How to read complex writing

Why complex writing baffles you

Students frequently believe that they are proficient readers because they have the vocabulary and ability to understand most of what they encounter. However, when they are confronted with more complex writing, they find that they get lost in the jumble of words and struggle to comprehend more abstract language. This difficulty is coupled with the failure to understand that good writers make specific choices about sentence structure and that those choices are keys to understanding.

Despite prodigious gains in territory and complete military supremacy in the Mediterranean, the Roman Republic was in crisis in the latter half of the first century BCE. Its last hundred years had been marked by constant political infighting and civil war, culminating in the victory of Augustus over Marc Antony at the battle of Actium in 27 BCE. Unlike previous victors in Roman civil wars, however, Augustus went on to provide the leadership and stability that Rome required and found a political order that would endure for centuries.

Can you understand what the author is trying to convey in this piece of complex writing? Don’t worry if you can’t, we will pick it apart later in the lesson. But first we are going to look at the clauses and phrases.

What is a Clause?

Simply, a clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate. If you reach far back into the depths of grade 6 grammar, you might remember being told that a clause has a noun and a verb. So why did I change this to a “subject and a predicate”? I did so because the nature of a sentence is more complicated that mere nouns and verbs. Certainly, some simple sentences (clauses) can be identified with a simple noun and verb, but we are looking at elevating you ability to read more sophisticated language structures. This leads to fewer and fewer simple sentences and more complex writing.

For example:

Forgetting to do your homework will result in a penalty.

Can you identify the subject of this clause? Is it a noun?

No, it isn’t. The subject is “forgetting to do your homework”. Homework isn’t the subject, forgetting is as close to a simple subject as you will get, but it is a gerund. Gerund act like nouns, but are a form of a verb.

Try this one.

Mary forgetting to complete her homework scurrying around searching for the notes.

What is the verb? There are a few: to complete, scurrying, searching

But if you are careful, you will see that none of these are finite verbs (having a tense). We have an infinitive (to complete) and two present participles (scurrying and searching). A predicate must have a finite verb. Of course, there are grammarians who will quibble with me, but I am trying to make this simple. So, for our purposes we will simply state that a predicate is a finite verb.

Download your Guide to SAT Reading: Global Conversation Passages.

There are 4 Types of Clauses

Understanding the difference between the 4 types of clauses is crucial to understanding what you are reading and being able to write well. We will start with the main 2 and look at the other two later in the lesson.

  1. Independent Clause

An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence.

The unforgiving wind buffeted against my face.

  • Dependent Clause

A dependent clause has the elements of an independent clause, but it also contains a “subordinator.” Subordinators make the clause read as unfinished because it feels as if there is more information to come.

If I return to that particular café with its dark corners and comfortable booths

When I was notified of the error that had altered my college decisions

The subordinators are “if” and “when”. The above are dependent clauses and thus are fragments. They cannot stand alone because the idea is incomplete.

Notice that if we remove the subordinators, both sentences are now independent clauses and take on a slightly different meaning.

Now, let’s look at a complex sentence (a sentence composed of an independent and dependent clause) written in a number of ways. They all say the same thing, but to practiced writers some are better expressions that others.

I went to the store after I had learned of his death.

After I had learned of his death, I went to the store.

Before I went to the store, I had learned of his death.

I had learned of his death before I went to the store.

Style Rule for composing sentences

Information in an independent clause should be more important that that in the dependent clause.

So, which is more important? I went to store or I learned of his death? Without any context, it is safe to assume that learning of someone’s death should be more important than going to a store. This makes the sentences that place going to the store weaker because if feels as if the emphasis is in the wrong place.

Independent                           Dependent

I went to the store after I had learned of his death.

Dependent                                                      Independent

After I had learned of his death, I went to the store.

However, if we imagine that the author is emphasizing that the narrator is in shock and then proceeds to list the mundane tasks that have been performed after learning of the death. We can make one of two inferences about the narrator. He/she is either callous to the death or is shocked to point of working on auto-pilot.

If we look at the other 2 structures, which in general would be considered better sentences, we can see that the emphasis is placed on the important information. But what is the difference if the independent clause is placed first or second?

Before I went to the store, I had learned of his death.

I had learned of his death before I went to the store.

Ideally the most important information will come last in the sentence.  The first example seems stronger because the writer is saving the best for last. That sentence builds up to the big event for maximum impact. The second version seems to be just emphasizing when the author learned of the death.

So, you have 4 sentences that mean the same thing, but have different emphases and implications. It is this level of subtlety that you must be able to discern while reading a sophisticated passage such as those on the SAT…and we haven’t even touched on phrases yet.

