What is a subordinate clause?

Are you ready to learn about the subordinate clause (a.k.a. dependent clause)? Great! You're in the right place. 

What is a Subordinate Clause?

What is a Subordinate Clause?

What is a Subordinate Clause?

Before we can get to what a dependent clause is, we need to review what a clause is. 

What is a clause?

A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb. That's it!

Subjects tell us whom or what a sentence is about, and verbs tell us what the subject is or does.

I sharpened my pencil.

Whenever I sharpened my pencil

Both of those groups of words are clauses. They have a subject (I) and a verb (sharpened). The top clause can stand alone as a complete idea, but the bottom clause cannot.

The bottom clause is subordinate. Subordinate means that it can't stand alone. It needs to be connected to an independent clause in order to make sense.

A subordinate clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb, that cannot stand alone.

Here's the important thing to know about these guys. Are you ready?

They act as single parts of speech.

You probably read over that last sentence kind of fast. You should read it again because it's SUPER IMPORTANT. Here, I'll even write it out again for you:

They act as single parts of speech. 

What does that mean? That means that all of the words come together to perform the job of one part of speech. They can act as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns.

The Three Types of Subordinate Clauses

Dependent clauses can function as three different parts of speech: adjectives, adverbs, or nouns.  

We'll go over each one below. Here we go!

1. Adjective Clauses (Relative Clauses)

As you might guess, an adjective clause is a dependent clause that acts as an adjective. They are introduced by special words called relative pronouns or relative adverbs.

The woman who looked happy danced.

Who looked happy is a dependent adjective clause.

It is a group of words with a subject (who) and a verb (looked), and the whole clause is functioning as an adjective modifying the noun woman, which is the subject of the independent clause.

What is a Subordinate Clause?

2. Adverb Clauses

An adverb clause is a dependent clause that acts as an adverb. These are introduced by special words called subordinating conjunctions.

I read because I love stories.

Because I love stories is a dependent adverb clause. It has a subject (I) and a verb (love), and the whole clause is functioning as one adverb modifying the verb read in the independent clause.

What is a Subordinate Clause?

Psst! Elliptical clauses are types of clauses that have some implied words. Most of the time, they are adverb clauses.

David is faster than his brother.

Than his brother is an elliptical clause. It's as if the clause says…

David is faster than his brother (is) (fast).

What is a Subordinate Clause?

Than his brother (is) (fast) is a dependent adverbial elliptical clause. Wow! That's a mouthful!

It is a group of words with a subject (brother) and a verb (is), and the whole clause is acting as an adverb modifying the adjective faster in the independent clause.

3. Noun Clauses

A noun clause is a dependent clause that acts as a noun.

Sometimes, these are introduced by certain kinds of words called noun clause markers, and sometimes they don't have any introductory word at all.

Whatever you want is fine with me.

Whatever you want is a dependent noun clause acting as the subject of the sentence. It is a group of words with a subject (you) and a verb (want), and it is functioning as a noun. It is performing the job of the subject.

What is a Subordinate Clause?

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What Is a Subordinate Clause?

What is a Subordinate Clause?

A subordinate clause, also called a dependent clause, consists of information to be combined with a main clause to form a single sentence. It resembles a main clause except for the presence of a subordinate conjunction or a relative pronoun, either of which renders it subordinate. Here are some guidelines about its use.

To convey two thoughts, you can write, for example, “I went to school. I was feeling ill.” However, this construction offers no clue to the relationship between the two statements.

To clarify that you wish to explain that you attended school in spite of your illness, you can combine the two thoughts into one, but you must include a conjunction that conveys the subordinate status of the second statement: “I went to school, although I was feeling ill.

” (The subordinate clause can also come first: “Although I was feeling ill, I went to school.”) Other common subordinate conjunctions include because, until, and when.

Note that no other internal punctuation can substitute for the comma: The subordinate conjunction is not necessary in the following sentence, because the semicolon indicates that the sentence consists of two main clauses: “I went to school; I was feeling ill.

” (You could also separate the statements with an em dash or enclose the second sentence in parentheses.) However, without the subordinate conjunction, the relationship between the two statements is not expressed.

The sample sentence suggests that you went to school because you were feeling ill, not in spite of your illness.

To combine the thoughts “I went to school even though I was ill” and “Going to school when I was ill was not a good idea,” you can substitute the subject of the second statement with a relative pronoun: “I went to school even though I was ill, which was not a good idea.” (Other relative pronouns include that, who, and whose.)

