Sentence Types

Definition of a sentence:

If only it were that easy! By and large, sentences are grammatical constructions which everybody uses and recognises without difficulty but which are notoriously difficult to define. Most definitions have some shortcomings. However, the following criteria generally apply to a sentence:

  • A sentence makes sense - it is grammatical. So 'The bought I shoes' is clearly not a sentence.

  • A sentence is freestanding, and not incomplete in any way. So 'She went to.' and 'London needs.' are incomplete and need a completing word or phrase.

There are many examples of sentences in writing which taken in isolation may appear incomplete, but in context are complete, particularly when they refer to a previous statement or question. For example.

'Where's my dinner?'
'In the oven.'

Here the second sentence makes sense and is complete because it concludes the process initiated by the question. Without the preceding question 'In the oven' makes little sense.

In similar vein, many authors use verbless sentences, sentences without a main verb, or freestanding subordinate clauses deliberately for effect. Out of context, these too could appear incomplete, but their impact lies in this 'incompleteness'.

For example:

- She went home reluctantly that night. Expecting the worst.
Verbless sentence.

- Fog
Dickens' famous opening to Bleak House, using sentences with no main clause

- She still tried to revive the creature. Even though she knew it was too late.
Freestanding subordinate clause

Types of sentence

Sentences can be divided into two types: regular and irregular (or major and minor).

  • Regular sentences are the kind found most commonly in continuous prose and they always contain a main (finite) verb and usually a subject too. The three sentences here, following the heading 'Types of sentence' , are all examples of regular sentences.

    Regular sentences come in a variety of structures and patterns, and can be further categorised as simple sentences or multiple sentences. Simple sentences are composed of a single clause, whereas multiple sentences are composed of two or more clauses. For example:

    Simple sentences have one finite verb. Multiple sentences have more than one finite verb and thus have more than one clause.

  • Irregular sentences do not follow predictable grammatical patterns and often are 'frozen' forms which cannot be altered to show changes in time, tense or number. So although we might often say 'Good morning' we cannot say 'Good mornings' ; nor can we say 'How did you do?' Idiomatic expressions, proverbial sayings and interjections are examples of irregular sentences. Conversation makes much use of irregular sentences as does the visual world of signs, notices and commercial print. The heading for this section 'Types of sentence' is an irregular sentence.

    Generally, irregular sentences are

    • a complete statement
    • not grammatically predictable

    Signs Interjections Sayings Social formulas
    NO SMOKING Eh! "Once a thief, always a thief!" Happy Birthday.
    THIS WAY PLEASE Yuk! "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings" Good morning.
    Cool! Pleased to meet you

Sentence variety

Read the extract below from 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'. It is a fine example of how effective writing makes use of short, simple sentences and longer multiple sentences. Look at the sentences and how they are structured - decide which are simple and multiple sentences and think about the literary effects achieved.

  He came to the point where the trench had been, and stopped. There was nothing. It was all obliterated and unrecognisable. He raised his arms as though reproaching God, and was about to start pounding at his own temples when there was a movement at the corner of his eye. Corelli was indistinguishable from the wet sand because he was perfectly covered in it. The blast had concussed him, and the updraught had sucked him high into the air and then flung him down upon the back.  

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