Why Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex Sentences Are Important to Good Writing
Simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences are important tools that writers use to provide additional levels of details to particular statements. Effective writers use each of these sentences purposefully, with a clear understanding of the benefits of each: a writer would use a simple sentence to make a point clearly and concisely, a compound sentence to combine multiple statements, a complex sentence to provide additional detail regarding the context of a particular statement, and a compound-complex sentence to provide contextual details while also linking multiple statements together. In this section, we will take a look at published examples of each of these sentence types and explore the benefits of using each sentence type in its particular situation.
A simple sentence in George Takei's (2019) graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy illustrates the way authors use these kinds of sentences to make direct and concise statements. This book describes the experiences of and discrimination faced by Takei, his family, and other Japanese Americans during the Japanese Internment. When Takei writes "My parents met in California" (p. 11), he provides readers with a clear and straightforward statement about his parents and family. While Takei could have linked the statement with other clauses, he chose to keep the sentence focused on this specific statement by using this simple sentence.
At another point in They Called Us Enemy, Takei uses a compound sentence to link two independent clauses that contain related ideas. In the context of a discussion of his parents having their first baby (which was George Takei himself) and the ways parenthood changed their lives, Takei writes of his parents "He would call her Mama from then on, and she would call him Daddy" (p. 12). This compound sentence contains two independent clauses—"he would call her Mama from then on" and "she would call him Daddy"—linked by a comma and the coordinating conjunction "and." While Takei could have written them as separate sentences, his decision to link them in a compound sentence impacts the writing in two ways: (1) it shows that the ideas in each of these independent clauses are related to one another; and (2) it allows for the text to read more smoothly by avoiding the short, choppy sentences that would be created if these two statements were not linked. If Takei had written these as separate sentences, they would read, "He would call her Mama from then on. She would call him Daddy," instead of the more cohesive and smoothly written way it currently appears.
Now, let us take a look at a complex sentence George Takei uses in They Called Us Enemy. The sentence "Whenever we would approach a town, we were forced to draw the shade" (p. 40), which describes how Japanese Americans who were made to travel by train to government-run facilities were also forced to pull down the train's window shades when passing through populated areas, contains both an independent clause ("we were forced to draw the shade") as well as a dependent clause ("whenever we would approach a town"). The dependent clause in this sentence adds important contextual information, as it lets readers know the situation when the independent clause took place. While this sentence could simply read, "We were forced to draw the shade," the dependent clause lets readers know that this took place when the trains entered towns and could be seen by many people. Takei's use of a complex sentence here provides readers with important contextual information that they would not otherwise have.
Finally, let us examine an example from literature of a compound-complex sentence in They Called Us Enemy, which George Takei uses when describing the actions of Herbert Nicholson, a Quaker missionary who brought books and other forms of assistance to Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps (in this sentence, an internment camp called Manzanar). In the sentence "After he was attacked, the people of Manzanar assumed they'd seen the last of Herbert... but sure enough, the next month on that same date, Herbert was back at Manzanar with more books" (pp. 146-147), Takei uses the dependent clause "after he was attacked" in conjunction with the independent clauses "the people of Manzanar assumed they'd seen the last of Herbert" and "the next month on that same date, Herbert was back at Manzanar with more books." The use of this compound-complex sentence allows Takei to link two independent but related statements, while also providing detail related to the important context surrounding this event (specifically, the fact that Herbert Nicholson was attacked for trying to help Japanese Americans). If Takei chose not to use a compound-complex sentence here, this sentence would not convey the full details of the situation. Eliminating the dependent clause would take the context of the situation away, and eliminating one of the independent clauses would result in the sentence no longer expressing these two related statements. Only through the use of this compound-complex sentence can George Takei fully combine and reveal the information conveyed in this sentence.
So, why are simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences important to good writing? As these examples illustrate, each one of these sentence types is a tool an author can use to express a particular statement. No sentence type is inherently better than another, just as no tool is better than another. Rather, each is most effective when used in a situation that calls for it. The best writing will use a combination of these sentence types, with each one used in the way that best aligns with its features. Now, let us look inside a seventh-grade classroom and observe some middle schoolers working on the benefits of each of these sentence types.