Grammatical Sentence Types

Sentences can be classified in a number of ways—grammatically, rhetorically, functionally, and so on. One visitor to this site asks about grammatical sentence types:

How [do I] tell the difference between Compound, Simple, Complex, Compound-Complex sentences?

Before we can identify these sentence types, we need to understand the following terms:

Phrase:
A group of words that may have a subject or a verb, but not both. (ex: in the beginning, to grow up, running around the room).
Dependent Clause:
A group of words that contains a subject and verb but does not express a complete thought. A dependent clause cannot be a sentence. Dependent clauses are sometimes referred to as subordinate clauses.
Independent Clause:
A group of words that contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought. An independent clause is a sentence. Independent clauses are sometimes referred to as main clauses.

For more information on dependent and independent clauses, see the handout from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, which is where I got the above definitions.

Here’s a quick rundown of the grammatical sentence types, along with an example or two of each.

Simple Sentence

The simple sentence has a single subject-verb pair. In other words, it has only one independent clause and no dependent clause. Example 1 below is obviously a simple sentence. Example 2′s single verb gives it away. But what about example 3? Isn’t it too long to be a simple sentence?

Examples:

  1. Jesus wept.
  2. Johnny threw the ball across the street.
  3. In the early morning, just before the breaking of the dawn, two lonely wanderers stretched their weary limbs and peered out of their makeshift tent.

I italicized the third example’s subject-verb pair so you can see that it really is just a simple sentence. The groups of words that come before the main part of the sentence are prepositional phrases, neither of them having a subject or a verb. Also, while there are two verbs in the independent clause (“stretched” and “peered”), they are both paired up with the same subject.

Compound Sentence

A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses, but it has no dependent clauses. The independent clauses can be joined by a semicolon; they can also be joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, or nor, for, but, yet, so).

Examples:

  1. Fred wanted to play basketball, but he didn’t make the team.
  2. He would never eat a tomato again, nor would he throw one.

Complex Sentence

Although a complex sentence has only one independent clause, it may have more than one dependent clauses.

Examples:

  1. Nancy was thrilled to receive the shoes that she ordered through the internet.
  2. I didn’t know what to say when I heard the news.

Compound-Complex Sentence

A compound-complex sentence, which may be the most difficult type to write, has more than one independent clause, and it has at least one dependent clause.

Examples:

  1. While Sally washed the dishes, John swept the floor, and James wiped the counters.
  2. Michael, who has been working on collaborative songwriting through the internet, thinks that the medium shows great promise, but Norah is not so sure about the quality that such an endeavor can produce.

Bonus!

Here’s a little table I whipped together to show you the sentence types at a glance.

Number of Clauses by Sentence Type
  Dependent Independent
Single 0 1
Compound 0 2+
Complex 1+ 1
Compound-Complex 1+ 2+
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22 Responses to Grammatical Sentence Types

  1. tej says:

    great study guide!!

  2. PJ says:

    yah it was pretty helpful, but ive still got some doozies that i can’t work out!

  3. Karl says:

    PJ, If you want to give me an example of one of those doozies, I’d be happy to help you out with it.

  4. PJ says:

    This is one that i am not sure of.
    “It [hope] is embodied in this country with its unlimited possibilities — this country that we sometimes take for granted.”

  5. PJ says:

    Hey Karl this is another one.
    how does the section after the hyphen change the sentence type?
    “Every Canadian woman, every Canadian man prizes that freedom and would defy anyone who tried to take it away — of that I have no doubt.”
    i changed my e-mail adress if it helps
    thanks
    PJ

  6. Karl says:

    The sentence in comment #4 is a complex sentence. It has a single independent (“It is embodied”) and a dependent clause (“that we sometimes take for granted”). The dependent clause here is acting as an adjective modifying country and can’t stand on its own as a sentence.
    The sentence in comment #5 looks like a compound-complex sentence to me. This one is more difficult to determine because of its unconventional syntax, but we can see that it has two independent clauses and a dependent clause. The first independent clause is easy: “Every Canadian woman…prizes that freedom and would defy anyone.” The second independent clause is trickier: “of that I have no doubt.” If we rearrange the words into their typical order, it becomes more clear: “I have no doubt of that.” So, now we’re just left with a dependent clause: “who tried to take it away.” Here again, the dependent clause is acting as an adjective, this time modifying “anyone.”
    Well, I hope that helps.