Link to blogpost about using articles to improve SAT Reading Skills
Use Articles to improve your SAT Reading

Relative Clauses

Relative Clauses are a type of dependent clause. They can usually be identified because they start with a relative pronoun: that, which, who, whom, whose. However, sometimes they can be reduced and drop the relative pronoun. In this case they are always surrounded by commas and so are easy to pick out of a sentence. There are two types of relative clauses: integrated and supplemental and complex writing uses them to create long complicated sentences.

Integrated Relative Clause

As its name implies an integrated relative clause is part of a clause.

The many men who have chosen to join the gym have seen improvements to their cardiovascular health.

Supplemental Relative Clause

These clauses are surrounded by commas indicating that the information is less important.

The many men, who have chosen to join the gym, have seen improvements to their cardiovascular health.

What is a Phrase?

Technically a phrase is any group of words that fills a grammatical slot within a sentence and multiple phrases is a hallmark of complex writing.

For Example:

Shy and quiet Mary listened carefully to the adults in the kitchen.

Shy and quiet Mary= Noun Phrase

Listened carefully=Verb Phrase

To the adults= Infinitive phrase

In the kitchen= Prepositional phrase

However, for our purposes we are going to focus of a few types of phrases whose function is to modify the main elements in clauses.

In the example above “in the kitchen” is a prepositional phrase. Is it very important to know where the adults were? Probably not. The Independent clause is the most important information and so we should pay the most attention to it. The main idea here is that “Mary listened to the adults” and everything else is just details.

Some common modifying phrases

  • Adjective phrase
  • He gave me a book full of poetry.
  • Anna visited the cold and dank castle.
  • Adverb Phrases
  • He rapidly and rapturously ran through the stacks amazed at the selection in the library.
  • The boy and his puppy played contentedly.
  • Prepositional Phrases (function as adjective phrases or adverb phrases)
  • Into the dark hole, we peered nervously.
  • Amy and Emily studied by the light of the fire.
  • Participial phrases
  • I received a letter, notifying me of my library fines.
  • The chair, made of the finest hardwood and softest silk, is too expensive.
  • Absolute phrases
  • His face peering down at me, Frank looked angry.
  • Lynda, her arm in a sling, had obviously had an accident.
  • Appositive Phrases
  • The nominee for Woman of the year, the Right Honorable Judy Walters, could not attend the ceremony.
  • The English Patient, winner of the Booker Prize, is a better movie than it is a book.
Link to SAT Reading Guide for Literature Passages
Click here to get a free guide to SAT Literature Passages

Hierarchy of Clauses and Phrases in complex writing

  1. Independent Clauses
  2. Dependent Clauses
  3. Integrated Relative Clauses
  4. Prepositional phrases
  5. Supplemental Relative Clauses
  6. all other phrases adding details to the sentence

Example:

Because she had encountered a variety of obstacles in her short life, Anna possessed coping skills, which she is more than happy to pass on, that enable her to find humour during disasters.

  • Dependent Clause                                           #2

Because she had encountered a variety of obstacles

  • Prepositional Phrase                                       #4

In her short life

  • Independent Clause                                        #1

Anna possessed coping skills

  • Supplemental Relative Clause                          #5

,which she is more than happy to pass on,

  • Integrated Relative Clause                              #3

         that enable her to find humour during disasters.

Summary- Anna has coping skills because she has had a hard life.

Identify the clauses and phrases

Place them in hierarchical order

Summarize the Main Points

Recognize how the details add clarity but may not be crucial to initial comprehension

How does understanding the hierarchy of clauses and phrases lead to overall comprehension in complex writing?

Authors make choices about which elements are most important, and being able to identify the key ideas and de-emphasize lesser ideas leads to greater comprehension.

Remember that passage from the beginning? Let’s apply this hierarchy to it and see if it is clearer.

Despite prodigious gains in territory and complete military supremacy in the Mediterranean, the Roman Republic was in crisis in the latter half of the first century BCE. Its last hundred years had been marked by constant political infighting and civil war, culminating in the victory of Augustus over Marc Antony at the battle of Actium in 27BCE. Unlike previous victors in Roman civil wars, however, Augustus went on to provide the leadership and stability that Rome required and found a political order that would endure for centuries.

Despite prodigious gains in territory and complete military supremacy in the Mediterranean, Dependent Clause

the Roman Republic was in crisis Independent Clause

in the latter half of the first century BCE. Prepositional Phrase

Its last hundred years had been marked by constant political infighting and civil war Independent Clause

culminating in the victory of Augustus over Marc Antony at the battle of Actium in 27 BCE. Participial Phrase

Unlike previous victors in Roman civil wars, however, Participial Phrase/Transition

Augustus went on to provide the leadership and stability Independent Clause

that Rome required Relative clause

and found a political order that would endure for centuries. Independent Clause (part of the previous independent clause)

If you just read the independent clauses, you will get a clear picture of the point of the paragraph.

Elevate your score by using Process of Elimination

Raise your Reading Score

Get step by step guidance to improve your SAT reading

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.