Simple Simon Says: Know Your Sentence Types

Last week on the Underground we discussed the four main sentence types: declarative,
interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. This week we’ll delve into the four categories of those sentence types:









To understand how to identify these categories, first we’ll need to understand the difference between independent and dependent clauses.

An independent clause can stand alone as a complete sentence, or express a complete thought. It will always have a subject and a verb, as in the examples below:

            S     V 
The snow fell all day long.

           S     V
The dog jumped the fence.

             S          V
The college closed for the summer.

A dependent clause is not a complete sentence, and does not express a complete thought. A dependent clause does, however, contain a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone as a sentence, as in the examples below:

                            S           V
When the semester was over.

                    S      V
Because she stayed up all night.

               S     V
When they went to the movies.

Simple Sentence

A simple sentence contains one independent clause.

S  V
I eat blueberry muffins.

 S    V
You run fast.

  S     V
She can’t drive.

Compound Sentence

A compound sentence contains two independent clauses. The two clauses are joined by a conjunction (or coordinating conjunction).

 S     V                                       S      V
He cooked dinner, and she cleaned up.

He cooked dinner is a complete thought or sentence, with a subject and verb. She cleaned up is also a complete sentence with a subject and verb. The coordinating conjunction, and joins the two independent clauses together to form a compound sentence. See the examples below. Can you identify the subject and verb?

Winter is almost over, and spring isn’t far behind.

Joe quit his job, but he found a new one.

A Word on Comma Splices

In the previous examples of compound sentences, if you did not have a coordinating conjunction and merely separated the two independent clauses with a comma, you would be creating a comma splice, which is incorrect punctuation (and arguably the most common punctuation error).

Complex Sentence

Complex sentences are a bit more – complex. These sentence types have one (or more) independent clause and one dependent clause. In the examples below, the clauses are labeled. (Reminder: a dependent clause is dependent on an independent clause to complete the sentence.)

                 D                                                                       I
After John couldn’t find a job, he realized he should go back to school.

                     D                                                     I
While away on vacation, the neighbor’s house was burglarized.

                          D                                                                     I
Since Lisa was absent from class, she had to make up the exam on Monday.

Compound-Complex Sentence

A compound-complex sentence has at least one dependent clause, with multiple independent clauses. The two clauses are joined by conjunctions and subordinators (who, because, although, etc.). In the example below, the independent clauses are in green; the conjunction is in red; the subordinator in italics; and the dependent clause is underlined:

Catch-22 is widely regarded as Joseph Heller’s best novel, and because Heller served in World War II, the novel packs an extra punch(modified from Purdue Owl).

 See if you can label the sentence parts in the examples below:

Although I like to go sailing, I haven’t had the time to go lately, and I don’t have a sailboat anymore.

We decided that the movie was too violent, but our children, who like to watch scary movies, think they should be able to see it.

“For in the end, freedom is a personal and lonely battle; and one faces down fears of today so that those of tomorrow might be engaged.” (Alice Walker)

John, who briefly visited last month, won the prize, and he took a short vacation.

 How did you do?

The ability to identify and understand different types of clauses and sentence categories will not only help you punctuate sentences properly, but will also improve your writing style.

Questions? Comments? Need further help?





I Declare! Identifying Sentence Structures


I teach creative writing, and was recently reading over a student’s personal essay. He was a strong writer, with a large vocabulary, wonderful use of language, and rarely, if ever, had a sentence level error in his assignments. However, his essays were the most tedious, frustrating, bewildering essays I have ever had to read in my life. On the day of our one-on-one conference, I struggled to communicate the problem. His word choice was perfect, his verb use all action, his imagery poetic. I reinforced everything he was doing right, though I kept coming back to, “but. . .”.

He was confused as I struggled to communicate the problem. I explained I was lost mid-way through a sentence. Entire paragraphs I had to re-read just to comprehend the message. It was absolutely exhausting to read his essays, though I didn’t tell him that. Finally, I found a sentence, one lone sentence, in the middle of his paper that was communicated his message clearly. I paraphrase, but it was something like, “I felt sad she left.” Subject, verb, object. Simple. I circled the sentence. “Use more sentences like this,” I said. “Just be direct. Say what you mean.” He looked confused. “You mean use declarative sentences?”

YES! That was it! It had been so long since I taught sentence types that I had lost the ability to think in sentence types. For native English speakers, sentence types come intuitively; however beginning writers sometimes confuse their message by failing to use the most simple grammatical structures. He was right. He needed more simple, declarative sentences.

Four Main Sentence Types

English has four main sentence types:

  •          Declarative
  •          Imperative
  •          Interrogative
  •          Exclamatory


A declarative sentence “declares” a fact. It is used to make a simple statement or convey information. Declarative sentences can either be positive or negative.


