Clauses are not scary, I promise

Hello grammar lovers! I know it’s been a while since last we spoke, but I’m happy to say that it’s because I got much busier with work. I did miss you all, though, and I wanted to kick things back into gear by clarifying a term that gets tossed around a lot in the grammar world but that I know confuses many people. That term? Clause.

Like many bits of grammar, you use clauses all the time without knowing what they are called. You can’t help it, because clauses are the building blocks of sentences. They’re more than a phrase, and sometimes, but not always, less than a sentence. There are four types of clause, but each of them always contains both a subject (so that’s a noun) and a verb (sometimes called a “predicate,” goodness only knows why). If it doesn’t have both of those elements, it’s a phrase or a fragment.

The first kind of clause is called an independent clause, because it’s the only kind that is also a standalone sentence. It uses a subject and a verb plus some other words to create a complete thought. Here are some examples of independent clauses:

  • Shelly goes out.
  • He was tired.
  • They made a cake.

The second category is a dependent clause, because (no surprises here) it needs to hang out with another clause in order to form a complete sentence. These are sometimes called subordinate clauses because they contain a subordinate conjunction, such as “because.” A dependent clause might look something like these:

  • Whenever John goes to school
  • Because he doesn’t like candy
  • As it was only noon

Clearly, these are not complete thoughts. What happens when John goes to school? Why is it important that he doesn’t like candy? Don’t leave us hanging like that! Dependent clauses cannot stand alone; they need an independent clause to make them whole. (What did the independent clause say to the dependent clause? “You complete me.”)

Therefore, adding a dependent clause to an independent clause gives us a complete thought, like so:

  • Because he doesn’t like candy, they made a cake.
  • As it was only 7 a.m., he was tired.
  • Whenever John goes to school, Shelly goes out.

The third kind of clause is a relative clause, so named because it contains a relative pronoun (who/whom, whose, which, that).  It also needs an independent clause in order to form a complete sentence. Some examples of relative clauses:

  • That the dog ate
  • When it was ready
  • Whose socks had fallen off

Alone, these mysterious bits of language only hint at the full story. Added to an independent clause, they make more sense:

  • It was her pizza that the dog ate.
  • They cut the cake when it was ready.
  • Everyone laughed at Julie, whose socks had fallen off.

The last clause type is the noun clause, which is a clause that can replace a noun in a sentence. For example, in the sentence “I love socks,” you can replace the noun socks with the noun clause “those things on Julie’s feet” and the sentence still makes sense. Here’s another example:

  • I baked him a cookie. (Cookie is the noun we will replace.)
  • I baked him a sweet delicious round treat.

“Sweet delicious round treat” is the noun clause, because it functions as the noun in the second sentence.

Four types of clause. Only one can survive on its own. Tune in next week for the finale of…



*I know, I promised you they weren’t scary! Bad blogger. No cookie for me.

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