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The Basics of Clauses in English

Updated on
December 16, 2020
The Basics of Clauses in English

Clauses are groups of words that contain a subject and a verb. Why should you care about them? Have you ever told someone you loved them? Or written a letter to a friend? Likely, you did it with the help of clauses. You would find your ability to communicate severely limited if you had to express your thoughts without these serviceable units of speech. Why, even asking why you should care about clauses would be impossible! Let’s take a moment to appreciate the most important types of clauses and what they do for us.

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Independent clauses

As its name indicates, an independent clause can stand on its own as a sentence. It has a subject and a verb, and it expresses a complete thought. An independent clause by itself is called a simple sentence.

I like ginger snaps. I do not like dark chocolate.

Dependent clauses

Although a dependent clause also has a subject and a verb, a dependent clause is not a complete sentence. It’s only part of a sentence; it doesn’t express a complete thought.

When I grow up Because she is afraid of the dark

These sentence fragments can’t function without an independent clause. The independent clause can come before or after the dependent clause. However, if a dependent clause comes first, it must be followed by a comma. When an independent clause and one or more dependent clauses appear together, the sentence is complex.

I want to be President when I grow up. When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter. Because she is afraid of the dark, she sleeps with a night light. She never walks alone after sunset because she is afraid of the dark.

Did you notice the words at the beginning of the dependent clauses in the examples? These words (when and because) are subordinating conjunctions. They are dependent markers, words that might help you to identify dependent clauses. If a dependent clause starts with a subordinating conjunction, it is an adverb clause. Adverb clauses (also called adverbial or subordinate clauses) provide information about the when, where, why, and how of the independent clause. Let’s revisit one of our examples:

Because she is afraid of the dark, she sleeps with a night light.

Because indicates that an explanation will follow. This adverb clause will answer a question: Why does she sleep with a night light?

Dependent clauses can also begin with relative pronouns and relative adverbs, such as who, whoever, whom, whomever, that, which, when, where, and whose. If the relative clause begins with one of these words and functions as an adjective, it is an adjective clause. Adjective clauses, also known as adjectival or relative clauses modify nouns or pronouns.

that Sally brought to the party whose wallet I found

Of course, you need the rest of the sentence to understand what they are modifying. Adjective clauses describe the nouns that precede them. Often, they answer the question “Which one?”

The cupcake that Sally brought to the party was delicious. (The adjective clause tells you which cupcake is being discussed.)

The man whose wallet I found gave me a generous reward. (The adjective clause identifies which man gave the reward.)

As you can probably guess, noun clauses are relative clauses that act like nouns. They can be the subject, object, or complement of a sentence.

Whoever invented the can opener is a genius. (This noun phrase is functioning as the subject of the clause.) I just remembered that I need to buy butter. (This noun phrase is the direct object.)

I am ready for whatever the future brings. (This noun phrase is the object of a preposition.)

Does the starting word of the second noun phrase look familiar? That, along with how, who, which, when, where, and why can begin noun and adjective phrases. The best way to tell the difference is to ask if the phrase is modifying a preceding noun.

I just remembered that I need to buy butter. (“That I need to buy butter” is not describing the pronoun “I.” Therefore, it is a noun phrase.)

The one item that I forgot to buy is butter. (“That I forgot to buy” is describing “item.” It is an adjective clause.)

Clauses are just groups of words, but you need them if you want to communicate effectively. Can you imagine trying to talk or write without using sentences? How boring would books be if there were no adverb, adjective, or noun clauses? The next time you write something or chat with a friend, remember that clauses make it possible.

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