What is a Simple Sentence and How to Write Long Ones?

In English, we categorize sentences into four types on the basis of their structure (number of dependent and independent clauses): simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Using different types of sentences adds variety to our writing, with the latter three combining multiple ideas to convey complex message.

In this post, we’ll cover simple sentence.

Learn the other three types:

What is a simple sentence?

A simple sentence is a sentence that contains one independent clause. That’s it.

Remember, an independent clause represents a complete idea, and hence it can stand as a sentence. A dependent clause, on the other hand, represents an incomplete idea, and hence it can’t stand as a sentence; it can exist only with the support of an independent clause.

Here is a brief summary of number of dependent and independent clauses in the four types of sentences.

Note: Feel free to use the above and other images in the post, using the link (url) of this post for reference/attribution.

And here is the same information in graphical form, which will make it abundantly clear that there is no overlap between the four types of sentences (none of the dots cross paths).

Of the four types of sentences, they’ve the least number of clauses, but that doesn’t necessarily make them short. For example, these are simple sentences despite their contrasting lengths because they contain just one independent clause. (As you’ll see in the next section, adding phrases to a simple sentence makes it long.)

Sally worked hard. [Simple sentence]

To land her dream job after college, Sally maintained good academic standing through her four years at the college, gained crucial skills required at the workplace, networked in the company, and prepared like hell for the recruitment process. [Simple sentence]

What makes a sentence simple is not its length but the presence of one and only one independent clause. BTW, all four types of sentences can be short or long like the above simple sentences.

How to write long simple sentences by adding phrases?

A sentence is essentially a combination of clauses, with the simplest of them containing an independent clause, which is nothing but a simple sentence. We can’t add clauses to a simple sentence as it has to contain just an independent clause, but we can add non-clause elements (or phrases) to it. Let’s see an example of a simple sentence that cascades into a much longer simple sentence through addition of phrases.

The hungry shark attacked the seal.

The hungry shark attacked the seal, tossing it in the air. [+ Participial phrase]

The hungry shark attacked the seal, tossing it in the air with a smash of its snout. [+ Prepositional phrase]

The hungry shark attacked the seal, a juvenile frolicking in deep waters unbeknownst of dangers, tossing it in the air with a smash of its snout. [+ Appositive phrase]

With its last meal weeks ago, the hungry shark attacked the seal, a juvenile frolicking in deep waters unbeknownst of dangers, tossing it in the air with a smash of its snout. [+ Absolute phrase]

See more examples of simple sentences:

Since only phrases – and no clauses – have been added, the sentence stays at just an independent clause and hence remains simple. Since all the above sentences remain an independent clause, we can add different types of clauses to convert them to a non-simple sentence. Few examples:

The hungry shark attacked the seal, but the swift seal escaped. [First sentence + Independent clause = Compound sentence]

The hungry shark, which hadn’t eaten in weeks, attacked the seal, but the swift seal escaped. [First sentence + Independent clause + Dependent clause = Compound-complex sentence]

With its last meal weeks ago, the hungry shark attacked the seal, a juvenile frolicking in deep waters unbeknownst of dangers, tossing it in the air with a smash of its snout, which stunned it. [Fifth sentence + Dependent clause = Complex sentence]

A simple sentence can have more than one verb

How many independent clauses does this sentence contain? Note that it has two verbs, raided and failed. (Subject has been shown in blue and verb in magenta font.)

The police raided the hideout with utmost secrecy but failed to arrest the criminals.

Even though the sentence has two verbs, it contains one independent clause, implying it’s a simple sentence. That’s because both verbs point to one subject, The police, forming one subject-verb unit. (Such sentence is said to have compound predicate.) Two independent clauses must have two separate subject-verb units, like in these sentences.

The police raided the hideout with utmost secrecy, but it failed to arrest the criminals. [Adding the subject, it, to the earlier sentence creates another independent clause.]

The police raided the hideout with utmost secrecy, but the criminals escaped minutes before.

The above sentences have two subject-verb units, implying they’ve two independent clauses or they’re compound – and not simple – sentences.

You can add more noun phrases to make the subject long, but it remains one subject. (Such sentence is said to have compound subject.)

The police and the narcotics team raided the hideout with utmost secrecy but failed to arrest the criminals.

In the above sentence, both the verbs point to one subject, The police and the narcotics team, forming one subject-verb unit, implying it’s an independent clause or a simple sentence.

These have two independent clauses though because they contain two subject-verb units.

The police and the narcotics team raided the hideout with utmost secrecy, but the criminals escaped minutes before.

