling the reader how the point about to be made relates to the one before. This relationship can be a
on the other hand
in spite of
a reinforcement –
an inference –
or an illustration or paraphrase –
in other words
that is to say
They can begin sentences –
However, the results were very different when the experiment was
repeated using only 2cl of sulphuric acid
or be placed somewhere inside –
The results, however, were very different when the experiment was
repeated using only 2cl of sulphuric acid.
The results were very different, however, when the experiment was
repeated using only 2cl of sulphuric acid.
Occasionally, they can appear at the end of the sentence, but there is a danger of keeping the reader waiting too long to see the link –
The results were very different when the experiment was repeated using
only 2cl of sulphuric acid, however.
(Overused, however can appear pretentious and a simple but is often preferable, but too many but's can have the opposite effect of appearing
unlettered. Balance is the key.)
The following examples should meet the needs of most writers –
accordingly in addition on the other (hand)
additionally in any event rather
again in conclusion similarly
also indeed simultaneously
as a result in fact since
at any rate in other words still
at the same time in short subsequently
by contrast in spite of that is (to say)
consequently lastly then
correspondingly likewise therefore
equally moreover thus
even so namely to begin with
finally nevertheless whereas
firstly, secondly next while
for example nonetheless yet
however on the one hand
As explained in loose and periodic sentences, information can sometimes be weighted for best effect. In a work of instruction, for example, it makes
sense to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar rather than the other way round –
The origin of Wednesday is ‘Woden’s deity’, the day of the god Woden
‘Woden’s deity’, the day of the god Woden or Odin, is the origin of
A perceptive teacher would have no hesitation in choosing the former sentence. She is taking her students from what they understand to what they
need to understand. In the second sentence, the significance of the definition is not understood until the end, and so the motivation to remember
it is diminished. New information – information to be learned – is thus best positioned at the end –
The principal bones of the human leg are the femur, tibia and ankle.
The femur, tibia and ankle are the principal bones of the human leg.
The four largest moons of Jupiter are Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io.
Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io are the four largest moons of Jupiter.
In the same way, people are generally more impressed by what comes after conjunctions than by what precedes them –
Mrs Smith stabbed her husband with a kitchen knife, but she had suffered
years of abuse and torment from him.
Mrs Smith had suffered years of abuse and torment from her husband, but
she stabbed him with a kitchen knife.
Both sentences give us exactly the same information, but at Mrs Smith’s trial it is the defending barrister who will more likely choose the first sentence
(giving priority to the mitigating circumstances) and the prosecuting barrister, the second (giving priority to the criminal act).
A sentence is in parallel form when its elements are as consistent as possible, that is, when the parts of speech used at the beginning set a pattern
for the entire sentence: nouns following nouns, adjectives following adjectives, verbs following verbs and so forth –
I like reading, cycling and playing chess. (Parallel form)
I like reading, cycling and am also a keen chess player. (Broken form)
The pattern of present participles in the first sentence (reading, cycling, playing) creates both clarity and euphony. The second sentence, while
grammatically acceptable, breaks the pattern and takes a sharp turn of direction that the reader neither expects nor enjoys.
We will look at the origins of Greek thought and how it developed. (Broken form)
This time, parallel form is broken by a change from a noun (origins) to a phrase (how it developed). To restore parallel form, we need to stay with one
or the other –
We will look at the origins and development of Greek thought. (Parallel form)
We will look at how Greek thought originated and developed. (Parallel form)
In the following pairs of sentences, notice how the first seems to jolt the reader, momentarily throwing him off track, while the second leads him
smoothly and effortlessly to its conclusion –
The successful applicant will be energetic, highly motivated and have a
flair for numbers. (Broken form)
The successful applicant will be energetic, highly motivated and proficient
with numbers. (Parallel form)
The professor was admired and respected by his colleagues, but his
students disliked him. (Broken form)
The professor was admired and respected by his colleagues, but disliked
by his students. (Parallel form)
The study found that many young offenders had either been violent or
misbehaved at school. (Broken form)
The study found that many young offenders had either been violent or badly
behaved at school. (Parallel form)
Such well-balanced sentences are not always possible, but it is the hallmark of a mature writer to spot them when they are.
1 The past participle is the third of the three verb forms given in most dictionaries, the first two being the simple present and the simple past.
Sometimes there is a significant change (go, went, gone), sometimes just a slight change (act, acted, acted) and sometimes no change at all
(put, put, put).
2 His time, incidentally, was 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds.