29) Clauses in detail

Clauses

A clause is a group of two or more words which work together and has a subject and a verb interacting with each other. Because of this subject-verb relationship, some clauses are able to complete a full thought.

There are two types of clauses:

1) Main / independent clause

A main clause is a group of two or more words which contains a subject and a verb and which can stand alone as a complete thought, or sentence. For example:

I love Chinese food.

The subject is ‘I’, the verb is ‘love’ and it stands alone as a statement. In the above example, the clause is also a simple sentence.

However, when there are two, or more, clauses, they can be seen as separate main clauses. In this situation they can be joined together in various ways. Probably the most common way to join them together is by using a coordinating conjunction – the most common of which are ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘for’, ‘nor’, ‘or’ ‘so’ and ‘yet’. The function of a coordinating conjunctions is to join two words, phrases, or clauses of equal standing together.

For example:

I love Chinese food, and I am very hungry now.

Here we have two main clauses linked together by the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. The two main clauses are:

i) I love Chinese food (subject: ‘I’, verb: ‘love’)

ii) I am very hungry now (subject: ‘I’, verb: ‘am’)

Together, they make up a compound sentence. We will look at simple, complex and compound sentences later on in this section.

Another way to join them together would simply be by using a semi-colon as in:

I love Chinese food; I am very hungry now.

In some circumstances the semi-colon might have a conjunctive adverb placed after it, and followed by a comma, as in:

I love Chinese food; furthermore, I am very hungry now.

As we discussed earlier, it is generally considered wrong to just use two commas in this situation, as in:

I love Chinese food, furthermore, I am very hungry now. (incorrect)

Or to just use one, as in:

I love Chinese food, furthermore I am very hungry now. (incorrect)

It is also common to see two main clauses like this broken up, with the conjunctive adverb at the beginning of the second sentence, as in:

I love Chinese food. Furthermore, I am very hungry now.

The other way to link these two clauses of equal importance is to use a correlative conjunction, which takes a combination of coordinating conjunctions, and other words, to link constructions of equal standing. For example:

I both love Chinese food and I am very hungry now.

Here we have the correlative conjunction construction ‘both/and’ linking the main clause ‘I love Chinese food’ with the equal standing main clause ‘I an very hungry now’.

There is just one more thing to note: if we replaced the coordinating conjunction with a subordinating conjunction, the second clause goes from being a main clause, to a subordinate one, as in:

I love Chinese food because I am very hungry now.

Here we have the main clause ‘I love Chinese food’ – which can stand alone – with the subordinate clause ‘because I am very hungry now – which cannot stand alone. We look at subordinate clauses next.

2) Subordinate / dependent clause

A subordinate clause is a group of two or more words which has both a subject and verb, creating a subject-verb relationship, but isn’t able to express a complete thought. In most cases, a subordinate clause will need a main clause to complete the thought. For example:

John passed the exam with flying colours although he had forgotten everything a week later.

Here the subordinate clause ‘although he had forgotten everything a week later’ needs the main clause ‘John passed the exam with flying colours’ to make a complete thought. The subordinate clause has a subject ‘he’ and a the verb phrase ‘had forgotten’ which is forming a subject-verb relationship. Despite this, it doesn’t work as a complete thought alone, as can be shown by looking at it alone:

although he had forgotten everything a week later

This is actually an unfair comparison to main clauses because back in that example I split them up with the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ taken out. Let’s do that here, but with the subordinating conjunction ‘although’ taken out:

1) John passed the exam with flying colours

2) he had forgotten everything a week later

The problem here is that ‘he had forgotten everything a week later’ has lost some of its meaning now that the subordinate conjunction is gone, whereas taking away the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ in the earlier main clause example didn’t make the sentence lose anything. We can probably see this best by comparing the original sentence in this question, with the above 2 clauses separated by a full stop, to show they are now being considered separate:

John passed the exam with flying colours although he had forgotten everything a week later.

John passed the exam with flying colour. He had forgotten everything a week later.

Note how the ‘although’ tells us something a little extra about the subordinate clause ‘although he had forgotten everything a week later’. It is making the link that even though he did really well in the exam, all the knowledge disappeared. In a subtle way, it is implying that the training he did for the exams didn’t really involve real learning.

Perhaps a more clear example is:

Jane enjoyed mathematics after she left school. 

Jane enjoyed mathematics. She left school. 

Note how the subordinate conjunction ‘after’ is vital here in creating a link between the two. This means that the subordinate clause ‘after she left school’ is dependent on the main clause ‘John enjoyed mathematics’.

