Using the Simple Sentence in Writing

Simple sentence
A series of three simple sentences by Ella Baker, quoted by Janus Adams in Sister Days: 365 Inspired Moments in African American Women's History (Wiley, 2000).

For writers and readers alike, the simple sentence is the basic building block of language. As the name suggests, a simple sentence is usually very short, sometimes no more than a subject and verb. 

Definition

In English grammar, a simple sentence is a sentence with only one independent clause. Though a simple sentence doesn't contain any subordinate clauses, it isn't always short. A simple sentence often contains modifiers.

In addition, subjectsverbs, and objects may be coordinated.

The 4 Sentence Structures

The simple sentence is one of the four basic sentence structures. The other structures are the compound sentence, the complex sentence, and the compound-complex sentence.

  • Simple sentence: I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore.
  • Compound sentence: I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal, but the bookstore was out of maps.
  • Complex sentence: Because I was planning to visit Tokyo, I purchased a tour guide and a level journal.
  • Compound-complex sentence: While Mary waited, I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore, and then the two of us went to dinner.  

As you can see from the above examples, a simple sentence—even with a lengthy predicate—is still grammatically less complex than the other types of sentence structures. 

Constructing a Simple Sentence

At its most basic, the simple sentence contains a subject and a verb:

  • I am running.
  • Kelsey loves potatoes.
  • Mom is a teacher.

However, simple sentences also can contain adjectives and adverbs, even a compound subject:

  • He can follow that path and see the waterfall.
  • You and your friends can see the waterfall from the trail.
  • I was wearing my navy linen suit, a crisp white shirt, a red tie, and black loafers.

    The trick is to look for multiple independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, a semicolon, or a colon. These are characteristics of a compound sentence. A simple sentence, on the other hand, only has a single subject-verb relationship.

    Segregating Style

    Simple sentences sometimes play a role in a literary device known as segregating style, where a writer employs a number of short, balanced sentences in a row for emphasis. Often, complex or compound sentences may be added for variety. 

    Examples: The house stood alone on a hill. You couldn't miss it. Broken glass hung from every window. Weatherbeaten clapboard hung loose. Weeds filled the yard. It was a sorry sight.

    The segregating style works best in narrative or descriptive writing when clarity and brevity are required. It is less effective in expository writing when nuance and analysis are required.

    Kernel Sentence

    A simple sentence can also function as a kernel sentence. These declarative sentences contain only one verb, lack descriptives, and are always in the affirmative.

    • Kernel: I opened the door
    • Nonkernel: I did not open the door.

    Likewise, a simple sentence is not necessarily a single kernel sentence if it contains modifiers:

    • Kernel: The cow is black.
    • Nonkernel: This is a black cow.