Why there’s really no such thing as a complex-complex sentence

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

I’VE followed with great interest a fascinating discussion in Jose Carillo’s English Forum between two English-usage enthusiasts, an American teacher based in Florida who goes by the username Kal and a Filipino English teacher Michael Galario based in Manila. The subject:“the complex-complex sentence.” (http://tinyurl.com/gwtkptg)


Let me say at the outset thatI’ve always subscribed to the idea that there are just four types of sentences: the simple sentence, the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the complex-compound sentence (or vice versa).

We all know the drill. A simple sentence has only one independent clause and no dependent clause, as in “She likes avocado.” A compound sentence has at least two independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction and with no dependent clause, as in “She likes avocado but I prefer oranges.” A complex sentence has at least one independent clause linked to one or more dependent clauses by a subordinating conjunction, as in “She likes avocado when it’s in season.” And a complex-compound sentence has two or more independent clauses plus one or more dependent clauses, as in “She likes avocado when it’s in season but she shifts to strawberries afterwards”

But Kal recalls that two years before, he stumbled on a book by John Bremner, Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words, that had the complex-complex sentence as a fifth classification. Definingit as consisting of an independent clause and a dependent clause that’s subordinate to another dependent clause, Bremner presented this example: “He got mad when I told him that he should study.”

Uponinspection though, I find that Bremner’s sentence has one independent clause, “he got mad,” that’s linked to a dependent clause, “when I told him,” that in turn is linked to another clausedependent on it, “that he should study.” This structure may seem complex-complex, but that distinction is actually a superfluous distinction because it’s already well-covered by the complex-compound definition.

Initially, Kal couldn’t locate Bremer’s book and its example of a complex-complex sentence, so he decided toconstruct one himself: “Now, popular kids were pursuing those that once pursued them that they had rejected in the past.”

Michael analyzed that convoluted sentence and concluded that it isn’tcomplex-complex but just a complex sentence. He correctly argued that this is so because it has an independent clause, “now, popular kids were pursuing those,” and two dependent clauses, 1) “that once pursued them” and 2) “that they had rejected in the past.” Indeed, Michael saidit was the first time he had heard of a complex-complex sentence and was doubtful that there’s such a sentence structure.

As I said earlier, I doubted that fifth classification myself so I combed the Worldwide Web for proof. Lo and behold! Of the 712,000 entries yielded by Google, only one acknowledged that “complex-complex” sentencesexist. A contributed post in Using English.com defined it as “a sentence in which at least one subordinate clause itself has a subordinate clause.” It gives this example: “The man who saw the horse that was grazing in the field was sitting on the fence that enclosed the farm.”

That rather knottysentence does seem to combine two complex sentences, 1) “the man who saw the horse that was grazing in the field” and “[he]was sitting on the fence that enclosed the farm.” On closer inspection, however, we’ll find that “the man who saw the horse that was grazing in the field” is a noun clause that functions as the subject of the sentence, with “was sitting on the fence that enclosed the farm” as its predicate.

The phrases “that was grazing in the field” and “that enclosed the farm” are, in fact, not subordinate clauses but simply adjectival modifiers.So, that structure isn’t really a complex-complex sentence but just a simple sentence.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com


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