Another way of comparing the two is to leave the coordinating or subordinating conjunctions in, then try splitting it up into two sentences. So note that we can do that with coordinating conjunctions at the head of clauses, as in these examples:

I love Chinese food, but I am not very hungry right now.

I love Chinese food. But I am not very hungry right now.

 

The gig was really fun, and I got to meet the band after.

The gig was really fun. And I got to meet the band after.

 

We will move to New Zealand this year, or we will stay where we are for good.

We will move to New Zealand this year. Or we will stay where we are for good.

However, we can’t do that with subordinating conjunctions at the head of clauses:

Jane enjoyed mathematics after she left school. 

Jane enjoyed mathematics. After she left school. (incorrect)

 

John passed the exam with flying colours although he had forgotten everything a week later.

John passed the exam with flying colours. Although he had forgotten everything a week later. (incorrect)

 

We will move to New Zealand if I can get a job.

We will move to New Zealand. If I can get a job. (incorrect)

This is interesting because coordinating conjunction led clauses/simple sentences like:

But I am not very hungry right now.

And I got to meet the band after.

Or we will stay where we are for good.

clearly have some level of dependency on the previous sentence, but they can perhaps be thought of more as transitional words to link one sentence to the next.

Meanwhile, the subordinating conjunction led clauses which don’t work as simple sentences:

After she left school. (incorrect)

Although he had forgotten everything a week later. (incorrect)

If I can get a job. (incorrect)

do seem to have a stronger need for a main clause; they feel much more incomplete.

Have a good think about what you consider the difference. Do you agree with the use of the terms coordinating and subordinating conjunction?

Subordinate clauses can begin with a subordinating conjunction, relative pronoun and relative adverb. Let’s look at subordinate clauses beginning with a subordinating conjunction first.

2.1 Subordinate clauses beginning with a subordinating conjunction

There are many subordinating conjunctions. Here are some common ones:

after

although

because

before

if

since

unless

until

whereas

while

There are also some that come as phrases, such as:

even though

rather than

as long as

provided that

so that

Subordinating clauses can be at the beginning of a sentence, as in:

Since he started studying, his mind feels more sensitive.

Here we have the subordinating clause ‘Since he started studying’ which begins with the subordinating conjunction ‘since’. It is a clause because it has a subject (‘he’) and a verb (‘started’) and is subordinate because it doesn’t stand alone as a complete thought. This can be shown by having it alone, as in:

Since he started studying

What it needs is a main clause. When we add the main clause, ‘his mind feels more sensitive’ we get a complete thought:

Since he started studying, his mind feels more sensitive.

Like all subordinating conjunctions, ‘since’ sets the clause up to need that extra main clause. No matter how much we add on to the end of a subordinating conjunction, the only way to complete the thought is through a main clause. For example:

Since he started studying mathematics, physics, literature and history, and travelling widely across the world while learning many languages

Despite the length of this subordinate clause, it still isn’t a main clause because it is not able to express a complete thought; it needs that main clause as in:

Since he started studying mathematics, physics, literature and history and travelling widely across the world while learning many languages his mind feels more sensitive.

This feels much more complete now; it is like the thought has been finished. This is because the subordinating conjunction ‘since’ sets up what follows to need to connect with a clause that can stand alone (main/independent clause). Once you get a main clause like this, as in ‘his mind feels more sensitive’, the thought becomes complete because this clause is able to stand without needing any further point. To show this, look at the main clause alone, imagining it as a full sentence:

His mind feels more sensitive.

Now compare to what it feels like if we add a subordinate conjunction in front of it:

although his mind feels more sensitive

This is asking for what that ‘although’ is referring to: although what? A main clause can complete this, such as:

Although his mind feels more sensitive, he still offends people without realising it.

Also note that a subordinate clause would not complete the thought. Try adding a clause beginning with one of the subordinate clauses from the list above and see how these won’t complete the thought.

An example of a subordinating clause at the end of a sentence is:

I am still hungry even though I just ate a meal.

Here we have the subordinate clause ‘even though I just ate a meal’ which begins with the subordinating conjunction ‘even though’. It is linked to the main clause ‘I am hungry’.

2.2 Relative/ Relative sentential clauses

Relative clauses are dependent clauses which are called so because they are introduced by a relative pronoun, or relative adverb. The relative pronouns are:

that

which

whichever

who

whoever

whom

whomever

whose

of which

The relative adverbs are:

when

where

why

There are two main types: those that modify a single word or phrase (relative clause) and those which refer to, or modify, a clause, or a series of clauses (relative sentential clause). Let’s look at them next.

