Simple Sentence Basics for ESL Writers

If you’re looking for an easy way to dress up your writing and to improve its readability in English, your sentences likely hold the answer. The fluent reader chunks text as she reads. This means that sentences should flow naturally as she’s reading and be easy to put together into sections or phrases.

If the sentences are malformed or worded unnaturally, they become a challenge to read smoothly and the effect is jarring. A well-written sentence is understated and virtually invisible. It is only the awkward sentences that stand out.

Want to write a better sentence? Let’s start with the basics.

In English there are four types of basic sentences we use every day. Granted most of us don’t remember what they are officially called, but to break it down, the four most common sentence types are:

  • Declarative – a statement. (I went to the store.)
  • Interrogative – a question. (Are you going to the store?)
  • Imperative – a command. (Go to the store.)
  • Exclamatory – a shout. (Go to the damn store!)

Not to be outdone, sentences can also be categorized by how they are arranged and their clauses. For example:

  • The simple sentence has a subject and predicate (noun and action) without a conjunction like “and” or “but.” [The woman is intelligent.
  • The compound sentence is essentially two sentences joined with a conjunction. [The woman is intelligent, and she tricks the man often.]
  • The complex sentence has a combination of dependent clauses combined with independent clauses. (An independent clause is really just a simple sentence with a new name.) [The intelligent woman, who is strong-willed, often plays tricks on the man.]
  • The complex-compound sentence is just a mess of clauses and conjunctions. [The intelligent woman, who is strong-willed, plays tricks, and the man, who is obviously inferior, falls for them every time.]

If you just took notes on all of that to remember for the quiz at the end of this page, you can scrap them.  You don’t really need to know what these are called, although knowing the different sentence options can help you in your writing. But here’s what can help the most  - Use lots of different kinds of sentences. Heck, use them all!

The most engaging writing is dynamic because it combines lengthy sentences, which are descriptive and fluid, with short, pithy sentences. The short sentences are powerful. However, the longer sentences give more imagery and fluidity to the writing. The trick is to know how to balance the two.

If you weren’t paying attention that paragraph contained: one compound-complex sentence, a simple sentence, a complex sentence and another simple sentence. It was a mix, it flowed well and with the commas in the right place, it seemed easy and natural to the reader.

Here is your homework for the month in regard to sentences. Practice building them. Start with a simple sentence – it can be a question, command, statement, whatever. Add to it and be sure to carefully place your commas as you do so.

Commas are used much like glue, they go where you are sticking certain things together. Commas separate items in a list, they go before conjunctions, and they separate clauses. If you’re not sure if a comma goes in a certain place, read the sentence out loud. If you pause naturally when you read that section, it’s very likely a comma might go there. This is by no means a highly effective way to tell every time, but it’s a nice estimation trick.

Here’s an example of building sentences:

  • The boy cried.
  • The boy cried, and the girl cried with him.
  • Sad and exhausted, the boy cried while the girl cried with him.
  • Sad and exhausted, the boy cried, but the girl, who was defeated and tired, cried along with him.
  • Sad and exhausted, the boy cried with terrific sobs, while the girl, who was also defeated and tired, cried tears of sheer frustration along with him.

You can continue, but already we can see how a simple idea can be expanded endlessly. Notice, however, that the last sentence in this example is harder to read naturally than the shorter ones above. Use very lengthy sentences sparingly, but do use them so long as they are “chunked” properly to give a sense of imagery and details to your work.

If you are extremely comfortable with the long, flowing sentences, be aware that they are often more formal in tone and form than the short sentences. Be sure that your writing isn’t too full of these complex-compound sentences. Break it up with some short sentences to improve reading fluency. It will sound more natural and suit the limited attention span of most of your readers.

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

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