If you are asked to dredge up the principles of grammar you learned in middle school, you might give voice to the following claims:
- An independent clause can stand alone
- A dependent clause can’t stand alone.
- A sentence fragment is an incomplete thought.
When I hear these claims from grammar unenthusiasts, I notice two things. Firstly, these facts are easy to memorize but hard to apply. They don’t provide enough practical information to help the diffident writer navigate the churning whirlpools of grammatical variation. For example, an independent clause should be defined as “a clause that can stand alone because it contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete action.” But this definition is unwieldy—arming the reader or writer with a cumbersome and tedious checklist for examining prospective clauses. Any time the reader meets a new clause, she has to conduct the following tedious interview: “OK…do you have a subject? Where is it? And do you have a verb? Where is it? Oh, and do you express a complete thought?” Like most grammatical concepts learned by rote, this definition isn’t user-friendly, so users keep only what seems to be the essential idea—an independent clause can’t stand alone.
Secondly, these claims emphasize the inherently social nature of sentences. Certain sentence parts can’t stand alone—they need friends, cohorts, stronger companions to help them feel complete. Sentences just want to get together. That’s what writing is all about.
English teachers never want to talk about the secret romances of good writing, the elicit affairs of comma splices, the close-knit relationships enabled by semicolons. They want to discuss “subjects” and “main verbs”; they would rather pontificate on the principles of coordination and subordination. But the reality is that these terms are all part of a secret code, and every English teacher has sworn this oath: “I shall never reveal to my students the intimate social underpinnings of the words they use!” With true Victorian sensibility, they cover the sensuous material of language with elaborate and evasive terminology—grammatical jargon that effectively douses the expressive desires of most writers.
Well, I’ve decided to violate the oath and bring you the secret to syntactic harmony. All the time you’ve been reading and writing, you have probably noticed a certain chemistry among sentences—an inner music, a palpable cohesion. This is the sign of healthy grammatical relationships. So how do writers keep the romance alive?
The secret to syntactical bliss lies in punctuation. But first, let’s examine the power of independence.
We call a clause independent when it has a subject and verb that create a complete story. The story will be small, but the sentence makes sense on its own. If you run into a room and declare, “Albert went to the store,” your listeners will feel a degree of satisfaction. Curious bystanders may ask, “Which store?” or “What did he get?” or even “Who is Albert again?” but you have no obligation to answer these questions. You’ve given the necessary information. Someone did something. X accomplished Y. The story, however boring, is complete. We call this sentence a simple sentence—but we can also call it a sexy single. She’s a sentence who’s got it all. She can walk down the page, unhampered by awkward modifiers and unashamed to be solitary.
And sexy singles like to hook up with other sexy singles. So if our first gal, “Albert went to the store,” meets a kindred spirit, “Betty went to the park,” they can go on several kinds of dates. If they are just getting to know each other, they will go on the grammatical first date—using a comma and a conjunction. A snapshot of their date looks like this:
Albert went to the store, and Betty went to the park.
This first date is also called a compound sentence.
As they get closer, their dates will look a little different. How are they relating to each other? If they’re clicking on several levels, they may keep that “and.” If they’re feeling contrary, they’ll trade it for a “but.” If they’re agreeing to disagree, they might use a “so.” And when things really start to heat up, they’ll invest in a really romantic piece of punctuation…the semicolon.
Albert went to the store; Betty went to the park.
Look how close and cozy they are! That semicolon allows them to settle down together on a comfortable sofa in front of a dying fire with mugs of hot cocoa. That semicolon means that she’s wearing a soft floral perfume and he’s been working out. They’re staring into each other’s eyes and talking about their childhoods. They’re leaning over a book of poetry, and one arm slips around another’s shoulders. They’re dancing cheek-to-cheek.
But the variety of their dates is infinite. They can also go out for a nice em-dash, a long hyphen that changes the mood of the situation.
Albert went to the store—Betty went to the park.
This isn’t as cozy as the semicolon, but it’s a fun time. Perhaps they’re going bowling with friends—its a date for these two, but the friends are there too. Maybe they’re at an amusement park, holding hands on the Ferris wheel. They’re at the movies, and it was her turn to pick. They’re eating Fondue, and it’s not his favorite—but he’s still having fun because they’re together.
These are all scenarios where the date is going well, but what if the date goes wrong? What if he’s on his phone the whole time or she’s talking about her previous relationships? What if the restaurant is shabby and ill-lit with dirty plates? What if, at the last second, she refuses to pay for him or he for her? What if it’s their 5-year anniversary and he takes her out for fast food? How would that look?
Albert went to the store, Betty went to the park.
We call this cheap date, this uncomfortable situation, a comma splice. Neither sentence has invested enough to make the experience pleasant. This isn’t an unexpected victory over adverse circumstances. This is a lowest-common-denominator event. This is grammatical settling, and neither sentence will be happy about it.
And what about when partners become indifferent? We call that a run-on sentence, and it looks like this:
Albert went to the store Betty went to the park.
They’re too blasé to buy any punctuation for each other. And you can forget about conjunctions; they’re just waiting for the relationship to fizzle out. Semicolons, colons, commas, conjunctions—these love-tokens strengthen relationships. But in the run-on or fused sentence, nothing holds our two singles together. They’re not moving toward each other; they’re just existing in the same space.
And what about clingy partners? Well, we call them dependent clauses because they’ve got a subject and verb but they can’t stand alone. They don’t want to be alone. They’re looking for a curvy, strong, confident clause to curl up with. Here’s our lonely single: “While I was at work.” Read it aloud and you can hear the desire for social inclusion; this clause wants to be part of something bigger. If she gets a date with one of our sexy singles (whose previous relationship dissolved because of too many run-ons), it will look like this:
While I was at work, Betty went to the park.
She’s leading our independent clause across the page, but what if the sexy single wants to lead her new, dependent partner? Their interaction will look like this:
Betty went to the park while I was at work.
When the independent clause leads the way, the sentence doesn’t need to buy a comma. The independent clause effectively clears a path for the dependent one.
It’s important to notice that these dates look different from our compound sentence dates. In these scenarios, called complex sentences, one clause gets most of the attention while the other becomes subordinate, less important. But since sentence parts love to be together, the subordinate clause doesn’t mind. Life is all about give-and-take, right? Sometimes we get to be the main clause; sometimes we have to be the subordinate clause. Sometimes we’re in the first paragraph, and other times, we’re in the footnotes.
I can’t end my description of cohesion, or sentence romance, without tipping my hat to that grammatical maverick, the sentence fragment. Edgy, unconventional, and occasionally irritating, this rule-breaker doesn’t worry about labels, dates, or promises. Fragments are just there—sitting in the corner in a beret, smoking a foreign cigarette, and reciting obscure poetry. Sometimes they breeze across your page, leaving you with only a faint hint of their exotic cologne. Sometimes you hear their husky inflections from around a corner—but you round that corner and they’re gone. They’re unpredictable. They won’t be pinned down. And most rule-following English teachers won’t even allow them in the classroom.
We call them “incomplete sentences,” because they may lack a subject or a verb. But they’re only “incomplete” if we elevate those self-reliant, intoxicating independent clauses as the gold standard for sentences, the complete package. Fragments have their place. Even if we can’t always say what that place is.
Overall, these numerous and varied sentence dates—these instances of cohesion—create a more stable relationship among all sentences. We call that larger harmony “coherence.” Coherence is when everyone is getting along, when each sentence is feeling connected and supported on all sides. Coherence is what we call the best grammar party you’ve ever been to, where the food is perfect, the music is not too loud, and the conversations are so riveting that, before you know it, you’ve spent seven straight hours talking to the same people.