What Is a Clause?
A clause is a statement or a question that generally consists of a subject and a verb phrase and constitutes a complete thought. Sentences can consist of a single clause, but they often include two: a main, or independent, clause and a subordinate, or dependent, clause.
A main clause can form a complete sentence. (The preceding statement is both a clause and a sentence.) A subordinate clause, by contrast, depends on a main clause to provide the primary proposition of the sentence, which is why it’s also called a dependent clause.
“Which is why it’s also called a dependent clause” is itself a dependent clause. One could write or speak that sequence of words on its own, and listeners and readers would understand that it pertains to the previous sentence. However, in formal writing, it’s best to link such constructions to a main clause with a punctuation mark — usually a comma, though a dash can also link a main clause to a dependent clause, as it does in this sentence.
A sentence may contain two main clauses; in this sentence, a semicolon separates the two main clauses, although a dash may also be employed. Note that the semicolon could be replaced with a period — the segments of the sentence that precede and follow the semicolon could be formatted as a separate sentence. The preceding sentence could also be divided into two: One sentence could be formed from the clause preceding the dash, and another could consist of the clause following the dash.
The sentence preceding this statement shows another punctuation mark that can distinguish one main clause from another: the colon. Note, however, that in the sentence before this one, what follows the colon is a sentence fragment — “the colon” includes a subject but no verb phrase — so it contains a main clause and a dependent clause.
It’s a good thing for written communication that English allows — even encourages — dependent clauses. Otherwise, writing would consist solely of main clauses. A succession of main clauses causes reader fatigue. Engagement in a piece of text is enhanced by a variety of sentence structure. (I’ll stop annoying you with this string of main clauses now.)
In an upcoming post, I’ll describe the various types of dependent clauses and their uses.
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