Sentence Structure: Clauses and Phrases

Language is complicated. Our brains usually deal with the complexities on autopilot, but sometimes it’s necessary to refresh ourselves on the rules.

I’m not saying every author needs to be an academic grammar guru, but when it comes to making our sentences clear and concise, identifying problems in our prose, or trying to deliberately bend the rules of structure, it’s important to be acquainted with the technical side of writing.

So, let’s talk sentence segments.

Clauses

A clause is a group of words that contains a verb and a subject. 

"Marie slept"

If the clause forms a complete thought, then it’s called an ‘independent clause’ and can stand alone as a simple sentence. The example above works fine as its own sentence.

Combining two or more clauses with a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, & yet) creates a compound sentence.

"Marie slept but Charlotte wasn’t tired."

Phrases

A phrase is a group of words that does not consist of a verb and subject.

"After the party"

It cannot stand alone as its own sentence. It needs to be attached to at least one clause in order to work. 

"After the party, Marie slept but Charlotte wasn’t tired."

Endless Combinations

As discussed in the article “Sentence Structure: Sentence Differentiation,” an author’s job is to play with the length and style of sentences in order to create page after page of clear, beautiful, unique prose.

Using lots of long sentences that have a multitude of clauses and phrases will make your story feel one way. Using lots of short, choppy, one-clause sentences will make it feel totally different. And using a combination of both creates yet another feeling. It all depends on the specific experience you want the reader to have.

Let’s play with an example. We’ll start with a straightforward paragraph consisting of similar sentences.

In the rave, neon lights flashed, spun, and whirled as the music blared. The DJ hopped up and down behind his equipment, headphones bouncing and gold chains swinging. On the dance floor, Marie and Charlotte danced along with the beat, their heart rates seeming to sync with the bass track. They jumped, swung their arms, and collided with the other dancers. The very air was intoxicating. There was so much noise, movement, light, and shadows. After twenty minutes, Marie started to feel sick and told Charlotte that she was ready to leave.

Most of these sentences are compound. They combine phrases with multiple clauses in order to deliver complete thoughts. All grammar rules are followed. 

What happens if we break things up? 

In the rave, neon lights flashed. They spun. They whirled. Music blared. The DJ hopped up and down behind his equipment. His headphones bounced and his gold chains swung. On the dance floor, Marie and Charlotte danced along with the beat. Their heart rates seemed to sync with the bass track. They jumped. They swung their arms. They collided with the other dancers. The very air was intoxicating. There was so much noise, movement, light, and shadows. After twenty minutes, Marie started to feel sick. She told Charlotte that she was ready to leave.

The choppiness of this structure provides a unique flavor to the storytelling. The reader may no longer be picturing one long scene in their mind’s eye. Now, it’s a series of flashing images. Maybe that’s what you want, maybe not.

We could also go the other direction and see how combining as many clauses and phrases as possible changes the feel. 

In the rave, neon lights flashed, spun, and whirled as the music blared and the DJ hopped up and down behind his equipment, headphones bouncing and gold chains swinging while on the dance floor, Marie and Charlotte danced along with the beat, their heart rates seeming to sync with the bass track as they jumped, swung their arms, and collided with the other dancers. The very air was intoxicating with the noise, movement, light, and shadows, and after twenty minutes, Marie started to feel sick and told Charlotte that she was ready to leave.

These run on sentences create a bit of chaos for the reader, but again, that might be just what the author wants.

This time let’s break the rules. What happens if we use sentences which do not include independent clauses?

In the rave... Neon. Flash, pulse, spin, whirl. And the music! The DJ hopped. Up. Down. Headphones bouncing and gold chains swinging. On the dance floor, Marie and Charlotte danced along with the beat, beat, beat. Heart Rates and bass track. Beat, beat, beat. They jumped. Swung their arms. Collided with the other dancers. Noise. Movement. Light and shadows. For twenty intoxicating minutes. Then Marie blinked, stumbled, tasted vomit in her throat. Had to get out of there. Too much. Much too much. 

Totally different, right? Obviously, I’m going overboard with the experimental structure, but it goes to show the power of playing around with sentence segments. 

Fixing a Broken Sentence

Usually, you don’t want the madness of the final version of our rave scene above. For the most part, you want clear sentences that are easy to follow and abide by the rules. 

Sometimes you read back over a sentence you wrote and it just looks...wrong. This can happen a lot. We get so into our stories that it’s hard to simply read our prose objectively. It can help to read your prose aloud or have your computer read do this. Our brains will usually pick up on all the sentences that sound incomplete. Then it’s up to you and figure out why and fix it.

If you need to identify just what isn’t working in a sentence, consider the following:

Does it have a subject and a verb?

Does it form a complete thought?

Will breaking it up or combining it with another sentence make the delivery of that thought clearer?

Are there phrases that aren’t strictly necessary?

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Dave Kavanaugh

Dave likes to write about ancient aliens, newborn gods, and really big swords. He is the author of the serial "Age of Omicron" and lots of speculative short fiction. To learn more, head over to www.davekavanaugh.com.

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