2.2.1) Relative clause: those which modify a single word, or phrase

A relative clause is one which begins with a relative pronoun or relative adverb and modifies a single word, or phrase.

For example:

The football pitch that is uneven is most difficult to play on.

Here we have an example of a relative subordinate/dependent clause (‘that is uneven’) modifying the noun phrase ‘the football pitch’ – and therefore working as an adjective. It is made up of the relative pronoun subject ‘that’ + the verb ‘is’ + the predicate adjective ‘uneven’. This subject-verb relationship means it is a clause, but it is a subordinate clause because it cannot stand alone as a complete thought. This can be seen by looking at it alone:

that is uneven

As was previously mentioned, subordinate clauses need main clauses to express a complete thought. We could think of:

The football pitch is most difficult to play on.

as the main clause if we like. In this way, the subordinate clause ‘that is uneven’ is inserted in the middle to modify part of it, working as an adjective.

Another example is:

The football pitch, which is owned by the local council, is difficult to play on.

Here we have the relative clause ‘which is owned by the local council’ which is modifying the noun phrase ‘the football pitch’ – and therefore working as an adjective phrase. Note it has the pronoun subject ‘which’ and the verb phrase ‘is owned’ giving it a subject-verb relationship, but it cannot stand alone as a complete thought:

which is owned by the local council

We could think of:

The football pitch is difficult to play on.

as the main clause which completes the thought again.

An example beginning with a relative adverb is:

Your new street, where I have been to many parties, is over there.

Here we have the relative clause ‘where I have been to many parties’ modifying the noun phrase ‘your new street’ – and therefore working as an adjective. Note it has the relative adverb ‘where’ at the beginning, but this isn’t the subject like the relative pronouns where. Instead we have the pronoun subject ‘I’ + the verb phrase ‘have been’ giving it a subject-verb relationship. By looking at it alone we can see that it needs more words to complete it:

where I have been to many parties

We can think of:

Your new street is over there.

as the main clause it is being dependent on.

The relative adverb isn’t generally the subject in these clauses, but, as we have seen, the relative pronoun sometimes is.

To clarify though, sometimes, as with the relative adverb example above, we have subject + relative pronoun + verb as in:

The garden, which I fell asleep in, is full of mosquitoes.

Here we have relative pronoun (‘which’) + subject (‘I’) + verb (‘fell’).

To clarify, the three common constructions are:

1) relative pronoun subject + verb

e.g., ‘The football pitch that is uneven is most difficult to play on.’

relative pronoun subject (‘that’) + verb (‘is’)

 

2) relative pronoun + subject + verb

e.g., ‘The garden, which I fell asleep in, is full of mosquitoes.

relative pronoun (‘which’) + subject (‘I’) + verb (‘fell’)

 

3) relative adverb + subject + verb

e.g., ‘Your new street, where I have been to many parties, is over there.’

relative adverb (‘where’) + subject (‘I’) + verb (‘have been’)

Let’ look at the other type of relative clause next: relative sentential clauses.

2.2.2 Relative Sentential Clauses: those which refer to, or modify, a clause, or a series of clauses

When a clause is introduced by a relative pronoun or relative adverb, and refers back to, or modifies, a clause, or a series of clauses, it is often called a sentential clause. The word ‘sentential’ can be defined as:

“pertaining to or of the nature of a sentence.”

My guess is the term ‘sentential’ is used because the sentential clause refers back to a clause, or a series of clauses, as a whole, rather than modifying a single word class. This means that the sentential clause is adding something to the entire clause / series of clauses which informs us about the ‘nature’ of the sentence. An example would be:

The mountains were beautiful, which made him not want to leave.

Here we have the relative sentential clause ‘which made him not want to leave’ being introduced by the relative pronoun ‘which’ and referring back to the main clause ‘the mountains were beautiful’. The clause ‘which made him not want to leave’ is a clause because it has a subject-verb relationship. The subject is ‘which’ (which refers back to the idea that the mountains were beautiful – this could be said to be ‘pertaining to’, or be ‘the nature of’, the sentence, as in the definition of ‘sentential’) and the verbs are ‘made’ and ‘want’. The clause ‘the mountains were beautiful’ is a main clause because it has the subject-verb relationship between the subject ‘the mountains’ and the verb ‘were’ as well as being able to stand alone as a complete thought.

An example of a sentential clause referring back to multiple clauses is:

John will be going travelling for a year tomorrow, and his brother will be leaving for university the day after, which is why everyone is getting together for a big goodbye party.

Here we have the relative sentential clause:

which is why everyone is getting together for a big goodbye party

which is referring back to the main clause:

John will be going travelling for a year tomorrow

and the other main clause:

and his brother will be leaving for university the day after.

