Sentence structure - complex sentences

Students need to elaborate and extend their ideas to make a detailed, precise and coherent piece of text.

The use of a variety of sentence structures including extended simple sentences and complex sentences create texts that are more interesting and paint a more vivid picture in the reader’s head. Students are able to confidently enhance their writing by understanding how sentences are structured for effect.

Complex sentences

Complex sentences result when other more sophisticated devices are used to join clauses; this means a subordinate (dependent) clause is joined with a main (or independent) clause.

There are three main ways to join clauses to make complex sentences. By using:

  • Relative pronouns – that, which, who, whose
  • Conjunctions (subordinating) – while, because, although, as, when, until, unless, through, by, since, whenever, if, where, before, etc
  • Verb structures (non-finite) – (participle) verb forms that end in –ing or –ed or an infinitive verb form such as to go, to become, to see

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: vary sentence beginnings

Often when students start with the subject their sentences begin to sound monotonous and the sentences do not flow well. The aim of these activities is to avoid the subject-verb pattern. (For example: I love shopping. My friend and I will go shopping all the time. We love to buy clothes. She likes buying jeans.)

The following activities need to be explicitly taught – modelled, guided and then independently applied – as a tool to improve students own writing as well as a way to analyse texts.

  • Students begin writing with a Participle or Participial Phrase (“ing” or “ed”) or explore authentic texts for examples. Students do not begin each sentence with the same word, but rather the same part of speech.
    For example:
    Slithering down the trunk of the tree, I ripped my best pants. Hoping to escape the teacher's attention, Matt crawled into the classroom.
    Past Participial Phrase (use an “ed” word):
    Impressed by the ceremony, we left the room in silence.

    Depressed by the amount of homework, the student collapsed into tears.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that begin with a Prepositional Phrase:
    With a smile on his face, the lion devoured the boy.

    Across the bay, the light flickered and went out.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that begin with a dependent clause (begin with a subordinating conjunction.) These help express relationships such as compare/contrast or cause/effect.
    Though some critics have complained about his scary dress sense, Tony is still popular.

    While I was doing the NAPLAN test, my pencil broke.
  • Use the appositive, (after subject noun or object noun) which is a grammatical construction in which two elements, normally noun phrases, are placed side by side, with one element serving to define or modify the other to create sophisticated writing. For example:
    A well-respected Mayor, Trifolium knew she could run for prime minister.

    A struggling street performer, Gary wandered from street to street.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that begin with an Infinitive Phrase: (“to + verb”)
    To cope with the new tax law, taxpayers must comprehend subtle variations in meaning.

    To reduce expenses, the Department had to trim its staff from twenty–one to twelve.
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that combine sentences with a relative pronoun: who, whom, whose, which, that
    Mary spent the money. It belonged to her sister.
    Mary spent the money that belonged to her sister.
    The money that belonged to her sister was spent by Mary.
    For many more examples please go to:
  • Search authentic texts for examples and write passages that have dependent clauses in a pair or in a series (At the beginning or the end of a sentence use:
    If …, if …, if …, then Subject Verb.
    When …, when …, when …, Subject Verb.
    Subject Verb that …, that …, that …
    For example:
    If Chris had the money, if he spent the time, if he met a girlfriend, he would take a trip around the world.

    Whether you use a Mac or whether you own a PC, you can play great games on a computer.

You’ll notice in the examples above that this construction must employ dependent clauses, relies on parallelism, and expresses conditions dependent upon the main clause.

This is a special pattern that should be used sparingly. It is particularly helpful:

  • at the end of a single paragraph to summarise the major points,
  • in structuring a thesis statement having three or more parts (or points), or
  • in the introductory or concluding paragraph to bring together the main points of a composition in a single sentence.

Activity 2: sentence fluency in action

Use the following ideas to explicitly teach to, then modify student / teacher selected sentences with small groups, whole class or for independent editing.

Original Sentences: Elizabeth walked briskly to the movies. She wanted to see the new Despicable Me.

  • To use a participle take out the verb (walk or want) and start with it. NB The non-finite clause must be placed directly before the noun doing the action.
    Revised Sentence: Walking quickly to the movies, Elizabeth was excited to see the new Despicable Me.

    Revised Sentence: Wanting to see the new Despicable Me, Elizabeth walked briskly to the movies.
  • To use a dependent clause. Create a cause and effect relationship or compare/contrast
    Revised Sentence: Because Elizabeth wanted to see the new Despicable Me, she walked quickly to the movies

    Original Sentence: She saw the lights across the bay. They were twinkling and flickering on the water.
  • To use a preposition take out the phase and put it at the beginning.
    Revised Sentence (not complex): Across the bay, she saw the lights twinkling and flickering on the water.

Activity 3: sentence mash up

Use the proforma ‘independent and dependent clauses’ cut in half.

Students write either a dependent or independent clause (as per the sheet) on it and pass it to the next person in the small group. When all the spaces have writing on them students then write up as many humorous sentences with the ones off the sheet. The aim is to pace the clauses in as many as possible places. Students then select the best from theirs to write up onto a large cardboard strip to be displayed in the class. The posters may be useful.

Sentence mash up poster (PDF 176.31KB)

Sentence mash up poster (PDF 145.64KB)

Activity 4: sentence dominoes

The “S3 Game for grammar and punctuation” cards need to be printed, laminated and cut up. Students in a group of ten (or five and they have 2 each) take one of the cards. The student with the ‘start’ card calls out their card and the person with the answer responds. This continues until everyone has had a turn.

S3 game for grammar and punctuation (PDF 221.81KB)

Activity 5: sentence types

Using the resources Sentence types explicitly teach and then use the resource either as an assessment gathering tool or as an opportunity for students to work as a guided group.

Sentence types (PDF 120.62KB)


Australian curriculum

ACELA1534: Recognise and understand that subordinate clauses embedded within noun groups/phrases are a common feature of written sentence structures and increase the density of information

NSW syllabus

EN4-3B: Uses and describes language forms and features and structures of texts appropriate to a range of purposes, audiences and contexts.

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