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How to combine sentence structures to boost your essay writing skills

A while ago, I wrote a post about using complex sentences in the IELTS writing exam. As this post was a popular one, I thought I would return to the idea of writing varied sentences in essays and how to do this successfully. Please note that although I may refer to IELTS throughout this post, the same principles apply to all exam writing!

To illustrate how to use a variety of sentence structures, I am going to provide you with two versions of the same paragraph. I'll analyse each in turn and use the paragraphs as a tool to highlight how you can incorporate a wider range of structures in your writing. You might like to refresh your memory about sentence types before reading this post......

The IELTS question is taken from Cambridge IELTS exam book 4:

Happiness is considered very important in life.

Why is it difficult to define?

What factors are important in achieving happiness?

I'm going to answer the second question using a three-ideas paragraph structure. Both paragraphs have five sentences.

Version One - the simple version

People can find happiness in their lives in many ways. Firstly, it is important to spend quality time with people such as our friends and family. In addition, pursuing a fulfilling career can also bring us contentment and satisfaction. For example, people such as teachers or nurses earn less money but often report higher job satisfaction than higher-earning people such as bankers. Finally, the quality of our environment also impacts positively on our emotional and mental state.


Sentence 1: simple sentence

Sentence 2: simple sentence

Sentence 3: simple sentence that starts with a gerund (a noun with an -ing)

Sentence 4: compound sentence - two independent clauses joined with but

Sentence 5: simple sentence

There is nothing wrong with this paragraph! It is accurate and answers the second question, although not in much depth. However, let's compare it to Version Two....

Version Two - the complex version

There are several ways people can find happiness in their lives. Firstly, spending quality time with people we love such as our friends and family is important as it is one of the best ways to create true and meaningful happiness. In addition, when we pursue a fulfilling career, feelings of contentment and satisfaction are triggered and these are of great importance. For example, although bankers may earn high salaries, people in lower paid work such as teachers often report higher job satisfaction due to the impact their work has on others. Finally, the quality of our environment also impacts positively on our emotional and mental state; locations with green spaces are known to generate a better emotional state.

Sentence 1: complex sentence with a reduced relative clause (there are several ways that people....)

Sentence 2: complex sentence that starts with a gerund, has a reduced relative clause (with people that we love) and has another clause joined with the conjunction as

Sentence 3: compound-complex sentence using a conditional (when....,....) with another clause following and

Sentence 4: complex sentence beginning with although

Sentence 5: compound sentence joined with a semi-colon (;)

You should be able to see that the second version is far more sophisticated grammatically, even though the ideas are exactly the same. This is why in exams like IELTS, your ability to write well is far more important that your ability to generate 'clever' ideas. My ideas are not particularly original; I have written about them using sophisticated language. So, if you are working for CAE, CPE or a higher IELTS score, you need to be able to integrate the kinds of sentence I've highlighted in Version Two. It's fine to mix complex and simple sentences together, but you do need to have a range of structures in your writing at higher levels!

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