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Clauses in English: Meaning and usage with examples

When learning or teaching English, we often hear about ‘clauses’. But what is a clause? Is a clause a sentence? In this post, perhaps a little ambitiously, I’m going to try to give you an outline and examples of common types of clauses that you might encounter in English, and give you an idea of how to understand and use them. I say ambitious, because there are lots of different kinds of clauses, used in lots of different ways, and there’s no way a simple summary could hope to capture them all. The topics that I’ll try to cover in this post are:

Simple clauses

The simplest clauses are the same as the simplest sentences. These are most often a series of words that follow the pattern subject-verb-object or just subject-verb.

Subject-verb-object: Timmy hit a home run

Clauses example sentence tree 1: Timmy hit a home run

Subject-verb-object: Timmy won the game

Clauses example sentence tree 1: Timmy hit a home run

Some verbs, called intransitive verbs, don’t need an object, and for others an object is optional (ambitransitivity). Transitivity in verbs will be a post of its own one day, but for now, we understand that in some clauses you won’t need an object.

Subject-verb: Timmy won

Clauses example sentence tree 3: Timmy won

Subordinate and dependent clauses

Every grammatically correct English sentence must contain at least one complete clause, called the sentence’s main clause. The simplest of sentences are one main clause followed by a full stop. However, a complex sentence can contain more than one clause. In these sentences, one is the main clause, the core idea that the sentence conveys, and the other clauses are all subordinate clauses that somehow clarify, elaborate, or modify the main clause. Subordinate clauses are often connected to the main sentence by words called subordinators.

Main and subordinate clause: Timmy hit a home run and won the game.

 

Clauses example sentence tree 1.1: Timmy hit a home run and won the game

The subordinator determines how the subordinate clause connects to the main clause, and what part of it it is modifying. In the above example, and is a conjunction between the two verb phrases, ‘hit a home run’ and ‘won the game’, meaning that both of the verb phrases connect directly with the main clause’s object, ‘Timmy’. (Don’t worry too much about conjunctions and verb phrases right now, they’ll be explained in depth in later posts.) Importantly, the clause ‘won the game’ is not a complete sentence: it doesn’t, on its own, have a subject (since it uses ‘Timmy’ from the main clause as its subject). When a clause can’t stand as a sentence on its own, it’s referred to as a dependent clause.

A different subordinator would change the meaning of the subordinate clause:

Different subordinator: Timmy hit a home run that won the game.

Clauses example sentence tree 1.2: Timmy hit a home run that won the game.

Changing the subordinator to that means ‘won the game’ now attaches to ‘a home run’, making it a part of the noun phrase, and in fact, it’s technically now a part of the main clause:

Clauses example sentence tree 1.3: Timmy hit a home run that won the game.

Relative pronouns and subordinating conjunctions

That, as in the example above, is a special kind of subordinator called a relative pronoun. We call them this because, like other pronouns would, they fill the subject position of a clause by giving it a relationship to a head noun from the main clause of the sentence. There are lots of relative pronouns, each of which connects a dependent clause in a different way to a noun. It’s difficult to make a complete list of any category of words in English, but you’ll find some useful relative pronouns below. Some of these are rarely used and a little obscure, so I’ve given each a link to a definition so you can explore further:

Other words that link a subordinate clause to a sentence’s main clause are often called subordinating conjunctions. The list of subordinate conjunctions is almost endless, as you can always find a way to create a new subordinating conjunction phrase, but here are some common ones that you might use:

Subordinating conjunctions

AfterAlthoughAsAs ifAs long as
As much asAs soon asAs thoughBecauseBefore
But thatEven ifEven thoughHowIf
Inasmuch asIn order thatLestNo matterNow that
OneProvidedProvided thatRather thanSince
So thatSupposingThanThoughTill (or ‘til)
UnlessUntilWhatWheneverWhere
WhereasWhereverWhetherWhileWhy

Other kinds of clauses

Where a clause performs as an adverb in the sentence, it is sometimes introduced with a subordinating conjunction:

Adverb clause: Before something terrible happens, I’d like to know the emergency procedures.

Clauses example sentence tree 5.1: Before something terrible happens, I'd like to know the emergency procedures

Adverb clause: I’d like to know the emergency procedures before something terrible happens.

Clauses example sentence tree 5.2: I'd like to know the emergency procedures before something terrible happens.

Where a clause is the subject or object of a sentence, it forms a special kind of noun phrase called a noun clause.

Noun clause: I explained what the emergency procedures are.

Clauses example sentence tree 4: I explained what the emergency procedures are.

A clause might be working as an adjective within a noun phrase, modifying a head noun. This would, of course, be an adjective clause.

Adjective clause: The emergency exit is the end of the hallway where the sign is.Clauses example sentence tree 6: The emergency exit is the end of the hallway where the sign is.

Independent clauses

You’ll often see a complex sentence in English with more than one complete clause, each of which could be a sentence. Any clause that is a grammatically correct sentence is an independent clause.

Independent clauses: Timmy hit a home run, the game was won, and he went for ice cream afterwards.

Clauses example sentence tree 1.4: Timmy hit a home run, the game was won, and he went for ice cream afterwards.

Independent clauses: Before I knew what was happening, the fire alarm went off.

Clauses example sentence tree 2: Before I knew what was happening, the fire alarm went off.

Obviously, any clause which forms the main clause of a sentence must be an independent clause as well. If it isn’t, you have an incomplete sentence, or a sentence fragment.

Summary

It’s hard to summarise what clauses are, because as you can see, clauses are a lot of things, and appear in a lot of ways. But there’s one handy rule of thumb I’ve always found helpful: if a series of words has at least one verb and at least on noun phrase, then it’s pretty safe to call it a clause, and use it in any of the ways listed here. You’ll usually make sense, and usually be understood. Which, really, is the best any of us can ever hope for anyway!

Has this post given you clause for concern, or clause for celebration? Let me know in the comments!

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