English - Clause

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A clause is a group of related words that contains at a minimum a subject and verb.

Clause, as opposed to phrases, will stand on their own as a complete idea.

  • Clause: A group of related words containing a subject and verb.
  • Phrase: A word or group of related words lacking a subject and verb.


Look at some examples of clauses:

  • Once I find the axe . . . (dependent)
  • The bunny found shelter under the tree. (independent)
  • Although you lost the keys . . . (dependent)
  • I cannot believe you were right! (independent)


Knowing the difference between dependent and independent clauses will be of crucial importance when you learn about the four sentence types.


Clauses that stand on their own as a complete thought are Independent Clauses. Here is an independent clause:

The tutor discussed the paper with the student.


Some clauses, however, even though they still contain a subject and verb, cannot stand on their own as a complete thought. These are Dependent Clauses (also known are subordinates clauses).

Let’s add a dependent clause to the previous sentence:

  • The tutor who was in the writing center discussed the paper with the student.

In the dependent clause:

The dependent clause modifies tutor, clarifying which tutor discussed the paper.

Subordinating Conjunctions signal dependent clauses.

There are two types of Dependent (Subordinate ) Clauses:

  • Adjective Subordinate Clauses
  • and Adverb Subordinate Clauses.


Adjective Subordinate Clauses, as the adjective in the name suggests, modify a noun in a sentence.

Most adjective subordinate clauses will usually begin with a relative pronoun:

  • who,
  • whom,
  • that,
  • which,
  • whose,
  • when,
  • and where.

An adjective clause will give a certain type of information about a person, thing, concept, living creature, or place.

Here are some examples using each of the words in the list:

  • Lydia, who was an expert climber, needed less coaching than Ava.
  • The dog, to whom the treat was given, ran around in circles.
  • The cars that were directed to an alternative entrance passed by the old cotton candy stand.
  • Johnny found Monday, which was his birthday, quite exciting and full of surprises.
  • The officer located the student whose backpack was stolen crying in the lobby.
  • Do you remember the day when you lost your phone?
  • I can still remember the place where I thought I left it.

In some of these cases, you may actually choose to omit the relative pronoun for stylistic reasons. Instead of “Do you remember the day when you lost your phone?”, you can simply write, “Do you remember the day you lost your phone?” In either case, you are modifying the noun “day,” but the adjective clause is not as obvious when you leave out the relative pronoun “when.”

Restrictive or non-restrictive

When you use an adjective subordinate clause, you will need to decide whether it is a:

  • restrictive
  • or non-restrictive

adjective subordinate clause.

Clause Punctuation Description
Restrictive no comma(s) when you needs to distinguish the noun from the others. narrows down all of the possibilities of the noun into one specific reference
Non-restrictive comma(s) it just adds information about the noun, does not restrict, or limit, the noun to a particular specific reference

In many cases, you will find that:

  • which will signal a non-restrictive clause (comma(s) required)
  • will signal a restrictive clause (no comma(s) needed).

However, this is not always the case. If you get used to thinking through the difference, you will know when to use a comma and when not to.

You need to decide whether or not the description is essential to distinguishing the noun from other nouns or not. Look at some examples:

  • Suzanne chose to dance with the guy who was wearing a blue bandana.

“who was wearing a blue bandana” is restrictive because the writer needs to distinguish the guy from the other people at the dance.)

  • Suzanne chose to dance with the guy wearing a blue bandana, which was faded.

“which was faded” is non-restrictive because the writer is merely adding information about the bandana.

The distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses is less important while you are drafting, but it is quite important during the editing stage of the writing process.


Adverb subordinate clauses, as the name suggests, will modify a verb by describing:

  • how,
  • when,
  • why,
  • where,
  • or under what condition something is happening or someone is doing an action.

These clauses will be added to a sentence to provide additional description and information.

The most noticeable characteristic of adverb subordinate clauses is that they will begin with one of the subordinate conjunctions

Although adverb subordinate clauses contain at least one subject and one verb, they begin with words that make them dependent. In other words, these clauses have to be attached to independent clauses that provide additional information in order for them to make sense.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Because it might rain, I will bring an umbrella to the festival.
  • Although your mother doesn’t like him, she must admit that he plays the piano beautifully.
  • Whenever we leave the beach at dinner time, we get pizza at the brewery.
  • Unless you would rather ride by yourself, we should drive home together.
  • So that you don’t have to pay a fine, you better not park in front of that fire hydrant.
  • After she finished the interview, Emma felt relieved.

For each of the above, notice how we have answered a potential question the reader might ask. Adverb clauses will:

  • describe the verb
  • and add detail to your sentences.

In the first example above, the adverb clause clarifies why Fiona is “bringing” the umbrella. Also, when you learn about the four sentence types, you will discover that adverb clauses create a unique type of sentence.


Adverb Subordinate Clauses require a comma if they are placed before the main clause. You are free to place an adverb subordinate clause before or after the main clause. Here are some examples:

  • Because it might rain, I will bring an umbrella to the festival. (comma)
  • I will bring an umbrella to the festival because it might rain. (no comma)

The rule is simply to place a comma after the clause if it precedes the main sentence, but generally to omit the comma if it appears after the main sentence.

To review, there are two rules to remember when punctuating adverb subordinate clauses:

  • If the clause is at the beginning of the sentence, use a comma after the clause.
  • If the clause is at the end of the sentence, you will generally not use a comma.

There is, however, an exception to rule #2: If the clause comes at the end of the sentence and is contrasting or contradictory, then you insert a comma. For example:

  • He cleaned the kitchen, whereas his roommate sat on the couch eating pizza.

In this case, you use a comma because the clause comes at the end of the sentence and is also a contradictory idea.


Which of the versions of sentences above do you prefer? Which placement (before or after) gets your attention and produces a strong sentence? Your answers to these questions will help you to begin to think about your writing style.

For greater emphasis, many writers will place adverb subordinate clauses at the beginning of their sentences rather than after. This is also true of many arguments when writers qualify their position before stating their main argument.


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