Posted by: suekenney | August 12, 2013

Susan’s Editorial Dictionary: C is for Clause

No, no, not Claus as in Santa Claus – CLAUSE.  It’s a “unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate,” according to one dictionary I checked.  That’s the key: always a subject and predicate, or verb.  There are two types, dependent and independent.  As you can easily guess, a dependent clause cannot stand on its own as a sentence, and an independent clause can. Every true or complete sentence has at least one independent clause.

I say “true or complete sentence” because writers will often use sentence fragments instead of complete sentences, generally as a way to either emphasize something or to break up some sort of action or narrative for various effects.

A sentence can also have more than one independent clause, thus making it a compound sentence, and any number of dependent clauses, making it either a complex sentence, if there’s only one independent clause, or compound-complex, if there are multiple independent clauses.

Dependent clauses are commonly introduced by what are called subordinating conjunctions:  words like when, while, because, after, provided (that), etc Some subordinating conjunctions can also function as prepositions, such as after or before. The key is to see if the word is followed by only an object, making it a preposition, or by a subject and verb, making it a clause.

Some examples are in order.

John married Isabel last July.  (John = subject, married = verb, so this is an independent clause.

Before John married Isabel in July.   (John = subject, married = verb as above, so it’s a clause, but they are preceded by the subordinating conjunction before, thus making it a dependent clause)

Before the wedding.  (Here before has to be a preposition because it’s followed only by wedding and its modifier, but no verb, so it’s a prepositional phrase.)

Before John married Isabel last July, he moved into a new apartment.  (Getting more complicated here.  We’ve got John = subject, married = verb, but we also have he = subject, moved = verb.  Both parts are clauses, but since John married is preceded by before, a subordinating conjunction, it’s a dependent clause.  Dependent clause + independent clause = complex sentence.)

John and Isabel moved into a new apartment after they were married, and their friends gave them a housewarming party.  (John/Isabel = compound subject, moved = verb; they= subject, were married = verb; friends = subject, gave = verb.  Since they were married is preceded by the subordinating conjunction after, that is a dependent clause.  So we have independent clause + dependent clause + independent clause = compound-complex sentence.)

So the main thing to remember with clauses of either sort is that they have subjects and verbs.

Another key to whether a clause is dependent or independent, when you can’t quite remember all those lists of subordinating conjunctions, is to see how the clause looks when standing alone.  An independent clause finishes a thought; it sounds complete.  But a dependent clause tends to leave you hanging: further information is needed to complete the thought.

John married Isabel.  (A complete thought – end of story.)

Before John married Isabel.  (You find yourself wondering, “Well, what happened before John married Isabel?”  You need more information to complete the thought.)

So, that’s CLAUSE in a nutshell.  When I was teaching English grammar several years ago (see? dependent clause!), I might spend days or weeks trying to cram all the nuances of clauses into my poor students’ aching heads.  Here you’ve only had about 580 words and maybe 15 minutes of reading time – and no tests!


  1. Reading your blog makes me laugh. I read it and think about how I wrongly do the things you write about. I like how it helps me remember the correct way of writing. Now if only I would follow it.

    • Thanks. Glad I can provide some humor. Trust me, even as a former teacher and an editor, I still do plenty of incorrect things with grammar. I try to catch them, but not always successfully. And even amongst grammarians, there’s plenty of dissension. So whatever you do, you’re bound to find someone who approves. And some of your photographs say far more than mere words, however grammatically correct, could ever say. I enjoy following your photographic adventures.

  2. This is great

    • Thanks, Mary! Glad you like it.

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