  7. PJ says:

    Thanks Karl!
    How would you like to be payed to continue your analysis of this speech by Michaelle Jean Governor General of Canada, for my university class!? It only has to be 8 pages.
    Just kidding. Thanks a lot for your help, it has helped me further understand the topic.
    It also is great to see that there are people blogging on the net that actually take the time to offer their expertise to help a stranger. I hold your opinion in high regard and will use it to help me with the rest of my essay.
    Let me know if there is anything I can do to return your goodwill.
    Happy Holidays eh!
    Cheers,
    PJ — from Canada

  8. Karl says:

    PJ, it’s no problem at all. All I ask in return is your undying gratitude.
    Just kidding. I’m glad I could help. Best wishes for success with that analysis.

  9. Jimmy says:

    Awesome guide, really boosted my grades

  10. musha says:

    my god!
    this is genius!
    thanks so much, it is appreciated.

  11. shar says:

    what is a single compound complex sentence??????

  12. HASSAN says:

    Can you please send me the whole information about the classification of sentences in a presentation form because its my first presentation of my 1st year of BBA. Your site is really fabulous.

  13. Karl says:

    Hi Hassan,
    I’m really glad you like the site. Thanks for the compliments. Unfortunately, I’m not able to do your work for you at this time. I hope you are able to find a way to do it yourself. A lot of learning can take place that way. :)

  14. Karl says:

    Shar, I’m not sure what you mean by “single,” but I would guess that what you are referring to is a sentence with two independent clauses and one dependent clause.

  15. Taylor says:

    wow this actually really helped… i just need some help with gerunds and participles…. gr. =0

  16. Uday Lama says:

    My name is Uday lama. I enjoyed the lessons, for it was so helpful. This has been an essential and valuable grammar review, a step that I want to repeat periodically. This sentence, which will represent the Compound-Complex variety, completes my write-up, and when you review each of my sentences, you will find that each of them represents the four varieties of the English sentences.

  17. Colleen Kelly says:

    Here are two sentences that require changes:
    As you read the books and read about his life you can better undertand the stresses in Harry Potter’s life.
    Before Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the others are willing to joing Dumbledore’s army Dobbie, a house elf, tells Harry about the room and that it appears only when it is needed.
    The grammatical rule is to : rewrite one item in a pair so that both follow the same grammatical pattern.
    Suggestions?

  18. Karl says:

    Hi Colleen,
    I try to avoid doing other people’s homework for them. I should note, though, that both sentences are missing a comma after the introductory subordinate clause.

  19. ABOLARIN SEYI says:

    This is a great job done and I really appreciate it.

  20. Ana Vazquez says:

    I’m surprised university students misspell “paid”.
    Of course they are still human, but it seems ironic that they can catch on to deeply analytical concepts yet forget simple spelling rules.
    Would the second sentence not only be a reasonable opinion, but also a compound-complex sentence?
    Would someone tell me please?

  21. Ashley says:

    Hi, I was wondering if you could help me some with picking out the subjects and verbs within a dependent clause. My class is currently studying The Scarlet Letter and some of Hawthorne’s sentences can be a little confusing to me. Ive already figured out the sentence types, and turned in that paper for a grade, but the rest of my class did horribly and the teacher is now making us pick out the subjects and verbs (this site REALLY helped me out with that assignment also. Thanks!). Can you help me? An example of a sentence that we are working with is like this one here:
    “Let, therefore, thy husband be to the world as one already dead, and of whom no things shall over come.”
    This is dialoge and seems harder to me than the others. Its also a complex sentence.

  22. seyi says:

    Your site is very helpful and I will like to be receiving the latest information on grammatical sentences from you. Thanks