The police raided the hideout with utmost secrecy, but the narcotics team didn’t.

Key is number of subject-verb units.

In this section, we saw that a simple sentence can have more than one verb. In the next, we’ll see that a simple sentence can have no subject, at least on the surface.

Imperative sentences are simple sentences

An imperative sentence, which usually starts with a verb, issues command or makes request. Examples:

Stop.

Drive carefully.

Don’t move.

Some doubt that they’re independent clauses (or simple sentences) because they apparently lack a subject. But imperative sentences contain an implied subject, you. The above sentences are, in fact:

You stop.

You drive carefully.

You don’t move.

How to identify a simple sentence?

A simple sentence contains exactly one independent clause, but there is more to identifying simple sentences. Try identifying the type of these sentences.

He was admired in the business community but was admired most for his work with children no one cared for.

While having tea during the break, I prepared my speech.

The first is a complex sentence (no one cared for is the dependent clause) though it looks like a simple sentence. The second is a simple sentence though it starts with while, giving the look of a dependent clause. And not to forget identifying exactly one independent clause in long simple sentences, few of which we saw at the start of the post.

Identifying a simple sentence is not just about identifying one independent clause in a sentence. It’s also about ruling out any dependent clause, especially short ones and those without marker words, lurking somewhere, like in the first sentence above. If you can master identifying the two types of clauses, identifying any type of sentence is a slam dunk. Unfortunately, though, identifying dependent and independent clauses is a vast topic and can’t be accommodated in the limited space here.

Get better at identifying clauses in a sentence:

What implications do simple sentences hold for your writing?

When talking of infusing variety to sentences, we go gaga over compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences, ignoring simple sentences. After all, we write simple sentences all the time. They’re in fact the culprit, aren’t they? They bring monotony to our writing in the first place, to escape which, we’re seeking shelter in the other three types of sentences.

That’s not the right view though.

There is nothing simple about simple sentences. There is nothing boring or monotonous about simple sentences. They can bring in at least as much variety to your writing as any other type of sentence if you can plug & play with phrases, which outnumber clauses in variety and positional flexibility in sentences. At the beginning of the post, we saw how wide range of phrases can sneak in almost any position in a sentence while packing in complex information. You can see many more such examples in the link to examples mentioned earlier. Dependent clauses, in fact, are de-emphasized in professional writing, converting them into phrases wherever possible. That’s why an entire topic of reduction of clauses exist.

Simple sentences have another advantage, matched only by complex sentences. They contain one independent clause, which leaves one key message for the readers, an ideal scenario. (Remember, an independent clause expresses the main idea of a sentence, with the dependent clauses chipping in with less important ideas.)

What’s the implication of all this for your writing?

Simple sentences are highly underrated, even though they can be immensely useful. That’s arbitrage to exploit. Try getting better at using different types of phrases to enrich your plain-vanilla simple sentences. One reason why phrases are underutilized is that they’re relatively tougher to ace than clauses because phrases are more mobile in sentences and their punctuation is more challenging than that of clauses. Only relatively! Think of compound sentences, for example. Connect two independent clauses with a comma and FANBOYS. Easy, right? Think of complex sentences with adverb clause. (That’s the dependent clause most use.) Start with because, since, although, while, etc. and put a comma and an independent clause. Boom!

If you can open up the vista of simple sentences, with all their colors (phrases), you’ll leapfrog your writing, exploit a massive arbitrage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a simple sentence have a comma?

Yes.

A compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses joined by comma(s) and coordinating conjunction(s). But a simple sentence too can have a comma, in a different role of course. Remember, comma has several uses. Examples:

I had bread, eggs, and coffee for breakfast. [Comma separates a list in a simple sentence]

After finishing homework, I went out to play. [Comma separates an introductory phrase in a simple sentence]

Can a simple sentence have a coordinating conjunction?

Yes.

Coordinating conjunctions join words, phrases, and clauses. In a compound sentence, they join clauses (independent), but in a simple sentence, they can join words. Examples:

I had coffee and sandwich for the breakfast. [Coordinating conjunction and joins two words in a simple sentence]

He is amazingly talented but poor on work ethics. [Coordinating conjunction but joins two phrases in a simple sentence]

Is a question a simple sentence?

Yes.

If a question contains one independent clause and no dependent clause, then it too is a simple sentence. Example:

When does the train come?

But these questions aren’t simple sentences.

When does the train come, and when does it leave? [Compound sentence]

When does the train that goes to Boston arrive? [Complex sentence]

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