Independent and Dependent Clauses


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.

Independent clauses

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.

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 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.

Dependent clauses

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.

Implied Clauses

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.

Non-Finite Clauses

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.

1. Infinitive.

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.

Verbless Clauses

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.

The Structure of Clauses


In our first lesson on clauses we explained that every clause needs at least a subject and a verb. In addition, if a clause can be a sentence by itself then we call it an independent or main clause. If not, it’s a dependent or subordinate clause.

In this section we will look at the main ways in which a single clause is put together. These patterns apply to independent and dependent clauses.

Key Patterns

Subject + Verb

The simplest sentences contain at least a subject and a verb:

You drive.

They laughed.

In these examples the verbs are intransitive because they lack a direct object.

Subject + Passive Verb

The verb can also be in the passive voice:

A deal was made.

The Robinsons were shipwrecked.

Subject + Verb + Direct Object

If the verb is transitive, it can take a direct object. The direct object is the noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb:

Jen boarded the double-decker bus.

Eugene and Quentin played hide and seek.

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object .

If the clause has a direct object, it can also have an indirect object. The indirect object is the noun or pronoun for or to whom the action is done:

He gave me a compliment. (to me)

Bob taught Gary some dance moves. (to Gary)

Indira bought her friend some flowers (for her friend)

Note that the preposition to or for is left implied.

Subject + Linking Verb + Subjective Complement

If your verb is a linking verb, it will be followed by a word that describes the subject. We call this word (and its modifiers) the subject complement.

Sometimes the subject complement is an adjective:

She seemed angry.

The trout tasted great.

At other times the complement is a noun:

Karen was a cheerleader.

The Oilers are a scrappy hockey team.

If you want the technical terms, we call these complements predicate nouns and predicate adjectives.

Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Objective Complement

If you’ve just read about the subject complement, you will be happy to know that the objective complement works the same way—the only difference being that it describes the direct object:

Sometimes the objective complement is an adjective:

The coach called the loss embarrassing.

Hannah found her dinner and her boyfriend cold.

At other times the objective complement is a noun:

Management named Cindy Rella the new coach.

The disaster left Jerry a nervous wreck.

There or It + Linking Verb + Subject

The final pattern inverts the regular order of the sentence:

There is hope.

It is a good sign.


The patterns found on this page will help you understand the structure or skeleton of individual clauses. Of course, when you read actual sentences these patterns will not show up as clearly. You will have to disregard phrases and modifiers that add colour to the sentence. With a bit of practice, however, you will be able to see how each clause is put together.