Clauses: What is a Clause?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 22, 2023

Clauses are the backbone of sentence structure. Without them, you simply wouldn't be able to construct a sentence. But do you know what they are? That's what we'll learn in this article.

In short:

  • A clause is a group of words containing a subject and predicate. Sometimes they can stand alone (independent clauses), and other times they can't (dependent clauses).

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Clauses?

When it comes to sentence structure, there's a certain hierarchy. It goes like this:

Sentence > clause > phrase > word

What this means for clauses is that they are an important part of sentences. A sentence is made up of one or more clauses. Some clauses can even be complete sentences in and of themselves.

A clause contains a subject and a predicate and gives us information about what the subject is doing, which makes it different from a phrase that doesn't always convey a complete thought.

A clause must contain a subject and a verb, and they must be related.

Let me show you a few examples to illustrate the role a clause plays.

Phrasemy running shoes

Clause: I'm putting on my running shoes.

Complex sentence: I'm putting on my running shoes because I'm going for a jog.

In the above example, note that "I'm putting on my running shoes" conveys a complete thought, so it could technically stand alone and be a complete sentence. But you can add in the dependent clause "because I'm going for a jog" in order to form a complex sentence.

There are many ways to structure clauses, and they can play a number of different roles. So let's dive in.

Types of Clauses

There are two different types of clauses: independent and dependent. A sentence always contains at least one independent clause or even two or more independent clauses to form a compound sentence or a mixture of independent and dependent clauses to form a complex sentence. But what are independent and dependent sentences? Let's find out.

Independent Clause

You only really need one independent clause to form a sentence because, being made up of a subject and a predicate, they form a complete thought.

If a sentence is made up of one independent clause only, this sentence will be quite short and known as a simple sentence.

For example:

I'm aware of the rules.

You could combine this independent clause with another one to create a compound sentence.

For example:

I've played football before; I'm aware of the rules.

The two clauses can be joined by a semicolon or a coordinating conjunction. Notice how each clause can stand on its own and make perfect sense. That's what makes an independent clause.

Here are some more examples of independent clauses (underlined):

The party started earlier than I'd thought so I arrived late.

I love hearing the crashing waves against the shore.

Dependent Clause

Dependent clauses differ from independent ones in that they don't convey a complete thought, so they can't stand alone. They still contain a subject and a predicate, but they need an independent clause to complete them.

Take the following sentence by way of illustration:

I'm aware of the rules because I looked them up.

"Because I looked them up" is a dependent clause. It still contains a subject ("I") and a predicate ("looked them up"), but the conjunction "because" means it can't stand alone. If it was just "I looked them up," it would be an independent clause.

What's cool is you can take any independent clause and add a conjunction or other marker word, and it becomes a dependent clause.

Here are some examples of subordinating conjunctions:

  • although
  • because
  • when
  • even if
  • yet

And here are some examples of other markers words:

Let's have a look at some more examples of dependent clauses.

My favorite color is red but I don't own any red clothes.

In the above sentence, "my favorite color is red" is an independent clause. "I don't own any red clothes." would also be an independent clause if it didn't begin with the conjunction 'but,' making it a dependent clause.

Here are some more examples of dependent clauses:

I wanted to go to the party; however, I didn't have anything to wear.

We were perfectly fine until he came into our lives.

Dependent clauses can perform one of three functions. They can either act as adverbs, adjectives, or nouns. Let's find out a little more about each kind.

Adverbial Clause

An adverbial clause is a clause that functions as an adverb. As a reminder, adverbs modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. That's what adverbial clauses do, too. You can use them to enrich your sentences and give more details about the context and other important elements.

She lost a lot of weight after she started running every day.

In the above example, "after she started running every day" is a dependent clause and functions as an adverb because it tells us how she lost weight. To be sure you've got an adverbial clause on your hands, replace the entire clause with an adverb.

For example:

She lost a lot of weight quickly.

The sentence still makes sense after having replaced the clause with an adverb, which means it was an adverbial clause.

Here are some more examples of adverbial clauses:

I will always get back up and try again no matter how hard I fall.

I make breakfast for my kids every morning before I go to work.

Adjectival Clause

Also known as a relative clause, an adjectival clause plays the role of an adjective, but it has a bunch of words that function as an adjective rather than just a single adjective.

As a reminder, adjectives describe a noun in more detail. Adjectival clauses usually come after the noun they describe and are a great way to describe the noun in detail. And a good way to tell if a clause is an adjectival is to try to replace it with an adjective. If the sentence still makes sense, it's an adjectival clause.

Let me illustrate:

I like wine that's been aged in a whisky barrel.

In the above sentence, the adjectival clause "that's been aged in a whisky barrel" can be replaced with a single adjective and still make sense, confirming to use that it is indeed an adjectival clause:

I like red wine.

Here are some more examples of adjectival clauses:

Children who don't wash their teeth before bed get cavities.

We're looking for someone who can help us close the restaraunt tomorrow.

Nominal Clause

A nominal clause is the final type of dependent clause. Nominal stands for 'noun.' Yep, you guessed it, nominal clauses work like a noun. And what do nouns do? They name something.

For example:

I'm a big fan of the work you've done in the sector.

Could you replace the clause "the work you've done in the sector" with a noun? Let's try.

I'm a big fan of cars.

Does the sentence make sense? Yep, it does. That means it was indeed a nominal clause. Let's have a look at some more examples:

He regrets the fact he didn't have more fun when he was younger.

Our main goal is to help them increase revenue.

Non-Restrictive Clauses

There's one more thing I wanted to mention here about non-restrictive clauses. They aren't exactly a function, but they are specific to dependent clauses, so it seemed fitting to talk about them here.

A non-restrictive clause is a piece of information that isn't necessary to the meaning of the sentence. It could be removed without affecting the meaning. They're quite easy to recognize because they're framed by commas, brackets, or dashes. Spot the non-restrictive clauses in the sentence below:

Sarah, my college roommate, is coming to visit this weekend.

The lamp (which meant a lot to me) is now in the dump.

He got grounded for a week, which was a bit harsh.

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude this article, let's summarize what we've learned:

  • A clause always contains a subject and a predicate.
  • Clauses can be dependent or independent.
  • Dependent clauses can be adverbial, nominal, or adjectival.
  • Clauses can't be removed from a sentence without affecting the meaning of the sentence, except for non-restrictive clauses.

If you found this article helpful, check out our free online Grammar Book, which contains many more articles like this one.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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