It is also being introduced by the relative pronoun ‘which’. Let’s break down these clauses:

John will be going travelling for a year tomorrow

This is a main clause because it has a subject-verb relationship, and can stand alone as a complete thought. The subject is ‘John’ and then we have the verb phrase ‘will be’.

and his brother will be leaving for university the day after

This is another main clause because it has a subject-verb relationship and can stand alone as a complete thought, as long as we remove the coordinating conjunction ‘and’. The subject is ‘his brother’ and the verb is ‘will be’

which is why everyone is getting together for a big goodbye party.

This is a relative sentential clause because it is introduced by a relative pronoun, ‘which’, and has a subject-verb relationship. One subject is ‘which’, and its verb is ‘is’. It refers back to the aforementioned two clauses, telling us about something which is occurring because of them.

An example with the relative pronoun as the subject is:

The party was actually fun, which was a pleasant surprise.

Here we have the relative pronoun subject ‘which’ + the verb ‘was’ in the relative sentential clause ‘which was a pleasant surprise’. This is subordinate to the main clause ‘the party was actually fun’.

An example with an adverb is:

When people are able to live for much longer, over-population may become an even bigger issue.

Here we have the relative adverb ‘when’ + the subject ‘people’ + the verb ‘are’ giving the relative sentential clause ‘when people are able to live for much longer’, which is subordinate to the main clause ‘over-population may become an even bigger issue’.

Can relative sentential clauses ‘modify’, rather than ‘refer’?

Can relative sentential clauses ever be thought of as modifying another clause, or series of clauses. Or should we stick to saying they ‘refer’ to them? 

One example I can think of where ‘modify’ might be more appropriate is in relation to a noun clause, which is something we will see later. A noun clause is a clause which has the function of a noun, as in:

The man is whatever he wants to be.

Here ‘whatever he wants to be’ is working as a predicate noun renaming the noun phrase ‘the man’. We can replace it with a pronoun:

The man is it.

We could then put in a relative sentential clause to modify this noun clause, as in:

The man is whatever he wants to be, which is a pilot. 

In what way could ‘which is a pilot’ be said to be modifying the noun clause ‘whatever he wants to be’? In my mind, it is renaming it in the same way that a predicate noun, or an appositive noun, might. So ‘whatever he wants to be’ is being renamed as ‘which is a pilot’, or, perhaps, just ‘a pilot’. So the subject of the relative sentential clause, ‘which’, could be said to be referring back to, or representing, the noun clause ‘whatever he wants to be’, and then the rest of the relative sentential clause (‘is a pilot’) could be said to be working with the sort of construction we usually see predicate nouns at the end of, with a linking verb ‘is’ and then a noun phrase ‘a pilot’. In this way, ‘whatever he wants to be’ could be said to have been renamed as ‘a pilot’, in a similar way to a predicate noun, or appositive noun. Have a grapple with this and see if you agree, or disagree.

Another example relates to this adjective clause:

Do you remember my birthday when we got lost in the national park?

Here ‘when we got lost in the national park’ is working as an adjective clause by modifying the noun phrase ‘my birthday’.

We could then put in a relative sentential clause to modify this adjective clause, as in:

Do you remember my birthday when we got lost in the national park, which was a careless thing to do? 

How is ‘which was a careless thing to do’ modifying the adjective clause ‘when we got lost in the national park’?

The first instinct might be to say that we are looking at an adjective (‘when we got lost in the national park’) being modified, and, seeing as only adverbs can modify adjectives, ‘which was a careless thing to do’ must be an adverb.

In this way, we could say that ‘which was a careless thing to do’ is working as an adverb of manner, modifying the adjective phrase ‘when we got lost in the national park’, in a similar way to the way the adverb ‘carelessly’ does in the sentence:

Mary is happy carelessly.

Here the adverb ‘carelessly’ is modifying the adjective happy’. ‘Happy’ is a predicate adjective here modifying the noun ‘Mary’ via the linking verb ‘is’.

So this line of thinking says that our relative sentential clause (‘which is a careless thing to do’) is changing the adjective clause (‘when we got lost in the national park’)  to mean something like:

when we carelessly got lost in the national park.

As was alluded to earlier, one point on the side of this is it is usually only adverbs which can modify adjectives, and that is what is being proposed with this explanation.

