Independent Clauses: The Nuclei of Writing

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It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of a large essay, and many students find it a challenge to break the writing down into manageable parts. Then on top of that, a lot of students with LDs have a hard time putting their thoughts and ideas on paper. If this is the case, the result can be large paragraphs of unfinished and unorganized ideas in the form of run-on sentences. If you are nodding your head in agreement, this article may be helpful in your efforts to break this ineffective and frustrating writing cycle. For starters, it’s always a good idea to begin your writing process with an outline in order to plan out your essay before you start to write, but there are other articles on this website that talk about those steps in more depth. What I want to cover here is the actual act of putting the text on paper when it’s time to write your paragraphs. Actually, to be more specific, this article focuses on structuring individual sentences. Yes, we are going down to the nuclei of your essay because, no matter how good your ideas are, without understanding how to transfer your thoughts into words, you can’t write that A-worthy paper. So let’s talk independent clauses!

Note: I am not going over all the different grammatical elements that are required to make a proper sentence in much detail, such as subject and verb/predicate usage. You know that stuff, even if you don’t think you do. My goal is to merely help you get your thoughts on paper and turn them into complete college-level sentences.

Don’t freak out if the term ‘independent clause’ sounds foreign or scary. It’s just a fancy grammar term for a simple sentence. However, I’m going to use the term so it will start to seem familiar and you won’t be thrown off by the lingo if you ever come across it in a college-level English class. Independent clauses, or simple sentences, are the building blocks to any paper. If you can master this basic element, your ideas for essays will become infinitely easier to put into words.

Clauses are a group of words that express a complete thought. That’s it. The sky is blueSlavery is badRomeo and Juliet is a tragedy. See? They are simple sentences that express thoughts and facts. The most basic independent clause you can write will begin with a subject: The sky. Then you finish the clause with a verb (this can be an action or a state of being) and a predicate, which completes the idea about the subject. We will call this verb/predicate combo the thought or fact portion of the sentence. For Example: is blue, creating the complete sentence The sky is blue.

Slavery is bad.

Subject: Slavery, Thought/fact: is bad.

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy.

Subject: Romeo and Juliet, Thought/fact: is a tragedy.

The sun warms the earth.

Subject: The sun, Thought/fact: warms the earth.

He believed they would find gold.

Subject: He, Thought/fact: believed they would find gold.

If you are ever finding yourself in writer’s block on an essay, just write simple sentences like these to put your main objectives down on paper first. Don’t feel discouraged if your first draft of a paragraph seems like it was written by a second grader. It’s just the first draft, not your final paper. No one has to see it but you. Then once you feel like your main points are roughly said in the order you wanted, you can go back and add more detail (the who, what, when, where, why, and/or how) and get a little fancier with the group of words you use to construct your sentences (level-up on your vocab usage). By the mid-1800s it became clear to most of the U.S. that slavery was immoral. This sentence shares a lot more than the simple statement of slavery is bad. It provides a when, where, and who as well as the essential subject of slavery and thought/fact that it is bad or immoral. However, no matter how fancy a sentence gets, you should always be able to shrink it back down to a simple subject and thought/fact. The rest is just added detail to enhance your paper. If you can’t break it back down, then you don’t have a complete sentence and need to revise. It’s as simple as that.

Whether performed in the Globe Theatre of London or on Broadway in New York, Romeo and Juliet is considered around the world to be one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies.

Subject: Romeo and Juliet, Thought/fact: is considered a tragedy.

Remember that clauses consist of a group of words that express a complete thought. The word ‘complete’ is extremely important to understand. One of the biggest ways you will lose points on a paper is by having incomplete thoughts scattered throughout your essay. For example, Since Romeo and Juliet could not know anything. This is a classic example of a dependent clause (meaning it can’t stand on its own as a complete sentence) being used as an independent clause. Your professor will take points off for not forming a proper sentence, completing your thought, or making a clear point. The easiest way to revise the sentence would be to take out the word ‘since’ because that is what makes it a dependent clause instead of an independent clause. Romeo and Juliet could not know anything. Subject: Romeo and Juliet, Thought/fact: could not know anything. This is now a complete and grammatically correct sentence.

However, to get the sentence a little more college-level worthy, we need to get rid of the word ‘anything’ because it is too broad to make a good thought or fact. I would try to avoid using those kinds of broad terms altogether because your reasoning for including the sentence is unclear and doesn’t help you create a strong paper. A fuller and clearer sentence would be, Romeo and Juliet could not know that their love was doomed. And if you wanted to make it an even more elaborate sentence, you could revise it yet again to say Romeo and Juliet could not know their ill-fated love would be the cause of their untimely deaths. That is a complete thought and gives more substance to your sentence as well as your whole paper.

On the flip side, there is a balance to adding details to your independent clauses. If you add too much, you run the risk of turning your sentences into run-ons, which are two or more complete thoughts mushed together without punctuation. For example, The sun is the reason there can be life on Earth and without the sun the planet would be a frozen waist land so it is clear that we exist in a very delicate balance. Although this text is very elaborate and contains both thoughts and facts, without the proper punctuation it is a jumbled up mess that will cost you dearly on a college-level essay. So how can we make this grammatically correct? First off, take a minute to determine what you really want the focus to be on—the sun?  If so, what is the overall thought/fact you want to make about the sun? [It] is the reason there can be life on Earth. Okay, so let the sentence The sun is the reason there can be life on Earth be your main focus. Both It is a very delicate balance that we live in and without the sun the planet would be a frozen waist land are separate, yet relevant, thoughts about the sun. One of several ways to correctly revise this run-on would be The sun is the reason there can be life on Earth. This means we live in a very delicate balance because without the sun the planet would be a frozen waist land. Do you see how I use punctuation and a connecting word to arrange the extra details in a way that supports the main subject? This process will get easier the more you practice, and eventually it will become second nature.

Remember to always start your writing process with an outline, then if you are still struggling with how to structure your individual paragraphs, use your outline topics to fill your first draft with very basic sentences (independent clauses). Then you can go back through and transform those simple independent clauses into longer, more eloquent sentences. After all, that’s what the revising process is for. With each pass, you can make your sentences more rich and colorful with information and thoughts about your topic. Each paragraph will then become full and elaborate, and paragraphs are what your whole paper is made of! So one independent clause at a time, like one foot in front of the other, and your thoughts will begin to race from your fingertips and onto the page.