Dependent Clauses: Meaning and Examples of a Subordinate Clause

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 1, 2023

What are dependent clauses? That's a question you may have asked yourself before. It may even be a question you're asking yourself now, which would explain why you're here. And let me reassure you: you've come to the right place. This article will teach you everything you need to know about dependent clauses and how to use them correctly in your writing.

In short:

  • A dependent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate but cannot stand alone as it does not express a complete thought. 

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Dependent Clauses?

Dependent clauses are groups of words that cannot stand alone because they don't express a complete thought. But what is a clause, you ask? Great question!

There are two types of clauses: independent and dependent. The dependent kind is the one we will focus on today, but it still helps to know what the other kind is, too. Both independent and dependent clauses contain a subject and a predicate. That's criteria #1 to make a clause. Without those, it's a phrase.

Here's an example of each:

I usually go swimming on Wednesdays. (independent clause)

Although this week I couldn't go. (dependent clause)

In the first sentence, you've got the subject 'I' and the predicate 'go swimming.' In the second sentence, the subject is also 'I,' and the predicate is 'couldn't go.'

But as you might have noticed, the second sentence isn't a complete thought, so we call it a dependent clause. It must be attached to an independent clause to make sense.

I usually go swimming on Wednesdays, although this week I couldn't go.

Ah, that's better! Also known as subordinate clauses, dependent clauses provide extra context or detail to independent clauses. They always begin with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun. More on that later.

Types of Dependent Clauses

There are three types of dependent clauses:

  • noun clause
  • adverb clause
  • adjective clause

Each one serves a different purpose in modifying the main (independent) clause. Let's take a closer look.

Noun Clauses

  • Noun clauses are groups of words that take on the function of a noun in a sentence. They take on the role of a noun, which is to say they name a person, place, or thing. They start with a relative pronoun or a conjunction.

Take a look at the following example:

Whoever wins the lottery is a lucky person. 

Here, the noun clause "whoever wins the lottery" takes on the role of a noun. To check that's true, we can replace the entire clause with a noun or pronoun:

Rodney is a lucky person. 

She is a lucky person. 

The sentence still makes sense, confirming it was indeed a noun clause.

Here are some more examples:

Her favorite meal is anything that can be ordered online and delivered

We love it when the stars are visible in the sky.

They gave all the kids that came to celebrate party favors.

Adverb Clauses

  • Adverb clauses (also known as adverbial clauses) do the job of an adverb; only instead of a single word, it's an entire clause. As a reminder, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They start with conjunctions such as 'where,' 'as,' and 'despite.'

The different types of adverb clauses are:

  • Adverbial clause of manner
  • Adverbial clause of place
  • Adverbial clause of time
  • Adverbial clause of comparison
  • Adverbial clause of concession
  • Adverbial clause of condition
  • Adverbial clause of reason

Here are some examples:

She looked at me as though she had no idea who I was.

Wherever you go, I will go too.

He cooked dinnerbefore I arrived

Adjective Clauses

  • Adjective clauses (also known as adjectival clauses) modify nouns, just like adjectives do. They start with a relative pronoun (like 'who,' 'that,' 'which') or a relative adverb (like 'when,' 'where,' 'why').

Here's an example:

I need a boss who is not a micro-manager

You could replace the adjective clause with a simple adjective to check if it is indeed an adjective clause. If the sentence still makes sense, bingo!

I need a tall boss. 

Here are some more examples:

Only children who eat their vegetables are allowed dessert.

Let's have lunch at that new cafe that just opened

Boulder, where I grew up, is a great place to go skiing. 

Sentence Structure Types

With dependent sentences being incomplete sentences and all, they always need to be connected to an independent clause to form a complete sentence. English grammar has four types of sentence structure: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.

You'll find dependent clauses in two of those: complex and compound-complex sentences. 

  • Complex sentences require one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

Here are some examples (the dependent clauses are underlined):

Although I hate the cold, I love building snowmen. 

