Varying Sentence Types in TOEFL Writing

All sentences are made up of clauses. In fact, a clause might be an entire sentence by itself. There are two types of clauses: dependent and independent. The difference is simple: independent clauses have a subject and a verb, and they express a complete thought. Dependent clauses don’t express a complete thought. Often, dependent clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction, which is a word that makes the sentence not a complete thought. Let’s look at some examples.

Here are some independent clauses:

  • The dog chased the elephant.
  • Nothing could be better than this!

And here are some dependent clauses:

  • If the dog catches the elephant
  • Because I heard this exciting news

As you can see, the dependent clauses are incomplete; they cannot stand alone as sentences, whereas independent clauses can.


Why do clauses matter?

English sentences come in four basic structures. We categorize them based on how they use dependent and independent clauses. In order to understand the structures, we must understand the pieces. Clauses are the most important pieces.


Simple sentences

A simple sentence is exactly one independent clause. So the sentences I wrote as examples of independent clauses are also perfect examples of simple sentences:

  • The dog chased the elephant.
  • Nothing could be better than this!


Compound sentences

A compound sentence combines two independent clauses, so it will have at least two subjects and two verbs. The two clauses must be joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions include “and,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” and “so.”


  • The elephant was minding its own business, and the dog decided to chase it.

(The elephant was minding its own business. The dog decided to chase it.)

  • The elephant was much larger, but it ran away.

(The elephant was much larger. It ran away.)

  • The dog knew that the elephant was weak, so he decided to see how far he could

(The dog knew that the elephant was weak. He decided to see how far he could run.)


Complex sentences

A complex sentence is created by combining an independent clause with a dependent clause. You can do this using a subordinating conjunction (after, although, because, while, when, if, until, whether, etc.).  In the following examples, I’ve marked the dependent clause with (DC) and the independent clause with (IC).

  • As the elephant grew tired (DC), the dog became more excited (IC).
  • I went outside to investigate (IC) after I heard terrible noises in the yard (DC).


Compound-complex sentences

Compound-complex sentences, as you might have guessed, contain at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause.

  • Imagine my surprise (IC) when I stepped outside (DC) and I saw my beloved pet elephant acting scared of a tiny dog (IC)!

(Note that the second independent clause is actually a PART of the dependent starting with “when”. It is compound, but acts as one dependent clause.)

  • Although I thought it was a bit funny (DC), I wanted to help the elephant (IC), but when my dog bit me (DC), I gave up and went back inside (IC).
    (In this case, the second independent clause that starts with “but” also contains a dependent clause that starts with “when.” Similar to how a dependent clause can contain an independent clause, the reverse is also possible: an independent clause can contain a dependent clause.)


Why this matters

Part of your score on the TOEFL will be based on your use of a variety of language. Not only will varying your sentences demonstrate your command of advanced grammar, but it will also make your essay much more interesting to read. So practice breaking complicated sentences into simple ones and combining simple sentences into complex, compound, and compound-complex sentences. Once you’ve mastered the mechanics of how each sentence type is formed, you can use them to give your essays a boost.


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  • Kate Hardin

    Kate has 6 years of experience in teaching foreign language. She graduated from Sewanee in 2012, where she studied and taught German, and recently returned from a year spent teaching English in a northern Russian university. Follow Kate on Google+!

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