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My English teacher recently covered simple, complex and compound sentences in class. She told us that:

  1. A simple sentence has one clause.
  2. A compound sentence has two clauses.
  3. A complex sentence has three clauses.

Quick research on the internet proved that either she was dead wrong or she was trying to teach me some "baby rules". I am very confused, and since I have my exam coming up I don't know what to do. I have tried to learn online but have found this to be quite a confusing topic. For example, how is this sentence a simple sentence:

"Despite a lot of difficulties, we succeeded in reaching the base camp for the final trek."

From what I have gathered, a simple sentence has one clause but this appears to have two. What is the basic definition of these three types of sentences? Am I going wrong somewhere? Any help with explaining this clearly and simply will be appreciated.

  • "The people who are poor deserve our support." What type of a sentence is this then? – Prithvish Baidya Sep 17 '16 at 15:18
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The traditional definitions of simple, compound and complex sentences:

  • A simple sentence has a single independent clause and no dependent (subordinate) clauses.

  • A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses and no dependent clauses.

  • A complex sentence has at least one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

Only clauses are considered, not constituents of other sorts. In traditional grammar a clause must contain both a subject and a predicate.

Despite a lot of difficulties, we succeeded in reaching the base camp for the final trek.

By the traditional standard, this sentence contains only one clause. reaching the base camp is not accepted as a "clause" because it contains no subject.

Some modern grammarians might accept the constituent headed by reaching as a clause from which the subject has been deleted; but modern grammarians are not usually interested in the categories ‘simple, compound, complex’—the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, for instance, observes in a footnote (page 45) that two given sentences might be distinguished as ‘simple vs complex clauses but no great significance attaches to this [...] distinction, and we shall not make further use of these terms.’

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  • Thanks a lot! Anyways, suppose I am given the sentence "Poor people deserve our support." and asked to transform it into complex, then I would have to make sure that the sentence would have one principal clause and another subordinate clause. So how can I achieve this without changing the meaning of the sentence? – Prithvish Baidya Sep 17 '16 at 17:45
  • @PrithvishBaidya "People who are poor deserve our support" or "Poor people are the ones who deserve our support" or "We should support people who are poor". – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 17 '16 at 19:15
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    Since virtually all English sentences are complex, the other two categories are kind of irrelevant. It's rather like classifying numbers into 1, 2, and Many. – John Lawler Sep 17 '16 at 19:43
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    @PrithvishBaidya I know of only one reason for learning the difference between simple, compound and complex sentences: to pass an exam on the difference between simple, compound and complex sentences. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 17 '16 at 23:34
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    @PrithvishBaidya The main clause is Our teacher is the one; its subject is Our teacher. The subject of the subordinate relative clause *who took us to the field is actually deleted, but who points to the 'gap' and assumes the subject role. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 18 '16 at 9:27

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