Because this type of subordinate clause incorporates a relative pronoun, it is also called a relative clause. Note that you must take care when constructing some relative clauses, because the meaning can differ depending on whether the relative pronoun is preceded by a comma.

For example, “We got a ride with our friends who were also going to the movie” implies that among all our friends, we rode with those who were also going to the movie.

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However, in “We got a ride with our friends, who were also going to the movie,” the relative clause refers to a particular group of friends and makes no distinction between them and other friends because it makes no reference to other friends at all.

In the first sentence, the relative clause is a required part of the sentence and thus is called an essential relative clause. In the second sentence, it is not required (you can omit the relative clause and simply write, “We got a ride with our friends”) and thus is called a nonessential relative clause.

What Is a Subordinate Clause? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives A subordinate clause (or dependent clause) is a clause that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence because it does not express a complete thought.

Like all clauses, a subordinate clause has a subject and verb.

Here are some examples of subordinate clauses (shaded). You will notice that none of the shaded clauses could stand alone as a sentence. This is how a subordinate clause (or a dependent clause) is different from an independent clause.

  • She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit. (W Somerset Maugham, 1874-1965)
  • A musicologist is a man who can read music but can't hear it. (Sir Thomas Beecham, 1879-1961)
  • Always be nice to those younger than you because they are the ones who will be writing about you. (Cyril Connolly, 1903-1974)
  • Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. (Sir Winston Churchill, 1874-1965)

In the examples, the independent clauses are not shaded. Notice how they could all be standalone sentences. What is a Subordinate Clause? Subordinate clauses can act as adverbs, adjectives, or nouns.

The Adverbial Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as an adverb:

  • I fished until the sun went down.
  • (The subordinate clause “until the sun went down” modifies the verb “fished.” It is an adverbial clause.)

The Adjective Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as an adjective:

  • The bull that charged us is back in the field.
  • (The subordinate clause “that charged us” describes “the bull.” It is an adjective clause.)

The Noun Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as a noun:

  • Whoever dislikes the new timings is more than welcome to leave.
  • (The subordinate clause “Whoever dislikes the new timings” is the subject of this sentence. It is a noun clause.)

When a subordinate clause is used as an adjective or an adverb, it will usually be part of a complex sentence (i.e., a sentence with an independent clause and at least one subordinate clause).

The link between a subordinate clause and an independent clause will often be a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun. For example:

  • I fished until the sun went down.
  • (subordinating conjunction in bold)

  • The bull that charged us is back in the field.
  • (relative pronoun in bold)

Here are some more common subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns:

Common Subordinating Conjunctions Relative Pronouns
  • after
  • although
  • as
  • because
  • before
  • even if
  • even though
  • if
  • provided
  • rather than
  • since
  • so that
  • than
  • though
  • unless
  • until
  • whether
  • while
  • how
  • that
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • which
  • who
  • whom
  • whose
  • why

The relative pronouns above are the simple relative pronouns. You can also have compound ones. A compound relative pronoun is formed by adding either “ever” or “soever” to a simple pronoun.

  • whoever (who + ever)
  • whosever (whose + ever)
  • (Spelling rule: Don't allow ee.)

  • whosoever (who + soever)
  • whosesoever (whose + soever)

Here are two questions often raised by writers about subordinate clauses. By far the most common question related to subordinate clauses is whether to offset one with a comma (or commas).

Here are the rules:

When the subordinate clause starts with a subordinating conjunction (e.g., unless, because, as, until), it will be functioning as an adverb. When the clause starts the sentence, use a comma. If it ends the sentence, do not use a comma. For example (subordinate clauses shaded):

  • Until there are no more shoppers, keep singing.
  • (The subordinate clause is at the start, so a comma is needed.)

  • Keep singing until there are no more shoppers.
  • (The subordinate clause is at the end, so a comma is not needed.)

Read more about commas with subordinating conjunctions.

This ruling also applies to adverbial phrases.

For example (adverbial phrases in bold):

  • At 4 o'clock, the bell will ring.
  • The bell will ring at 4 o'clock.

When the subordinate clause starts with a relative pronoun (e.g., which, who), it will be functioning as an adjective. Do not use a comma before your relative pronoun if the clause is essential for meaning. However, do use a comma if the clause is just additional information.

