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Combining Sentences

Written by tutor Allia S.

The ability to combine sentences correctly is a key step to expressing an individual's ideas and heading towards a better understanding and utilization of the English language. With that said, many ESL students face difficulties when understanding the “rules” of sentence combining. I understand the pieces but how can I put a sentence together without it sounding repetitive or simple? How do I go from “I went to the store. I tried to buy apples and grapes. I did not have enough money” to “I went to the store and tried to buy apples and grapes, but I did not have enough money”? How do I make my writing sound more academic? Do not stress. Many native English speakers face a similar dilemma and by practicing when and how to combine sentences, you will be able to express your ideas clearly and allow your written voice to come through.

When would someone combine sentences?

  1. To connect ideas/thoughts
  2. To expand upon a thought or idea
  3. To eliminate repetition
  4. To create sentence variety
  5. To write more academically

*Remember: The key here is to connect ideas. If two sentences do not make sense or do not go together, then do not combine them. It is more important to have ideas that match then to have a specific sentence count.

The basic definition of a sentence: A sentence is the combination of an independent and dependent clauses used in a variety of ways to create four basic sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.

Think of an independent clause as an idea/thought/concept that can be understood by itself. The clause is independent from the other sentences. Think of an independent clause in conversation. If a friend approached you and said, “I am really happy today because I bought a puppy,” you understand that your friend is saying that they are happy after purchasing their new puppy.

In contrast, a dependent clause cannot be understood by itself. Dependent clauses are missing a main idea/thought/concept. Dependent clauses depend on the rest of the sentence to make sense. Yet again, think about a dependent clause in conversation. If your friend approached you and said, “Before I was really unhappy,” you find yourself asking many questions: Is your friend still unhappy? Before what? What made your friend so unhappy?

Below are the four basic sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Each sentence type has a different way of combining sentences to join ideas together.

  1. Simple - A simple sentence has one independent clause. One main thought, idea, or concept.
  • Example: Either my mother or my sister bought this DVD player.
  • Explanation: Even though there are multiple people involved, my mother and my sister, there is only one main concept, that someone has purchased a DVD player.
  1. Compound - A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses. Compound sentences are combined using a comma followed by a conjunction.
  • Example (sentence not combined): Joan went to the movies. Phil stayed home with the children.
  • Example (using a conjunction): Joan went to the movies, but Phil stayed home with the children.

A semicolon can also be used but the conjunction must be omitted.

  • Example: (Using a semicolon): Joan went to the movies; Phil stayed home with the children.
  • Explanation: Both independent clauses are connecting together two ideas. Joan was able to go to the movies because Phil stayed home with the children. Even though both examples combine sentences differently, both are correct because the ideas are connected to one another.
  1. Complex- A complex sentence has one independent clause and one or more subordinate clauses. The independent clause contains the main idea/concept of the sentence while the subordinate clause is not considered vital information.

*Note: Subordinate clauses are similar to dependent clauses. The only real difference is that subordinate clauses use “transition words.” These are words like: furthermore, since, because, for example, although, therefore, thus, in conclusion, etc. “Transition words” push the sentence forward to the main idea/concept. A better way to understand this concept is in the Explanation below.

  • Example: Before I drove home from work, I realized that my car was out of gas.
  • Explanation: The best way to distinguish an independent clause from a dependent clause is to do the cover-up trick. Cover up the portion of the sentence before the comma, without knowing the next part of the sentence, does this portion make sense by itself? If not, then it is a dependent clause. If yes, then it is an independent clause. Try it with the sentence example above. Did you notice that when you read before I drove home from work you found yourself asking questions? Like, what happened before you drove home? What happened after work? Whereas with the later part of the sentence I realized my car was out of gas, you understand the problem. If the portion of a sentence makes sense on it's own then it is independent from the rest of the sentence not needing the rest of the sentence to make sense.
  1. Compound-Complex- A compound-complex sentence has at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. These sentences are a combination of #2 & #3 and you should use the the same tips/rules from those sections.
  • Example (Not Combined): Phil stayed home with the kids. Joan was able to go to the movies. She was very pleased with the film.
  • Example (Using a semicolon): Since Phil stayed home with the kids, Joan was able to go to the movies; she was very pleased with the film.
  • Example (Using a Conjunction): Since Phil stayed home with the kids, Joan was able to go to the movies, and she was very pleased with the film.
  • Explanation: In order to combine these three sentences correctly, you still use some of the same steps from the previous sentence types.

*Remember: Combining sentences focuses on the #2, 3, & 4 sentence types.

To Summarize. There are three main ways to combine sentences.

  1. Using Conjunctions: FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So)
    *When using conjunctions, you are combining two independent clauses (IC) with a comma and then a conjunction.
  • Example (Using a Conjunction): Joan went to the movies, but Phil stayed home with the children.
  1. Using three main types of punctuation. The comma, the colon, and the semicolon.
    *Notice how the comma still needs a conjunction.
    *For more info on specific comma usage rules, see Comma Usage.
  • Example (Using a comma with a conjunction): Joan went to the movies, but Phil stayed home with the children.
  • Example (Using a semicolon): Joan went to the movies; Phil stayed home with the children.
  • Example (Using a colon): Joan went to the movies and purchased many snacks. Specifically: Hot Tamales, popcorn, and soda.

           *Colons are used after an independent clause and are used to list items.

  1. Using a subordinate clause (“transition words/phrases”).
  • Example: Learning the English language can be difficult. For example, there are many different ways to combine sentences and understanding which combination to use can be tricky.

What about the dash?

Occasionally you may come across a dash in the middle of a sentence. These are normally meant to represent a side note/side comment that is not relevant to the development of the sentence. Essentially, if you took the phrase between the dashes out, you would still understand the sentence. The same rule applies to ideas between two commas.

  • Example (Using Dashes): My mother went to Aunt Wendy's house – the bright blue house on the corner – to prepare for the birthday party.
  • Example (Using Commas): My mother went to Aunt Wendy's house, the bright blue house on the corner, to prepare for the birthday party.
  • Explanation: If you removed the words between the dashes (the bright blue house on the corner), you would still understand all of the important components of the sentence. You know the noun, my mother, and you also know what the noun has done, went to Aunt Wendy's house, and, you even know what the noun did, prepared for the birthday party. You still understand exactly what happened.

Here are some books that I would recommend for further reading:

They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff & Cathy Berkenstein (Norton and Company, 2009)
Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss (Penguin Publishing, 2004)

Combining Sentences Practice Quiz

Which type of sentence is the following?
I walked the dog, but my brother fed the cats.

A. Simple
B. Compound
C. Complex
D. Complex-Compound
The correct answer here would be B.

Which type of sentence is the following?
James really enjoys the rain.

A. Simple
B. Compound
C. Complex
D. Complex-Compound
The correct answer here would be A.

Use the cover-up trick. Which part of the sentence is the dependent clause?
After it stopped raining, the picnic was fantastic.

A. the picnic was fantastic
B. After it stopped raining,
The correct answer here would be A.

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