Clauses are large grammatical units composed of many parts of speech. At the core they generally 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 is called an independent clause. When it has to be connected to another clause, it is a dependent or subordinate clause.
An independent clause normally has a subject and a main verb and can function as a complete sentence. Here are a few examples:
I love online learning.
Tears trickled down his cheeks.
The cat ate the goldfish.
Subject: The cat.
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 betwen 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.
A dependent clause cannot be a complete sentence by itself. That is because it starts with a word that connects to a main clause. Often the word is 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.
A dependent clause, then, 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.
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.
Note that in the second example the dependent clause interrupts the main clause and provides more information about a noun phrase (“The capybara”).
We all combine clauses intuitively, but recognizing how it works will help you write balanced and complex sentences.
In addition to the regular clauses discussed so far, we sometimes come across sentence elements that function like clauses but are missing a clear subject or verb. It may be helpful to think of these as hidden or implied clauses (though neither is strictly a technical term). Typically these are dependent clauses, and they come in two kinds: non-finite and verbless.
Regular clauses have a finite verb as the main verb. A finite verb can be conjugated for different subjects and can show tense. For example, notice how the verb changes in form when we write “I swim,” “he was swimming,” and “they swam.”
By contrast, non-finite verbs do not change form. In our Parts of Speech section, we used the word “verbals” for non-finite verbs, and although grammarians argue about terminology, all we need to know is that they are roughly the same.
Non-finite clauses, therefore, do not contain a regular verb but include an infinitive, present participle, or past participle. In each case, there is no other verb (as in “he was swimming”) that would make the verb phrase finite.
There are four types of non-finite clauses.
The main thing is to look confident.
Mentally we can reconstruct the non-finite clause as “he looks confident.” Even though the subject is missing and we have an infinitive (“to look”), we can recognize the similarity to a clause.
2. Bare Infinitive.
A slight variation is the bare infinitive, where the word “to” is left out:
He bade me go home right away.
3. Present Participle.
In the following sentence we can easily imagine that the opening clause could be written as “Since he tied the knot”:
Since tying the knot, John oozes confidence.
4. Past Participle.
Finally, in this non-finite clause we do have a subject (“canal”), but a past participle (“frozen”) instead of a regular verb:
With the canal frozen over, I am skating to work.
It should be pointed out that it can be difficult to decide if something is a non-finite clause or just a phrase. The two overlap significantly, so it may depend on what grammatical function you are focusing. For example, in the sentence “I love skiing” it is generally better to treat “skiing” as a gerund that forms the core of a noun phrase. That makes more sense than treating it as an entire non-finite clause.
The main take-away is that if a non-finite verb (and surrounding words) functions like a dependent clause, then you may want to classify it as such.
Another implied clause is one where the verb is missing:
With her ex-husband in jail, Mary felt free as a bird.
Most verbless clauses are missing some form of “to be.” We could easily write “When her ex-husband was in jail,” or even “With her ex-husband being in jail.”
The main thing to remember is that a clause normally has a subject and a verb. It can either be a complete sentence by itself (independent clause) or needs to be attached to another clause (dependent clause). Sometimes we also have clauses that are missing some elements (like verbs) or use a non-finite verb instead of a finite one. In our quizzes we will ignore these exceptions, but it is helpful to be aware of them.