Core Grammar #2: Clauses
Pieces that make up our sentences
First, a few basic definitions¹ (By the way, there's some technical language coming here. If you don't understand a word, don't panic. Just look it up in the grammar handbook or a common dictionary.)
- A group of words that includes a subject and a verb.
- dependent clause (also called a subordinate clause)
- A clause that cannot stand alone structurally as a complete sentence and needs to be attached to an independent clause. A dependent clause begins with a subordinating word such as because, if, when, although, who, which, or that: When it rains, we can't take the children outside.
- independent clause
- A clause that has a subject and predicate and is not introduced by a subordinating word. An independent clause can function as a complete sentence. Birds sing. The old man was singing a song. Hailing a cab, the woman used a silver whistle.
- A group of words that lacks a subject or predicate and functions as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb: under the tree, has been singing, amazingly simple.
Look again at those definitions
Not a matter of length or complexity:
- Independent clauses can be quite short: Jon ran.
- Dependent clauses can be very long: Although the research lab is hidden from the road by a pine forest, an eight-foot chain link fence topped with razor wire, a guard booth, and eight vicious attack dogs.
- Length isn't part of the definition of a phrase either.
It's a question of structure, not complete meaning:
- Independent clause with almost no meaning in itself:
- Each wanted it.
- Each what? Child? Horse? What's "it"? A hat? A bale of hay? The only way this can mean anything is to be set in a context that gives antecedents to those pronouns.
- Dependent clause with lots of meaning (note what the blue word does to it):
- When I get home from a hard day at the book warehouse, kick off my shoes, pour myself a tall glass of cola, and settle into my beat-up old plaid chair to watch a movie.
- There is a meaning question: what happens when I get home? This very long dependent clause never gets around to being a main sentence.
- Even though a phrase lacks elements of a sentence, it can convey complete meaning too: Lasagna, my favorite food
Why you need to know this stuff
It's mainly a matter of moving from immature writing style to mature writing style.
- When you're trying to straighten out grammar errors such as sentence fragments, comma splices, and fused sentences, you need to know how clauses and phrases fit together.
- When you want to move beyond simplistic "Dick and Jane sentences," you need to understand dependent clauses and phrases.
- Understanding creatures such as periodic sentences, balanced sentences, cumulative sentences, and loose sentences requires familiarity with their pieces.
- When you begin to write complex sentences (that's the technical term for a sentence with one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses), your style will be stronger if you are in the habit of carrying your main meaning in your independent clause.
¹Raimes, Ann. Keys for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
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Revised 8/10/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.