However, there is another way of looking at this: that is in the same way as before where our relative sentential clause is renaming the adjective clause, in the same way that a predicate noun, or an appositive noun, would. That is to say that ‘when we got lost in the national park’ is being renamed as ‘a careless thing to do’. Again, the subject ‘which’ could be said to be referring back to, or representing, the adjective clause ‘when we got lost in the national park’, and then the rest of the relative sentential clause (‘was a careless thing to do’) could be said to be working in a more traditional predicate noun construction, with the linking verb ‘is’ and the noun phrase ‘a careless thing to do’. In this way, ‘when we got lost in the national park’ could be said to be renamed as ‘a careless thing to do’, and therefore working as a predicate noun / appositive noun. 

Have a think about whether you agree with either of these explanations: this is a great exercise for questioning some of the definitions we have learn throughout.

2.2.1 Restrictive vs Non-restrictive clauses

There is another distinction that can be made between relative clauses: this is between those which are called restrictive/essential/defining clauses, and those which are called non-restrictive/non-essential/non-defining. Let’s look at these two types next.

1) Restrictive/essential/defining clauses

Restrictive clauses are so called because the subject is said to be ‘restricted’ in some way. For example:

The football pitch that is uneven is most difficult to play on.

Here, the subject ‘the football pitch’ is being restricted to a particular one ‘that is uneven’. Consequently, he restrictive clause is ‘that is uneven’. We called this a subordinate clause previously, and we can still keep this name, along with it being a restrictive clause. Note that it says ‘most difficult to play on’, suggesting, out of a whole group of football pitches, this particular one ‘that is uneven’ is the one being talked about. In this way, we are restricting the subject to this particular one. They are also sometimes called ‘essential’ or ‘defining’ clauses because the fact this pitch is ‘uneven’ is an ‘essential’ and ‘defining’ piece of information about this subject. If we took it away, and ended up with ‘The football pitch is most difficult to play on’ it loses something fundamental about its meaning – that is, the reason why the pitch it difficult to play on.

Restrictive clauses are often used on ambiguous nouns, like ‘the football pitch’ to restrict them to a particular one, rather than on specific ones like ‘Arsenal’s football pitch’.

The important rule to remember here is that the essential clause, in this case ‘that is uneven’, is generally not surrounded by commas; doing this would turn it into a non-restrictive clause, as we will see next.

2) Non-restrictive/Non-essential/Non-defining clauses

Non-restrictive clauses are so called because the subject is not being ‘restricted’. For example:

The football pitch, which is uneven, is difficult to play on.

Here, the subject ‘the football pitch’ is not being restricted by being called ‘uneven’. Therefore, the non-restrictive clause is ‘which is uneven’. Note that  the extra bit of information is non-essential and non-defining, it is almost like saying:

The football pitch (which, by the way, is uneven) is difficult to play on.

This probably isn’t the best example, but I just wanted to show that you can have very similar words, but different meanings based largely on placing the commas there. The reason I say it isn’t the best example is because the football pitch being uneven is likely to make it difficult to play on – so it would probably be written in the restrictive way. A better example might be:

The football pitch, which is owned by the local council, is difficult to play on.

In this situation, the fact it ‘is owned by the local council’ isn’t obviously related to it being difficult to play on. If we take away this fact, we don’t lose too much fundamental information, as in:

The football pitch is difficult to play on.

Again, it is like saying:

The football pitch (which, by the way, is owned by the local council) is difficult to play on.

A common use for non-restrictive clauses is when the noun being modified is non-ambiguous. So, for example, instead of ‘the football pitch’ it would be:

Arsenal’s football pitch, which is in London, is being repaired.

In this situation, we know which football pitch it is, so the clause is non-restrictive because it is not essential, identifying or restrictive. All it is doing is giving some extra ‘by the way’ type information.

The important rule to remember is that the non-essential phrase in this case ‘which is uneven’ or ‘which is owned by the local council’ is generally surrounded by commas; taking away these commas would make it a restrictive clause.

For comparison, here are the two clauses next to each other:

Restrictive: The football pitch that is uneven is most difficult to play on.

Non-restrictive: The football pitch, which is owned by the local council, is difficult to play on.

2.2.3 Relative clauses can work as nouns, adjectives and adverbs

Relative clauses can work as nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Let’s look at examples of this next:

2.2.3.1 Noun clauses 

Before we start here I should point out that noun clauses work in a slightly different way to the other relative clauses. They do begin with a relative pronoun, or relative adjective, but they don’t always modify other parts of the sentence in the same way that adjective and adverbial relative clauses do. The times they do modify are when they are performing the action of renaming as predicate nominatives/nouns, appositive nouns and object complements; essentially, they are just subordinate/dependent clauses that begin with a relative pronoun, or relative adverb, and function as nouns.