For example:

  • My sister who lives in Moscow is getting married.
  • (From this we can infer that there is at least one other sister who doesn't live in Moscow. The clause is essential for meaning. It identifies what it modifies, i.e., it specifies which sister.)

  • My sister Rebecca, who lives in Moscow, is getting married.
  • (This time, the clause is just additional information. It needs commas.)

Read more about commas before relative pronouns. You cannot start a sentence with who or which unless it is a question (i.e., an interrogative sentence). For example:

  • I enjoy weeding. Which is helpful because I have a large garden.

Read more about who and which as interrogative pronouns.

Key Points

  • If your subordinate clause is a fronted adverb, offset it with a comma.
    • When the cake is brown, remove it from the oven.
  • If your subordinate clause is at the back, don't use a comma.
    • Remove the cake from the oven when it is brown.
  • If your subordinate clause is an essential adjective, don't use commas.
    • My sister who lives in Boston gave me her laptop.

    What Are Subordinate Clauses in English Grammar?

    Subordinate clauses are usually attached to main clauses or embedded in matrix clauses.

    Pronunciation: Suh-BOR-din-it

    • “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”(Mark Twain)
    • “That spring, when I had a great deal of potential and no money at all, I took a job as a janitor.”(James Alan McPherson, “Gold Coast,” 1969)
    • “Memory is deceptive because it is colored by today's events.”(Albert Einstein)
    • “Bailey and I did arithmetic at a mature level because of our work in the store, and we read well because in Stamps there wasn't anything else to do.”(Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969)
    • “If you can't leave in a taxi you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff.(Groucho Marx, Duck Soup)
    • “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”(John F. Kennedy)
    • “When you lose your laugh, you lose your footing.”(Ken Kesey)
    • “Every book is a children's book if the kid can read.”(Mitch Hedberg)

    “Subordinate clauses are 'grammatical juniors,' dependent on the main clause for complete sense. They are not subordinate in any other way; they need not be stylistically inferior, and indeed may be more informative than the main clause they depend on, as in this example:

    If you go on with a diet that consists exclusively of cottage cheese, dry toast, and Brazil nuts, I shall worry.

    The main clause is 'I shall worry': it is, I think, rather feeble in view of what precedes it, a sad anticlimax to what was promising to be a fairly arresting sentence.

    But although that previous clause is much more interesting in every other way, it remains grammatically subordinate: it could not stand on its own.

    “(Richard Palmer, Write in Style: A Guide to Good English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002)

    “Finite clauses are introduced by a subordinator, which serves to indicate the dependent status of the clause together with its circumstantial meaning. Formally, subordinating conjunctions can be grouped as follows:

    • simple conjunctions: when, whenever, where, wherever, because, if, unless, until, while, as, although
    • conjunctive groups: as if, as though, even if, even though, even when, soon after, no sooner
    • complex conjunctions:: there are three subclasses: (i) derived from verbs . . .: provided (that), granted (that), considering (that), seeing (that), suppose (that), supposing (that), so (that)(ii) containing a noun: in case, in the event that, to the extent that, in spite of the fact that, the day, the way(iii) adverbial: so/as long as, as soon as, so/as far as, much as, now (that)”

    Angela Downing, English Grammar: A University Course. Routledge, 2006)

    • “When I heard the learn’d astronomer;When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
    • (Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Leaves of Grass)

    The Subordinate Clause

    Printer Fabulous!

    Recognize a subordinate clause when you see one

    A subordinate clause—also called a dependent clause—will begin with a subordinate conjunction or a relative pronoun and will contain both a subject and a verb. This combination of words will not form a complete sentence. It will instead make a reader want additional information to finish the thought.

    Here is a list of subordinate conjunctions:

    Subordinate Conjunctions
    afteralthoughasbecausebeforeeven ifeven thoughifin order that onceprovided thatrather thansinceso that thanthatthoughunless untilwhenwheneverwherewhereaswherever whetherwhilewhy

    Here are your relative pronouns:

    Relative Pronouns
    thatwhichwhichever whowhoeverwhom whosewhoseverwhomever

    Now take a look at these examples:

    • After Amy sneezed all over the tuna salad
    • After = subordinate conjunction; Amy = subject; sneezed = verb.
    • Once Adam smashed the spider
    • Once = subordinate conjunction; Adam = subject; smashed = verb.
    • Until Mr. Sanchez has his first cup of coffee

    Until = subordinate conjunction; Mr. Sanchez = subject; has = verb.