My name is John.
I played the banjo.
Sue did not forget the tickets.
David was not late for class.


Imperative sentences request, instruct, or command. When no subject is given, it is implied in an imperative sentence, meaning it is understood to whom the request or command is made.


Turn down the music.
Leave the door closed.
Take out the trash.
Finish your dinner.


An interrogative sentence “interrogates,” or asks a question. These types of sentences are always punctuated by a question mark. In the examples below, the questions can only be answered yes or no, so they are known as yes/no interrogatives:


Did you forget your lunch?
Am I late?
Did you find a job?
Do these jeans make my butt look big?

Another type of interrogative sentence is called “Alternative” Interrogative. These types of interrogative sentences offer “alternative” responses and can’t be answered by simple yes or no responses:

Which dessert should I order?
How old do you think I look?
Where did I put my glasses?
Who is the actress in that movie?


The exclamatory sentence is a sentence that is exclaimed, emphasizing excitability or emotion. It is punctuated by an exclamation point.


Turn down that music!
I hate you!
You scared me!
Quit pulling my hair!

Be careful not to confuse an exclamatory sentence with an interjection; both are punctuated by an exclamation point, but the interjection is a word, not a complete sentence.


Bam! Bam!
No way!

Note for ESL Learners: Intonation and Shifting Forms

Note that sometimes a declarative sentence can be, depending on your intonation, transformed into a different type:


Declarative: Jason is here.
Interrogative: Jason is here?
Exclamatory: Jason is here!

Declarative: She left this morning.
Interrogative: She left this morning?
Exclamatory: She left this morning!

More Sentence Types

These four sentence types, declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory, can be further categorized into

  •          Simple
  •          Compound
  •          Complex
  •          Compound-Complex

Next week, we’ll look into these sentence structures. (declarative)
Doesn’t that sound like fun? (interrogative)
Shut up. (imperative)
It is fun! You’ll see! (exclamatory)





Are You Appositive?

Using Appositives to Clarify your Writing


You might not be familiar with the term “Appositive,” but I guarantee you have used them in your writing. What is an appositive? An appositive is simply a noun or noun phrase (or pronoun) that elaborates on another noun or pronoun, offering further explanation or information.

For instance, look at the following example of a sentence with an appositive:

            N                                             A
Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, is often referred to as a minimalist writer.

In the previous example, “the American novelist,” is in apposition to the noun, “Ernest Hemingway.” The second noun phrase offers more information to describe the previous noun, in this case, a proper noun.

This type of appositive phrase is called nonrestricted, therefore it is set off with commas. The appositional phrase in this sentence is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.  The phrase “the American novelist,” could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. It might be easier to remember that nonrestricted and restricted appositives are sometimes referred to as “essential” and “extra.” Are the words describing the noun essential (restricted) information, or is it “extra” information that you don’t really need, but it’s nice to know? If the information is essential, you don’t use commas; however, if the information is extra, you do use commas to set it off. Extra information = extra commas.

Let’s look at another example.

        N                               A
The teacher, a gray-haired taskmaster, was waiting for the students to be seated.

In this appositive example, “a gray-haired taskmaster” offers further (extra)  information to describe the noun, “the teacher.” Commas are placed around this phrase, as it is extra or nonrestrictive, meaning the appositive could be omitted without changing the intended meaning of the sentence. It’s simply extra information that tells us a little more about the teacher.

Can you pick out the appositive in the example below?

An undergraduate, Karen, raised the question about grammar.

If you said Karen, you are correct! Is Karen’s name essential information, or extra information?

If you said Karen’s name was NOT essential, you’re correct. The sentence was about a student, one of many, who had a question. Leaving out the appositive (Karen) would still convey the same thought: “An undergraduate student raised the question about grammar.

If, however, there were only one student, that would be different. If Karen were the only student, then it would read “Undergraduate Karen raised the question about grammar.”

It would be incorrect to put commas around her name because her name is essential (restricted) identifying information. You could not delete the appositive (Karen) because the sentence would not make sense. You couldn’t say, “Undergraduate raised the question about grammar.”

Appositives are a great way to clarify meaning, but if used incorrectly or with the incorrect punctuation, they can cause more problems. Read the example below, and see if you can pinpoint the problem:

I would like to dedicate this book to my father, the Pope, and my best friend. 

You could read this several ways. First, how many people would the writer like to thank? One? Two? Three? The Pope might be an appositive, but it could be another person. If it is an appositive, then the writer’s father is the Pope, and that (we hope) is not likely.  This can be easily fixed with separating the list with semi-colons:

I would like to dedicate this book to my father; the Pope; and my best friend. 

Now that the items are separated by semi-colons, “the Pope” is NOT an appositive, but simply one of three people the writer dedicates his book to.

