What Is a Clause?

By Mark Nichol

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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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6 Responses to “What Is a Clause?”

  • Curtis

    That second-last paragraph was enlightening. I’ve seen writing in that style, and couldn’t put my finger on why it irritated me. Thanks.

  • thebluebird11

    Writing consisting of solely main clauses is probably good for technical pieces, instructions (e.g. how to put something together), or explaining very complicated things, as it helps a reader stay on track, follow along step by step or idea by idea. But for normal reading, yes, the mind needs more of a relaxing flow, not a choppy, regimented style.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Here is an awful example sentence with a misplaced modifier:

    “Megan Fox displays her sexy legs in a gorgeous purple dress with a nice slit up the side wearing high heels.”

    Yes, the slit in her evening gown is wearing high heels.

    Note that I have already sent a comment to the writer about his babbling with words like “gorgeous”, “amazing”, and even “unreal” over and over again. So, he wants to describe someone like Kate Winslet as having an “unreal” figure, when there is a photograph of her right there, an we can see her figure. Very questionable.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Sentences can consist of a single clause, but they often include two: a main, or independent, clause and a subordinate, or dependent, clause.”

    Well, there is more to it than that, and it wasn’t explained completely further on, either. I will give two simple examples of the use of two independent clauses connected by the words “and” or “or”.

    1. She took the pill and then she went to bed.
    2. I fell down the stairs or I have been run through a cement mixer. I feel that bad, doctor!

  • Dale A. Wood

    “A clause is a statement or a question that generally consists of a subject and a verb phrase…”

    I argue that a clause ALWAYS contains a subject and a verb phrase.
    The main difference is that the subject can be an understood subject, but nevertheless, it is still there. This is true in the imperative mood first of all. For example, “Jump!” really means “You jump!”

    If the reply is “How high?”, you could argue reasonably that this is not a clause, or you could argue that this is a clause with an ellipsis, and it means “How high do you want me to jump?”

    “To be, or not to be?” is actually a set of clauses with ellipses in them. The subject is an understood subject, the speaker, namely Hamlet.

    When it comes to the Bard of Avon, I actually prefer this one very much: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d.”
    “It falls like the gentle rain from Heaven, upon the place beneath.”

    In German, there is an informal form of the imperative mood, and in that one, the subject is implied, just as it is in English. We received this form of the impertive via Anglo-Saxon-Jute.
    However, in German there is a formal form of the word “you” (very commonly used) which English abandoned long ago. It is “Sie”, always capitalized, and used in both the nominative and objective cases.
    Going with this is the formal form of the imperative mood. For example, we could say, “Springen Sie!” = “You jump!” or “Fahren Sie!” = “You drive!” (because I am just too tired to drive anymore.)
    German also has the dative case, which English abandoned long ago, and in it the dative form of “Sie” is “Ihnen”.
    So, when you are asked “Wie geht es Ihnen?”, this means “How are you?”, but the German form requires the dative case.
    A good answer could be “Es geht mir gut,” which means “I am doing well,” but the pronoun “mir” is in the dative case. I am glad that we have disposed of all of this dative case business in English!

    “Wie geht es Ihnen?”, even has an abbreviated form, which is “Wie geht’s?”. It is odd to me when whole sentences need abbreviated forms. “Macht’s nichts,” means “It doesn’t make any difference.”

  • Scott Mellon

    I notice that TV and radio news programs are avoiding subordinate clauses lately, which produces a very strange effect, as if they are speaking to children, and perhaps they think they are.

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