He left early because he didn't want to be late

I think, therefore I am

When I grow up, I want to be a grammar pro. 

We were perfectly fine until he came into our lives.

  • Compound-complex sentences have at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause.

Here are some examples (the dependent clauses are underlined):

He never studies, yet he keeps getting straight As; how does he do it?

My dog just had puppies, which are the cutest, and I love petting them when I get home from work.

There was an abandoned house at the top of the hill that my friends and I loved to play in but it's just been demolished. 

Carol and John got married just three months after meeting, and they have three kids now, although one of them has just moved out

While we wait for our plane, let's check out the duty-free stores while Sue watches our bags

Notice again how the link between an independent and a dependent clause will often be a subordinating conjunNon-Restrictivetive pronoun.

Restrictive vs Non-Restrictive Clauses

All non-restrictivees are either restrictive or non-restrictive. Restrictive clauses (also called essential) offer information that's important to the sentence's meaning. Removing them would be withholding vital information from the reader.

Here's an example:

Airplanes that were used in the war can be found in the local museum.

It isn't just any type of airplane that you can find in the local museum; it's a specific type: ones that were used in the war. To remove the restrictive clause 'that were used in the war' would be to alter Non-restrictiveeaning in a significant way.

  • Non-restrictive clauses provide information that isn't crnon-restrictiveentence's meaning. The info a nonrestrictive sentence provides is good to have, as it gives us additional details, but it wouldn't alter the sentence's meaning if it were removed.

Here's an example:

Red, my favorite color, is the color of passion.

In this sentence, we don't have to know that red is the author's favorite color since the main point they are making is the non-restrictivelor of passion. Removing the non-restrictive clause wouldn't alter the sentence's meaning in a significant way.

How to Use Dependent Clauses

Now you know the different types of dependent clauses, what they can do, and their role in building sentences. But you also need to understand how to use them correctly in your writing, and this is twofold: selecting the right connector words and using appropriate punctuation.

Firstly, as we've learned, dependent clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun.

Here's a list of common subordinating conjunctions:

  • after
  • while
  • although
  • whether
  • as
  • as soon as
  • until
  • because
  • unless
  • by the time
  • before
  • though
  • even if
  • every time
  • even though
  • if
  • in case
  • than
  • provided
  • rather than
  • since
  • so that
  • now that

And here's a list of common relative pronouns:

  • how
  • that
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • which
  • who
  • whom
  • whose
  • why
  • whoever

The second important piece to know is that punctuation is important. Placing a comma in the wrong spot or not using any punctuation when you should can lead to confusion and some common grammatical errors, such as run-on sentences and comma splices.

If a dependent clause is at the beginning of the sentence, follow it with a comma. If it ends the sentence, do not use a comma.

Case in point:

Because we didn't want to miss out, we also bought tickets.

The meal I cooked turned out to taste much better than I thought it would

If the dependent clause is in the middle of the sentence, offset it with commas if it's non-restrictive. If it's restrictive, don't use any commas. 

Like such:

The area where I grew up has lots of outdoor activities. 

She told me the whole story and, despite my better judgment, I believed her.

Concluding Thoughts

Well, that concludes this article on dependent clauses. I hope you found it helpful. As I'm sure you noticed as you were reading, dependent clauses really are everywhere, so knowing how to use them will really help with your writing.

et's summarize what we've learned:

  • Dependent clauses are groups of words with a subject and a predicate but that don't convey a complete thought.
  • They must be combined with an independent clause in order to make sense. 
  • There are three types: noun clauses, adverb clauses, and adjective clauses.
  • You can create two types of sentence structure with dependent clauses: complex and compound-complex.
  • Dependent clauses are either restrictive (essential) or non-restrictive (non-essential).
  • They begin with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun.

Did you know we have many more articles like this one in our Grammar Book? It's a free online database that you can access at any time to improve your grammar and writing skills. If you enjoyed this article, you're sure to find more you like there. Check it out!

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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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