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Sentence Structure

There are three basic kinds of sentences: simple, compound, and complex. They are formed by using one or more independent and dependent clauses and phrases. An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence, while a dependent clause or a phrase can not. A phrase is distinguished from a dependent clause by its lack of a necessary subject. The phrase "sentence fragment" is often appended to a student's work when a professor sees a dependent clause or phrase standing on its own.

If you understand the difference between a dependent clause and an independent clause, you will be able to write proper sentences. You also will be able to form proper compound sentences (which consist of two or more independent clauses) and complex sentences (which consist of one or more dependent clauses and at least one independent clause).
 

1.  Do not leave dependent clauses or phrases standing alone; these are sentence fragments, not sentences. Sentence fragments often contain a verb with no subject (creating a dependent clause or a phrase). A writer who makes this error will invite the ridicule of more experienced writers. The best way to avoid the problem is to be certain that every sentence has at least one subject linked to each verb. You also can avoid the problem by attaching the fragment to an independent clause with a conjunction, a comma, or both. Be careful, however, not to attach two independent clauses with a comma. This error, known as a comma splice, is discussed in rule 2.

Incorrect Use of Phrase:

The appellate court ruled for the plaintiff. Affirming the judgment of the trial court.


Solution #1:

The appellate court ruled for the plaintiff. It affirmed the judgment of the trial court.


Explanation: In the incorrect example above, the sentence fragment is created because there is no subject linked to the verb "affirming." This problem can be solved by providing a subject. In the corrected version, the pronoun "it," referring to the appellate court, is the subject of the verb "affirmed."

Solution #2:

The appellate court ruled for the plaintiff, affirming the judgment of the trial court.


Explanation: By placing a comma before affirming, the writer links the phrase to the independent clause on which it relies for its context.

Solution #3:

The appellate court ruled for the plaintiff and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.


Explanation: By placing the conjunction "and" before the phrase, the writer links the dependent clause to the independent clause on which it relies for its context.

Incorrect Use of Dependent Clause:

The counsel for the defendant was called to the judge's chambers. Because he had failed to file the complaint within the time provided in the statute of limitations.


Solution #1:

The counsel for the defendant was called to the judge's chambers because he had failed to file the complaint within the time provided in the statute of limitations.


Solution #2:

The counsel for the defendant was called to the judge's chambers. He had failed to file the complaint within the time provided in the statute of limitations.

2.  Do not link two independent clauses with a comma. This error, known as a comma splice, can easily be avoided. Instead of using a comma to connect two independent clauses, either use a period to create two sentences, a conjunction to link the two clauses in one sentence, or (if the independent clauses are closely related) a semicolon to link the two clauses in one sentence.

Incorrect: The appellate court found that the constitutional prohibition against warrantless searches had been violated, it therefore remanded the case for a new trial.


Solution #1:

The appellate court found that the constitutional prohibition against warrantless searches had been violated. It therefore remanded the case for a new trial.


Explanation: Because the second independent clause can stand alone as a sentence, the writer can avoid the comma splice by replacing the comma with a period and capitalizing the word "It."

Solution #2:

The appellate court found that the constitutional prohibition against warrantless searches had been violated, and it therefore remanded the case for a new trial.


Explanation: A conjunction such as "and" or "but" can be used to link two independent clauses; however, be sure to place a comma before a conjunction that introduces an independent clause.

Solution #3:

The appellate court found that the constitutional prohibition against warrantless searches had been violated; it therefore remanded the case for a new trial.


Explanation: When two independent clauses are closely related in substance, one can link them with a semicolon.
 

3.  Use strong subject-verb formulations. Good writers provide their readers with strong subject-verb formulations early in their sentences. The result is forceful writing that quickly gets to the point. Avoid beginning your sentences with phrases such as "there is" and "it is" in place of subject-verb formulations.

Undesirable:

There is disagreement about the best approach to negligence law.
Better: Scholars disagree about the best approach to negligence law.


Undesirable:

It is a different argument than the one the court adopted.
Better: The argument is different than the one the court adopted.

Cross Reference: Dependent Clauses and Phrases

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