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.)

clause
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.
phrase
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:

It's a question of structure, not complete meaning:

Why you need to know this stuff

It's mainly a matter of moving from immature writing style to mature writing style.

  1. 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.
  2. When you want to move beyond simplistic "Dick and Jane sentences," you need to understand dependent clauses and phrases.
  3. Understanding creatures such as periodic sentences, balanced sentences, cumulative sentences, and loose sentences requires familiarity with their pieces.
  4. 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.

More information


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: callen@ashland.edu.