Because they are nouns, this means they can be subjects, objects, predicate nouns / nominatives, object complements and appositives. Let’s look at examples of each of these.

Noun clause as a subject

An example of a noun clause as a subject is:

Whoever wrote that book is a very perceptive person.

Here we have the noun clause ‘Whoever wrote that book’ which is the subject of the sentence ‘Whoever wrote that book is a very perceptive person.’ We can tell it is a noun by replacing it with a noun, or a pronoun as in:

John is a very perceptive person.

He is a very perceptive person.

The noun clause ‘Whoever wrote that book’ is a clause because it has a subject – the relative pronoun ‘whoever’ – and a verb – ‘wrote’. However, there is something interesting going on here.

The noun clause:

Whoever wrote that book

is not a complete thought; it feels like it needs something added on to the end of it to finish the thought. This makes it a subordinate clause. And yet, look at the construction it is linked to: ‘is a very perceptive person’. The usual rule is that a subordinate clause needs a main clause to be able to function as a complete thought, but ‘is a very perceptive person’ is not a main clause. Let’s look at this construction more closely:

is a very perceptive person

The first question to answer is whether this is actually a clause at all. It has the linking verb ‘is’ and then the noun phrase ‘a very perceptive person’. Is this the subject? Well, in the overall sentence ‘Whoever wrote that book’ is the subject, ‘is’ is the linking verb and ‘a very perceptive person’ is actually working as a predicate nominative, which is basically a noun which complements the subject, renaming it in some way. However, when it is isolated as ‘is a very perceptive person’ we could think of it differently. In this situation, it is definitely very hard to make the case that it is a clause because  there is no subject-verb relationship. This would mean that the best definition that we could give it is a phrase. However, it is interesting that it doesn’t appear to fit into any of our phrase categories because it is just a verb (‘is’) + a noun phrase (‘a very perceptive person’). That doesn’t really make the sort of coherent phrase we are used to.

However, we can get rid of a lot of this just to be even clearer that noun clauses can be linked to things other than other clauses. For example:

Whoever wrote that book is perceptive.

It is very hard to make the argument that ‘is perceptive’ is a clause, because, while it has the verb ‘is’, there is no subject. Again, it is not really a coherent phrase because it is made up of a verb (‘is’) + an adjective (‘perceptive’) – it being an adjective is even arguable because the noun that ‘perceptive’ is modifying (‘whoever wrote that book’) is not actually within it when we pull ‘is perceptive’ out. This means we have to rethink our definition of a subordinate clause for these circumstances. We have to add the caveat that noun relative subordinate clauses are sometimes able to link with other constructions (such as ‘is perceptive’) to complete a thought. I suppose this does make sense because these noun clauses are just acting as nouns, so they will respond to everything around them in the same way a noun does – and nouns don’t need subordinate clauses to make a complete thought; they just need a verb, as in the noun:

John

being able to be completed with the verb ‘swims’:

John swims.

Noun clause as a direct object

An example of a noun clause as a direct object is:

Jane hopes that Ben will call her tonight.

Here the subordinate clause ‘that Ben will call her tonight’ is the object of the verb ‘hopes’. It is a clause because it has the subject-verb relationship seen between the subject ‘Ben’ and the verb phrase ‘will call’. This time, it is linked to the main clause ‘Jane hopes’ which has the simplest main clause construction possible: the subject ‘Jane’ and the verb ‘hopes’. Some might argue that it is a subordinate clause, but I think ‘Jane hopes’ can stand alone as a sentence, in the same way that ‘John swims’ can. We can replace the noun clause with a pronoun, to check it is a noun:

Jane hopes it.

This sounds a little awkward. Perhaps a better example would be:

Jane believes that the book will be good.

Jane believes it.

Noun clause as an indirect object

An example of a noun clause as an indirect object is:

The school will give what you presented their full attention.

Here we have the noun clause ‘what you presented’ working as the indirect object behind the direct object noun phrase ‘their full attention’. It is a subordinate relative clause because it begins with the relative pronoun ‘what’, and has the subject ‘you’ and its verb ‘presented’. It also cannot stand alone as a complete thought, shown by its reliance on the main clause ‘The school will give their full attention.

Remember, we find the indirect object by finding the direct object first with this formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

which gives:

The school will give what?

The answer is ‘their full attention’ – the direct object.

Then we find the indirect object with the following formula:

subject + verb + direct object + ‘to/for what?’ or ‘to/for whom?’

which gives:

The school will give their full attention to what?

The answer is ‘what you presented’ – the indirect object.

