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In grammar, a clause is a pair of words or group of words that consists of a subject and a predicate, although in some languages and some types of clauses, the subject may not appear explicitly as a noun phrase. It may instead be marked on the verb (this is especially common in null subject languages.) The most basic kind of sentence consists of a single clause; more complicated sentences may contain multiple clauses- including clauses contain within clauses.

Clauses are often contrasted with phrases. Traditionally, a clause was said to have both a finite verb and its subject, whereas a phrase either contained a finite verb but not its subject (in which case it is a verb phrase) or did not contain a finite verb. Hence, in the sentence "I didn't know that the dog ran through the yard", "that the dog ran through the yard" is a clause, as is the sentence as a whole, while "the yard", "through the yard", "ran through the yard", and "the dog" are all phrases. Modern linguists do not draw quite the same distinction, however, the main difference being that modern linguists accept the idea of a non-finite clause, a clause that is organized around a non-finite verb.


Dependent and independent clauses

An independent clause can stand alone as a complete simple sentence, whereas a dependent clause must be connected to or part of another clause. The dependent clause is then described as subordinate to a main clause, or (if it is part of a larger clause) as embedded in a matrix clause.

Examples in English include the following:

  • "I went to the store with my friends" (independent)
  • "because I went to the store" (dependent)
  • "after I went to the store" (dependent)
  • "me to go to the store" (dependent; non-finite), as in "He wanted me to go to the store."
  • "that I went to" (dependent), as in "That's the store that I went to."

Functions of dependent clauses

One major way to classify dependent clauses is by function; that is, by the roles they play in the clauses they are subordinate to. Since the same dependent clause might have different roles in different sentences, this classification must be applied on a per-sentence basis.

Under this classification scheme, there are three main types of dependent clauses: noun clauses, adjective clauses, and adverb clauses, so called for their syntactic and semantic resemblance to noun phrases, adjective phrases, and adverbials, respectively. The exact uses of each vary somewhat from language to language, but a noun clause typically acts as the subject of a verb or as the object of a verb or preposition, as in these English examples:

  • "What you say is not as important as how you say it."
  • "I imagine that they're having a good time."
  • "I keep thinking about what happened yesterday."

(Note that the word that is optional in the second sentence, highlighting a complication in the entire dependent/independent contrast: "They're having a good time" is a complete sentence, and therefore an independent clause, but in "I imagine they're having a good time", it acts as a dependent clause.)

An adjective clause modifies a noun phrase. In English, adjective clauses typically come at the end of their noun phrases:

  • "The woman I spoke to said otherwise."
  • "We have to consider the possibility that he's lying to us."

An adverb clause typically modifies its entire main clause. In English, it usually precedes or follows its main clause:

  • "When she gets here, all will be explained."
  • "He was annoyed by the whole thing, which was unfortunate, but unavoidable."

The line between categories may be indistinct, and, in some languages, it may be difficult to apply these classifications at all. At times more than one interpretation is possible, as in the English sentence "We saw a movie, after which we went dancing", where "after which we went dancing" can be seen either as an adjective clause ("We saw a movie. After the movie, we went dancing.") or as an adverb clause ("We saw a movie. After we saw the movie, we went dancing."). More complicated, sometimes the two interpretations are not synonymous, but both are intended, as in "Let me know when you're ready", where "when you're ready" functions both as a noun clause (the object of know, identifying what knowledge is to be conveyed) and as an adverb clause (specifying when the knowledge is to be conveyed).

Structures of dependent clauses

The other major way to classify dependent clauses is by their structure, though even this classification scheme does make some reference to the clause's function in a sentence. This scheme is more complex, as there are many different ways that a dependent clause can be structured. In English, common structures include:

  • Many dependent clauses, such as "before he comes" or "because they agreed", consist of a preposition-like subordinating conjunction, plus what would otherwise be an independent clause. These clauses act much like prepositional phrases, and are either adjective clauses or adverb clauses, with many being able to function in either capacity.
  • Relative clauses, such as "which I couldn't see", generally consist of a relative pronoun, plus a clause in which the relative pronoun plays a part. Relative clauses usually function as adjective clauses, but occasionally they function as adverb clauses; in either case, they modify their relative pronoun's antecedent, and follow the phrase or clause that they modify.
  • Fused relative clauses, such as "what she did" (in the sense of "the thing she did"), are like ordinary relative clauses except that they act as noun clauses; they incorporate their subjects into their relative pronouns.
  • Declarative content clauses, such as "that they came", usually consist of the conjunction that plus what would otherwise be an independent clause, or of an independent clause alone (with an implicit preceding that). For this reason, they are often called that clauses. Declarative content clauses refer to states of affairs; it is often implied that the state of affairs is the case, as in "It is fortunate that they came", but this implication is easily removed by the context, as in "It is doubtful that they came."
  • Interrogative content clauses, such as "whether they came" and "where he went" (as in "I don't know where he went"), are much like declarative ones, except that they are introduced by interrogative words. Rather than referring to a state of affairs, they refer to an unknown element of a state of affairs, such as one of the participants (as in "I wonder who came") or even the truth of the state (as in "I wonder whether he came").
  • Small clauses, such as "him leave" (as in "I saw him leave") and "him to leave" (as in "I wanted him to leave"), are minimal predicate structures, consisting only of an object and an additional structure (usually an infinitive), with the latter being predicated to the former by a controlling verb or preposition.

See also


Published - November 2008

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