What Is a Complex Sentence?
A complex sentence is a sentence that contains one independent and at least one dependent clause (sometimes called a subordinate clause). An independent clause is a phrase that would make sense if it were a sentence on its own, whereas a dependent clause will not form a sentence on its own. When these two types of clauses appear in a sentence, we create a complex sentence.
Consider this example:
- I like to eat the candy before I watch a movie.
“I like to eat the candy” is an independent clause as it would make a complete sentence on its own.
“Before I watch a movie” is a dependent clause, as it doesn’t make a complete sentence on its own. It is ‘dependent’ on the first clause for the phrase to make sense.
Complex Sentence Definition
The definition of a complex sentence is a sentence that contains one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.
Examples of Complex Sentences
In the examples of complex sentences below, the dependent clause comes first. Notice that the dependent clause begins with a subordinating conjunction (words like since, because, while) and that the clauses are separated by a comma:
- Because he was late again, he would be docked a day’s pay.
- While I am a passionate basketball fan, I prefer football.
- Although she was considered smart, she failed all her exams.
- Whenever it rains, I like to wear my blue coat.
In the complex sentence examples shown below, the independent clause comes first. Notice that in most examples there is no separation of the clauses by a comma, which is the general rule in complex sentences starting with an independent clause. However, the last example has a comma as it is an example of an extreme contrast. This extreme contrast refers to the clauses expressing ideas that are almost opposite in meaning or that must be heavily emphasized.
- Having a party is a bad idea because the neighbors will complain.
- I am extremely happy since I retired.
- The dog jumped on his lap while he was eating.
- Annie was still crying, although she had been happy about the news.
Independent and Dependent Clauses
We have mentioned several times that a complex sentence contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause. But what are clauses in a sentence? And why are they important in grammar?
Let’s look back at the earlier example of a complex sentence:
- I like to eat candy before I watch a movie.
As we stated earlier, “I like to eat candy” is an independent clause. It makes sense as a standalone sentence. “Before I watch a movie” does not make sense on its own. However, let’s tweak the sentence a bit:
- I like to eat candy, but I don’t like to eat popcorn.
The sentence now contains two independent clauses, as “I like to eat candy” and “I don’t like to eat popcorn” could both form complete sentences. The example has now become a compound sentence, i.e. one that contains two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (but).
However, there is an important distinction to be made when a subordinating conjunction is added to a clause. These words – such as since, whenever, although, because – act to make a clause a dependent clause, even if it looks like an independent clause.
- I like to eat candy (independent clause – makes sense on its own).
- Because I like to eat candy (dependent clause – does not make sense on its own without more information).
Common Complex Sentence Examples
As we have seen with the previous examples, the structure for a complex sentence essentially looks like this:
- Dependent Clause + Independent Clause (comma splits the clause)
- Independent Clause + Dependent Clause (comma usually does not split the clause)
So, using that structure we can easily form examples of complex sentences:
- Because she was scoring many baskets, Elesa was considered the best player on the team.
- Elesa was considered the best player on the team because she was scoring many baskets.
- Since Hannah got here, she’s been nothing but trouble.
- Hannah has been nothing but trouble since she got here.
You should also be aware that a complex sentence can contain more than one dependent clause. Here are some examples of those types of complex sentences:
- Because I was often late, and since I was always forgetting things, I was regarded as a scatterbrain by my friends.
- Although the war ended, and as people tend to have short memories, the city’s people were still divided over its impact.
Complex Sentences from Literature
Below are some quotes from that classic books that can be considered complex sentences:
- “Because he was so small, Stuart was often hard to find around the hou”
E.B White – Stuart Little
- "I've never any pity for conceited people, because I think they carry their comfort about with them."
George Eliot – The Mill on the Floss
- “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
John Steinbeck — East of Eden
The 4 Types of Sentence Structure
A complex sentence is, of course, just one type of sentence we can use in writing. The four types of sentence are discussed below:
- Complex Sentence
As we have mentioned, a complex sentence is one with an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.
- Whenever he was lonely, Lance called his mother.
- Compound Sentence
A compound sentence is one with two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (for, but, and, nor, or, yet, so).
- I was born in the United States, yet I consider myself Canadian.
- A Simple Sentence
A simple sentence is one with only one independent clause and no dependent clauses.
- David drives carefully to work in the morning.
- A Compound-Complex Sentence
A compound-complex sentence is one with at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause.
- Jim doesn’t drink beer because he has a gluten allergy, so he tends to drink wine most weekends.
There are dozens of subordinating conjunctions in English, and their usage is intrinsically linked to dependent (subordinate) clauses.
Common examples of subordinating conjunctions include: After, before, even though, although, as much as, when, whenever, because, as long as, while, since. These words and phrases act as modifiers to a sentence, sometimes changing the phrase from an independent clause to a dependent clause.
There are two main ways to think about subordinating clauses:
- A word or phrase that introduces a dependent clause.
- A word or phrase that links an independent and dependent clause.
Using Subordinate Clauses in Complex Sentences
As we mentioned earlier, a subordinate clause is another way of terming a dependent clause. Both words, subordinate and dependent, offer clues to help us better understand the function of these clauses in writing. Dependent means contingent on
or determined by
, whereas subordinate means lower in rank
. That tells us that – grammatically speaking – subordinate/dependent clauses are not equal to the independent clause in a sentence.
The independent clause and subordinate clause are not equal because the latter cannot form a sentence on its own. The subordinate clause is, as such, dependent on the independent clause to provide the complete meaning.
You cannot create a complex sentence without using a subordinate clause in it. Other types of sentences – compound sentences, simple sentences – can exist without subordinate clauses. When you think about it, the subordinate clause is what makes the sentence ‘complex’. The subordinate clause requires the help of the independent clause for it to make sense. It reaches back or forward across the sentence to contextualize itself, making the sentence more ‘complex’ in the process.