It can be replaced with a pronoun:

The school will give it their full attention.

Noun clause as predicate noun / nominative

A predicate nominative is a noun which renames the subject and is linked to it by a linking verb. An example of a noun phrase working as a predicate nominative is:

The man is whatever he wants to be.

Here we have the subject ‘The man’ being renamed by the noun clause ‘whatever he wants to be’ via the linking verb ‘is’. It is a clause because it has the subject ‘he’ and its verb ‘wants’. Is the construction this clause is linked to a phrase, clause or something else? The construction I am talking about is:

The man is

It has a subject (‘the man’) and a verb (‘is’) so it should probably be considered some sort of clause. One could make the argument that it is a subordinate clause because it really feels like it needs something added on the end to complete it. However, one could also make the argument that ‘the man is’ is a main clause because it can stand alone like ‘John swims’ or ‘Jane delivered’. What do you think? I think the thing is not to stress too much with these questions, but rather to enjoy trying to figure out a way to describe them that is consistent, or, perhaps more to the point, useful and illuminating.

To conclude, we can replace with a pronoun as in:

The man is it.

Noun clause as object of preposition

An example of a noun clause as the object of a preposition is:

At lunch we argued about what was going to be for dinner.

Here we have the noun clause ‘what was going to be for dinner’ working as the object of the preposition ‘about’. It is a clause because it has the subject ‘what’ and its verb ‘was’, and it is a noun because it is working together to name the argument about dinner. We can replace it with a noun and pronoun, as in:

At lunch we argued about dinner.

At lunch we argued about it.

Noun clause as object complement

An example of a noun clause as an object complement is:

You can name the dog whatever you want.

Here we have the object complement noun clause ‘whatever you want’ working to rename the direct object of the verb phrase ‘can name’ – which is ‘the dog’. It has a subject (‘you’) and its verb (‘want’), but it can’t stand alone, instead relying on the main clause ‘you can name the dog’.

To find the direct object we use this formula:

subject + verb + what/whom?

This gives:

You can name what?

The answer is ‘the dog’ – which is the direct object. We can then see that ‘whatever you want’ is renaming ‘the dog’.

We can replace it with a pronoun:

You can name the dog anything.

Noun clause as an appositive

An example of a noun clause as an appositive is:

His birthday, which is today, is his 90th.

Here we have the noun clause ‘which is today’ renaming the subject ‘his birthday’. Is this a noun or an adjective? I would say a noun clause because the subject is ‘which’, and this ‘which’ is referring to ‘his birthday’. Therefore, in my opinion, ‘which is today’ is renaming ‘his birthday’ as ‘today’, not just giving it an extra descriptive quality.

It is a bit awkward to replace this with a pronoun:

His birthday, it, is his 90th.

This often seems to be the case with appositive nouns though.

2.2.3.2 Adjective clauses

An adjective clause is a group of two or more words which has a subject-verb relationship and which works as an adjective by modifying a noun, or pronoun.

There are two common constructions we will see with adjective clauses (we saw these as 3 earlier at the end of relative clauses)

1) Relative adverb/pronoun + subject + verb

The relative adverbs are ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘why’. Here is an example of each introducing an adjective clause:

The school where the new houses were built has just got an extension.

Here, the adjective clause ‘where the new houses were built’ has the relative pronoun ‘where’ + the noun phrase subject ‘the new houses’ + the auxiliary verb ‘were’ + the verb ‘built’. It is modifying the noun phrase ‘The school’. I have not put commas around it because I am treating it as a restrictive clause, as it is important in identifying the school. If we made the noun less ambiguous, it might have commas around it, for example:

King’s secondary school, where the new houses were built, has just got an extension.

Now the adjective phrase is not essential to defining the noun phrase ‘King’s secondary school’ because it has already been named as a specific school. We no longer need the adjective clause to restrict the secondary school to a particular one. Instead, it is giving us an extra detail.

Another example is:

Do you remember my birthday when we got lost in the national park?

Here we have the adjective clause ‘when we got lost in the national park’ which is modifying the noun phrase ‘my birthday’. It is made up of the relative adverb ‘when’ + the pronoun subject ‘we’ + the verb phrase ‘got lost’ + the prepositional phrase ‘in the national park’.

I have placed it as a restrictive clause because the birthday has not been specified. A non-restrictive version would be:

Do you remember my 21st birthday, when we got lost in the national park?

Now that the birthday is specified, the adjective clause can be offset with a comma as a non-restrictive clause. This is a subtle difference that you might disagree with. I quite like it because it shows that ‘when we got lost in the national park’ is a bit less important in defining the birthday due to having the specific ’21st‘ there to tell us which one it is. This can be proven more strongly by taking away the adjective clauses in both of these examples:

Do you remember my birthday?

