Notes on Sentence Structure and Punctuation

Some students are unfamiliar with the definitions and rules of clauses and punctuation, the basic building blocks of sentence structure. This problem does not show itself too much when you write in the first person voice ("I remember once . . .") because that is your natural idiom. However, when you attempt to write an academic paper in college, which not only requires the third-person voice ("The Confucian concept of ritual . . .") but also the ability to state for an unknown third party the key points of a complicated idea, it can become more difficult to compose smooth and grammatical prose. This occurs because the language needed for an academic paper isn't the natural idiom of our everyday language, and so the phrases and sentences that we need don't come naturally to mind. In some ways, it seems like trying to write in a foreign language. Yet, if you take the time to learn the basic rules of sentence structure and punctuation, then it becomes much easier to avoid such common problems as incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and faulty use of commas.

Sentence Structure: Clauses

Clauses are the basic building blocks of sentence structure. A clause consists of a subject and a predicate, where the predicate is a verb or verb phrase. A verb phrase may or may not include a direct object and/or an indirect object.


I was happy.
I went to the store.
She ate a cookie.
He sent me a letter.

In each of the above cases, there is at least a subject and a verb.

Independent Clause

An "independent clause" is a clause that can stand by itself as a complete sentence.

Three clowns bumped noses.
A chicken crossed the road.
The market sells organic vegetables.
The weather was good today.

Dependent Clause

A "dependent clause" is a clause that cannot stand by itself as a complete sentence even though it has a subject and a predicate.

while I was walking
because there were so many possibilities
although we could not find him

In these examples, it is the "subordinating conjunction" or sentence connector that subordinates the clause to another, main clause that makes them dependent clauses: "while," "because," "although".

Punctuation: Commas and Semicolons

Written language is designed to inscribe spoken language, so the rules of punctuation are generally designed to reproduce the natural patterns and pauses in speech.

Two Independent Clauses

When each of two independant clauses expresses a complete idea, but the two ideas are linked together, we often combine them into one sentence so that the reader can easily see the relationship between them. In that case, the two most common words used to link the sentences are "and" and "but," which are called "coordinating conjunctions." When we use "and" or "but" in speech, we naturally pause between the two clauses, so that is where we place a comma.


My friends and I went to see a movie, and we thought it was pretty funny.
We wanted linguini, but they only had fettucini.
The mountains are nice, but the beaches are better.
Rocky Road is tasty, and it's even better with nuts and topping.

Independent Clause Followed by a Dependent Clause

When we use a dependent clause to modify the main idea expressed by an independent clause, we link them together, usually with the independent clause coming first and then followed by the dependent clause. In this case, there is no comma separating the two because we do not pause between them in speech. What makes a clause "dependent" is the "subordinating conjunction." Common subordinating conjunctions include "while," "because," and "although."

I was thinking of dinner while I was driving.
I knew I would succeed although there were obstacles.
I decided to buy a pint of ice cream instead of a double-scoop cone because I was hungry.

Dependent Clause before an Independent Clause

In our usual speech patterns, we sometimes place the dependent clause before the independent clause for emphasis. In that case, we tend to pause to let the listener know that we have changed the usual order. So, in writing we place a comma after the dependent clause when the order is reversed.


Because I had so much work to do, I decided to postpone our date for the movies.
While there were still many passes to traverse, I was determined to get through the mountains.
Although the mountains were beautiful, the night sky was even more breathtaking.

Two Independent Clauses Joined by a Semicolon

Sometimes, we want to link two independent clauses together without using "and" or "but," or any other coordinating conjunction. In this case, we use a semicolon.


I went to the store; I bought some fruit.
The river was wide; the bridge was narrow.
Jack brought the food; Jill brought the camping supplies.