Appositives are tricky. Just remember, extra info, extra commas. Below are more examples of appositives

Correct sentences

  • A vocational counselor, Jane Smith has agreed to help me get a job. Subject: Jane Smith. Appositive: A vocational counselor (extra information; therefore the comma)
  • A vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job. Subject: A vocational counselor. Appositive: Jane Smith (extra information; therefore the commas)
  • Jane Smith, a vocational counselor, has agreed to help me get a job. Subject: Jane Smith. Appositive: a vocational counselor (extra information; therefore the commas)
  • The vocational counselor, Jane Smith, has agreed to help me get a job. Subject: The vocational counselor. Appositive: Jane Smith (extra information; therefore the commas)
  • Vocational counselor Jane Smith has agreed to help me get a job. Subject: Jane Smith. Appositive: vocational counselor (essential information; therefore no commas)
  • My favorite writer wrote many plays. The writer, William Shakespeare, lived in Elizabethan times. Subject: The writer. Appositive: William Shakespeare (extra information; therefore the commas)
  • The writer William Shakespeare wrote many plays. Subject: The writer. Appositive: William Shakespeare (essential information; therefore no commas)
  • A fine man, my husband tolerates my grammatical tirades. Subject: My husband. Appositive: A fine man (extra information; therefore the comma)
  • My husband, a fine man, tolerates my grammatical tirades. Subject: My husband. Appositive: a fine man (extra information; therefore the commas)







Why Poetry Will Make You a Better Writer






April is National Poetry Month, and those of us at MCC’s Writing Center love our poetry. You might not think reading and writing poetry could help you with your academic, fiction, or nonfiction writing, but you might be surprised how poetry can improve your overall writing. How? Let me count the ways.

Writing poetry can help you be concise

Poetry spares no words. Poets know they must avoid redundancy and be succinct. Instead of writing sentences and paragraphs to get a point across, a poet must carefully choose his or her words. If your instructor asked you to take a paragraph and condense it down into one sentence without losing the meaning, could you do it? The haiku below shows a scene in eight words:

No sky
no earth – but still
snowflakes fall.

– Hashin

Less is more, and poetry can help writers uncover the words that are truly essential.

Poetry can help expand your word choice

For poets, word choice is everything. Poets toil over every word, and not a syllable is wasted, so it is imperative they chose the perfect word. Words paint pictures, and the color “red” is different than “scarlet,” which is different than “cherry,” which is different than “crimson.” Want proof? Look at the “red” uniforms of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Arkansas Razorbacks, and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Plain old red isn’t exactly the color of all their uniforms, is it? Is something simply noisy, or is it deafening? Were you happy, or would “ecstatic” be more accurate? Or even euphoric? In the poem below by Bruce Guernsey, he uses the word “shack” instead of house and “drifts” instead of simply snow. Also, look at his choice of verbs. What other choices do you suppose he made?

Back Road

Winter mornings
driving past
I’d see these kids
huddled like grouse
in the plowed ruts
in front of their shack
waiting for the bus,
three small children
bunched against the drifts
rising behind them.

This morning
I slowed to wave
and the smallest,
a stick of a kid
draped in a coat,
grinned and raised
his red, raw hand,
the snowball
packed with rock
aimed at my face.

Poetry can help you paint pictures with words

Has your instructor every told you to “show, don’t tell”? Did you wonder what exactly that meant and how to achieve it? Poets show in words by painting a picture for the reader. Poets use imagery with sensory detail, showing what something looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like, and smells like. Do you hear a bird chirping, or is it a robin singing “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up”? Did the hospital room smell bad, or did it smell like formaldehyde and urine? Sometimes poets use simile, metaphor, and even personification. The poem below by Ted Kooser utilizes several of these poetic tools. Can you pick out the sensory detail? Do you find any simile, metaphor, or personification?

In January

Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.

Poetry teaches rhythm

Has your instructor ever said your writing is plodding, or you need to vary your sentence structure? What he or she is trying to tell you is that you need to work on your rhythm. In poetry, one must consider the musicality of the language. Cadence and melody create the musical quality of poetry. Poetry is musical language, and can generate a physical response; we want to tap our feet and nod our head in tune with poetry. In the following poem by Theodore Roethke, he describes his “Papa’s Waltz” but also writes in the beat of a waltz. Can you figure out where the stresses or “beats” are?

My Papa’s Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Poetry is like music: there is something for every taste. If you had a bad experience with poetry in grade school or high school, give it another chance. You might find something you like.

Do you have a poem you’d like to share online? Send me your poems about writing, and I’ll post on our blog the month of April.

Want to learn more about poetry? Check out the links below.

Poem-a-day podcast:

The Poetry Foundation:

National Poetry Month