Do you remember my 21st birthday?

Note how the first example is really ambiguous: which birthday does he mean? However, the second example is much less ambiguous: it is his 21st one (not that I remember what I did on people’s birthdays – or even my own.)

The last example of a relative adverb is:

Tell me the reason why the economy is failing.

Here we have the adjective clause ‘why the economy is failing’ modifying the noun phrase ‘the reason’. It is made up of the relative adverb ‘why’ + the noun phrase subject ‘the economy’ + the verb ‘is’ + the present participle ‘failing’. One interesting point is that the noun phrase ‘the reason’ can actually be removed, to prevent repetition (known as tautology) as in:

Tell me why the economy is failing.

An example of a relative pronoun + subject + verb is:

The professor whose beard had something living in it was eccentric.

Here we have the adjective clause ‘whose beard had something living in it’ modifying the noun phrase ‘the professor’. It is made up of the relative pronoun ‘whose’ + the noun ‘beard’ + the verb ‘had’ + the pronoun ‘something’ + the present participle ‘living’ + the  prepositional phrase ‘in it’. A non-restrictive version might be:

Mr Smith, whose beard had something living in it, was eccentric.

2) Relative pronoun as subject + verb

Relative pronouns are also able to work as subjects themselves. An example with the relative pronoun as the subject + the verb is:

Ben and Jane argued over the window seat that gives the best view.

Here we have the adjective clause ‘that gives the best view’ working as an adjective by modifying the noun phrase ‘the window seat’. It is made up of the relative pronoun ‘that’ working as the subject + the verb ‘gives’ + the noun phrase ‘the best view’.

2.2.3.3 Adverb clauses

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Therefore, adverb clauses are a group of two or more words which modify a verb, adjective or adverb and have a subject-verb relationship. They are also subordinate clauses because they cannot stand alone as a complete thought. Another couple of things which help one to recognise an adverbial clause is that they often start with a subordinating conjunction, and they very often work as adjuncts – meaning they can be removed from the sentence and it will still be grammatically appropriate.

We broke down adverbs into simple and conjunctive earlier. Let’s compare adverbs that are one word, with adverb phrases and adverb clauses. Let’s do this with adverbs of time and place.

Adverbs of time

Adverbs of time modify a single word, phrase or clause by answering the question ‘when?’ Let’s look at an adverb, adverb phrase and adverb clause next to each other:

She will arrive today.

She will arrive in an hour.

She will arrive before he sings the song.

Here we have the adverbial clause ‘before he sings the song’ working as an adverb by modifying the verb ‘arrive’. It is made up of the subordinating conjunction ‘before’ + the pronoun subject ‘he’ + its verb ‘sings’ + the noun phrase ‘the song’. Note how all three of these examples are modifying the verb ‘arrive’ and answering the question ‘when will she arrive?’.

Adverbs of place

Adverbs of place modify a single word, phrase or clause by answering the question ‘where?’ Let’s look at some examples:

John is miserable here.

John is miserable in here.

John is miserable wherever he is.

Here we have the adverbial clause ‘wherever he is’ modifying the adjective ‘miserable’. It is made up of the subordinating conjunction ‘wherever’ + the pronoun subject ‘he’ + the verb ‘is’. Note how all three are modifying the adjective ‘miserable’ to answer the question ‘Where is John miserable’?

2.2.4 Elliptical clauses

Elliptical clauses are clauses where a subject, verb or both subject and verb, has been left out because they can be deciphered from the context. This doesn’t mean that the missing words are not part of the meaning of the sentence; it just means that it is possible to leave them out and for the sentence to have the same meaning because they are implied by the context of the sentence. It is called ‘elliptical’ in reference to the word ‘ellipsis’ which can be defined as:

“a situation in which words are left out of a sentence but the sentence can still be understood.”

An example with the part which has been missed out in bold, is:

While (he was) waiting, he read the magazine.

Here we have the subordinate elliptical clause ‘while waiting’ which has the subject ‘he’ and its verb ‘was’ missed out because it is implied, then we have the main clause ‘he read the magazine’ on the end. In other words, if we say:

While waiting, he read the magazine.

it is implied that we mean:

While he was waiting, he read the magazine.

3) Questions

1) Explain main clauses.

2) Explain subordinate clauses.

Now that we have explored the different types of clauses, let’s look at some interesting sentence constructions next, starting with conditional sentences.

NEXT: 30) Conditional sentences

Posted in English Grammar