How to Write Like a Pro: Sentence Length (Subordinating Conjunctions & Complex Sentences)

Ok, so you’ve mastered the compound sentence with the previous article! Now that you know how to use basic conjunctions, check out some special ones: subordinating conjunctions.

Subordinating Conjunctions

Move your writing another step in the right direction by learning to use subordinating conjunctions to express more complicated relationships. These conjunctions include words like after, although, as, because, before, even though, if, since, though, unless, until, when, whenever, whereas, wherever, and while. Just like with coordinating conjunctions, they can be used to join ideas together to improve the flow of your writing.

However, unlike coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions connect one or more dependent clauses to an independent clause. Remember the difference? A sentence that uses a subordinating conjunction is a complex sentence.

Independent Clause + Dependent Clause

Take a look at these examples:

The student was so relieved after he passed the exam.
I want to travel because I love seeing new places.
You shouldn’t start cooking until you’ve found a recipe.

Note that you do not place a comma before subordinating conjunctions. See how each of these words makes a connection between the idea in the first part and the idea in the second? The first part is an independent clause with a complete idea (e.g. “I want to travel”) while the second part is a dependent clause that does not express a complete idea (e.g. “because I love seeing new places”). The dependent clause actually begins with a subordinating conjunction so you can simply add it to the end of a simple sentence (simple sentence = independent clause) with no comma in between. In this way, you can more fluidly explain to your reader what you are trying to say.

Dependent Clause + Independent Clause

In the cases above, the independent clause came first and the dependent clause simply followed after. However, you can also write the dependent clause first as an introduction to the independent clause (simple sentence). Let’s re-arrange the example sentences above to use this structure:

After he passed the exam, the student was so relieved.
Because I love seeing new places, I want to travel.
Until you’ve found a recipe, you shouldn’t start cooking.

Notice how the clauses are the same, just in a different order. Also, there must now be a comma after the dependent clause, separating it from the independent clause.

Dependent Clause + Independent Clause + Dependent Clause

Ok, so you’ve got two different ways to use subordinating conjunctions to make complex sentences! Want a bonus round?

You can continue to connect your ideas by adding more than one dependent clause to a single independent clause. Just follow the rules for each method above to add a dependent clause to each side, as below.

After he passed the exam, the student was so relieved because he didn’t have to study any more.

Can you identify the subordinating conjunctions and each clause? The dependent clauses are in square brackets [ ] below while the independent clause is in curly brackets { }. The subordinating conjunctions are written in bold.

[After he passed the exam], {the student was so relieved} [because he didn’t have to study any more].

So, is this a compound or a complex sentence?

Remember that compound sentences must have two independent clauses and use coordinating conjunctions (from the FANBOYS set).

On the other hand, complex sentences add dependent clauses to just one independent clause and use subordinating conjunctions.

So, all the examples in this post are complex sentences.

As long as you follow the rules for each method, you can easily add more than one dependent clause to make a much longer sentence. Use this to your advantage to create variety in your sentence length. Doing so will make your writing more interesting and much more natural. However, it is possible to go too far! Make sure the meaning of your sentence is still clear: if a single sentence takes more than two or three lines, it is probably a run-on sentence and the reader may get lost in all that length. Break it back into smaller parts, but be sure each sentence expresses a complete idea (dependent clauses cannot stand alone). The trick is to use variety in your writing — a healthy mixture of short, medium, and long sentences will give you the best flow!

Let’s practice!

Look at the sentences below and identify which part is the dependent clause and which part is the independent clause. Also, identify the subordinating conjunctions and add commas in the right places.

Check your answers at the end of the page. The dependent clauses are in square brackets [ ] while the independent clause is in curly brackets { }. The subordinating conjunctions are written in bold and the commas are placed correctly.

  1. I practice English whenever my American friend comes over.
  2. While it is raining you shouldn’t go outside.
  3. If you want a job you need to write a cover letter.
  4. I go to class every day unless I oversleep.
  5. Because the teacher was so nice the weekly presentations were cancelled whenever there was an exam.
  6. Wherever you go I will follow as long as you still want to be together.
  7. Before you go abroad study the culture of your target country as much as you can.
  8. When you apply to college it is really important to write a good admissions essay in order to stand out from the crowd.

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  1. {I practice English} [whenever my American friend comes over].
  2. [While it is raining], {you shouldn’t go outside}.
  3. [If you want a job], {you need to write a cover letter}.
  4. {I go to class every day} [unless I oversleep].
  5. [Because the teacher was so nice], {the weekly presentations were cancelled} [whenever there was an exam].
  6. [Wherever you go], {I will follow} [as long as you want to be together].
  7. [Before you go abroad], {study the culture of your target country} [as much as you can].
  8. [When you apply to college], {it is really important to write a good admissions essay} [in order to stand out from the crowd].

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