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What Is a Complex Sentence?

Updated on August 12, 2022Grammar

​​A complex sentence is a sentence with one independent clause and at least one dependent clause. It works best when you need to provide more information to explain or modify your sentence’s main point. Complex sentences are easy to spot as they often use subordinating conjunctions like because, since, or until to connect clauses. 

Why are they called “complex?” Complex sentences are different from simple sentences, but share some similarities with compound sentences. Does that seem complex? Don’t worry; they’re easy to use once you understand how they work, which we explain fully below. We talk about simple vs. complex sentences, independent vs. dependent clauses, and give plenty of complex-sentence examples. 

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What is a complex sentence? 

Complex sentences are one of the four types of sentences based on structure (simple, complex, compound, and compound-complex). Their distinction is that they contain a dependent clause; only complex sentences and complex-compound sentences have them. 

Dependent clauses, also known as subordinate clauses, are clauses that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. Without an independent clause, a dependent clause is just a sentence fragment

Incorrect: When I grow up 

Correct: When I grow up, I’ll use complete sentences. 

One of the most common types of complex sentences are conditional sentences, which discuss imaginary situations, often using an if-then structure. In conditional sentences, one clause is true only if both clauses are true. 

“If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” —Maya Angelou

Independent vs. dependent clauses: What’s the difference?

The key to using complex sentences is understanding the difference between independent and dependent clauses. Basically, independent clauses are complete sentences on their own, but dependent clauses are not. However, both clauses contain a subject and a verb, so why is one a complete sentence but not the other? 

The short answer is that dependent clauses always start with subordinating conjunctions. In a way, these subordinating conjunctions turn independent clauses into dependent ones. 

You’re probably already familiar with some common subordinating conjunctions, such as because, since, if, until, when, even though, in case, while, now that, and certain uses of the prepositions before and after. There are quite a few less common subordinating conjunctions, so we recommend studying the above list until you can recognize them on your own. 

With a subordinating conjunction, a clause becomes a description of another clause. In this way, dependent clauses change the meaning of independent clauses. Consider this example of an independent clause: 

You cannot leave the school. 

That sounds scary! Alone, this independent clause means that you must remain at school forever. Now, let’s add a dependent clause to make a complex sentence that clarifies things further: 

You cannot leave the school until the bell rings. 

See how the dependent clause changes the meaning of the main point? 

Simple vs. complex sentences

The difference between simple and complex sentences is easier to explain. Simple sentences are any sentence with only one independent clause. Any sentence with more than one clause—including complex sentences—cannot be simple sentences. 

Interestingly, you can sometimes combine two simple sentences to create one complex sentence, as long as you add a subordinate conjunction. 

Simple sentences:

Troy ate a giant cookie. He got a stomach ache. 

Complex sentence: 

After Troy ate a giant cookie, he got a stomach ache. 

How to make a complex sentence

Although conditional sentences get complicated, complex sentences in general have fairly easy grammar rules. As long as you’re using the right subordinate conjunction, you only have to worry about commas in complex sentences

Whether or not to use a comma depends on which clause comes first: 

  • If the dependent clause comes first, place a comma right before the independent clause. 
  • If the independent clause comes first, no comma is needed. 

Here’s a couple of complex sentence examples to illustrate: 

When Thanos attacked the Earth, where were the Eternals? 

Where were the Eternals when Thanos attacked the Earth? 

Complex sentence examples

Here are some complex sentence examples from famous writers to help you understand how they work. We’ve underlined the subordinate conjunction in each. 

“If the path is beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.” —Anatole France

“It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when they have lost their way.” —Rollo May

“Don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.” —Satchel Paige

“It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop.” —Confucius

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” —Bertolt Brecht

Tips for writing complex sentences

Once you get the hang of subordinate conjunctions and dependent clauses, complex sentences don’t seem so complex after all. You can even improve them using the same exact tips on how to write better sentences

If you’d still like assistance, you can always download Grammarly to ensure your writing is correct. Grammarly offers features that not only point out mistakes, but also suggest better word choices and recommend phrasing to improve clarity. Get Grammarly today and see how your writing improves. 

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