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Independent and Dependent Clauses

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Introduction

Clauses are large grammatical units composed of many parts of speech. They always contain a subject and a verb, as well as any number of modifiers.

Here are some examples of clauses:

When the weather improves a bit

I love pogo sticks

Have you met my friend James?

Although in principle I like the colour mauve

Each of these clauses consists of a number of parts of speech and phrases that together make up an idea. Some of the examples can be complete sentences by themselves and others cannot.

When a clause can stand by itself it’s called an independent clause. When it has to be connected to another clause it’s a dependent or subordinate clause.

Independent clauses

Every independent clause has one subject and one verb and can stand by itself as a complete sentence. Here are a few examples:

I love online learning.

Subject: I.
Verb: love.

Tears trickled down his cheeks.

Subject: Tears.
Verb: trickled.

The cat ate the goldfish.

Subject: The cat.
Verb: ate.

While this may seem basic, the one thing that gives students trouble is when you use a coordinating conjunction to connect clauses:

Stalagmites grow up and stalactites hang down.

I couldn’t decide whether to purchase Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, so I bought them both.

In these cases you should not consider the coordinating conjunction as part of either clause. It just sits in between the independent clauses.

As you’ll read below, the opposite is true of subordinating conjunctions.

Dependent clauses

A dependent clause cannot be a complete sentence by itself. That’s because it always starts with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun:

Subordinating conjunction: when, while, although, because, since, etc.

Relative pronoun: who, which, whose, whom, what, that

Dependent clauses that start with a relative pronoun are called relative clauses.

As mentioned, a dependent clause cannot be a sentence by itself:

While I shot the sheriff

Which everyone saw

Who talked to me

Note that the relative pronoun not only connects the dependent clause, but often also acts as its subject. After all, every clause has to have a subject and a verb.

Now let’s see how we can add these dependent clauses to a sentence:

As my father used to say, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

The capybara, which is native to South America, is the largest rodent in the world.

We all combine clauses intuitively, but recognizing how it works will help you write more complex sentences.

For more information, scroll to the top of the page for a video on the three main types of dependent clauses.

Final advice

Don’t assume that if a sentence is long it must have more than one clause. Here is an example of a sentence that consists mostly of phrases:

Clauses Mudra Example

There is just one subject (and two verbs that go with it) and the rest is extra information.

As you go on to learn about specific kinds of phrases you will also get better at identifying clauses.