Clauses and Phrases

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Commenting on “Short clauses can take commas” a reader asks

please tell me how to [understand] phrases and…clauses

A clause is a group of words that contains a finite verb (that is, a verb that indicates time such as present, past or future).

If a clause can stand alone as a sentence with a capitalized first word and a period or other end punctuation, it’s called a main clause or an independent clause.

Examples of main clauses that are also sentences:

The dish ran away with the spoon.
Baseball is a popular sport.
Many businesses have dismissed some employees.

A clause that depends upon another clause to complete its meaning is called a subordinate clause or a dependent clause.

Examples of dependent clauses:

Although the man had been warned
when you get here
because they went away

Lengthy sentences may contain an assortment of main and subordinate clauses:

Although the man had been warned, he went into the burning building in an attempt to save the children who he knew were inside.

This sentence contains four clauses:

1. Although the man had been warned
2. he went into the burning building in an attempt to save the children
3. who were inside
4. he knew

The second clause contains three verb forms, but only one is a finite verb: “went” (past tense). “Burning” is a participle form used as an adjective to describe “building.” “To save” is an infinitive used as an adjective to qualify the noun “attempt.”

The grammatical term clause is easier to define than phrase. A working definition of phrase is this one from the OED:

A small, unified group of words (in a sentence) that does not include both a subject and a predicate or finite verb

A more detailed discussion of the many meanings attached to phrase as a grammatical term will have to wait for another post.

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