    Who ate handfuls of Cheerios with his bare hands

    Who = relative pronoun; Who = subject; ate = verb.

    Remember this important point: A subordinate clause cannot stand alone as a sentence because it does not provide a complete thought. The reader is left wondering, “So what happened?” A word group that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period must contain at least one main clause. Otherwise, you will have written a fragment, a major error.

    After Amy sneezed all over the tuna salad.

    So what happened? Did Amy throw it down the garbage disposal or serve it on toast to her friends? No complete thought = fragment.

    Once Adam smashed the spider.

    So what happened? Did Belinda cheer him for his bravery or lecture him on animal rights? No complete thought = fragment.

    Until Mr. Sanchez has his first cup of coffee.

    So what happens? Is he too sleepy to work, or does he have a grumpy disposition? No complete thought = fragment.

    Who ate handfuls of Cheerios with his bare hands.

    So what happened? Were the roommates shocked, or did they ask him to pass the box so that they could do the same? No complete thought = fragment.

    Correctly attach a subordinate clause to a main clause

    Subordinate Clause: Examples and Definition

    A subordinate clause or dependent clause is a clause that can’t exist as a sentence on its own. Like all clauses, it has a subject and a predicate, but it doesn’t share a complete thought. A subordinate clause only gives extra information and is “dependent” on other words to make a full sentence.

    2. Examples of Subordinate Clauses

    A subordinate clause makes a sentence more detailed. Here are some examples:

    • After the dog ran This clause answers the question “when?”
    • Because he ate popcorn This clause answers the question “why?”
    • Whoever is watching the dog This clause represents a person
    • The dog that eats popcorn This clause answers the question “which dog?”

    3. Parts of Subordinate Clauses

    Subordinate clauses are introduced by subordinate conjunctions and relative pronouns.

    a. Subordinate conjunctions

    Subordinate conjunctions help the transition between two parts of a sentence with words expressing things like place and time.

    Here are some of the most common subordinate conjunctions:

    • After
    • As
    • As long as
    • Although
    • Because
    • Before
    • Even if
    • Even though
    • If
    • Now
    • Now that
    • Once
    • Since
    • Than
    • Though
    • Unless
    • Until
    • When
    • Whenever
    • Whereas
    • Wherever
    • Whether
    • While
    • Whoever

    b. Relative pronouns

    Relative pronouns are words like which, whichever, whatever, that, who, whoever, and whose. They introduce a dependent clause. They are called “relative” because they are related to the topic of the sentence. For example, “the person who” or “whoever eats;” or “the house that” or “whichever house.”

    4. Types of Subordinate Clauses

    A subordinate clause can work as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb in a sentence. So, there are three types of dependent clauses: noun clauses, adjective clauses, and adverb clauses. Remember, none of them can be complete sentences on their own!

    a. Noun Clause

    A noun clause is a group of words that acts as a noun in a sentence. They begin with relative pronouns like “how,” “which,” “who,” or “what,” combined with a subject and predicate. For example:

    The dog can eat what he wants.

    Here, “what he wants” stands as a noun for what the dog can eat. It’s a noun clause because it has a subject (he) and a predicate (wants). Here’s another:

    • Whoever gave the dog popcorn is in trouble!
    • “Whoever gave the dog popcorn” is the noun in the sentence, meaning the person who gave the dog popcorn.
    • To be sure of the noun clause in a sentence, you can switch it with a single noun and the sentence will still make sense, like this:

    The dog can eat popcorn.

    Sally is in trouble!

    b. Adjective Clause

    An adjective is a descriptive word. Adjective clauses are groups of words that act as an adjective in a sentence.

    They have a pronoun (who, that, which) or an adverb (what, where, why) and a verb; or, a pronoun or an adverb that serves as subject and a verb.

    They should answer questions like “what kind?” or “which one?” and follow one of two patterns: Pronoun/adverb + subject + verb, or pronoun/adverb as subject + verb.

    For example:

    Whichever flavor of popcorn you have

    Whichever (pronoun) + flavor (subject) + have (verb) is an adjective clause that describes the popcorn. As you can see, it’s not a full sentence.

    The dog is the one who ate the popcorn.

    “Who” (pronoun acting as subject) + “ate” (verb) is an adjective clause that describes the dog.

    c. Adverb clause

    An adverb clause is a group of words that work as an adverb in a sentence, answering questions asking “where?”, “when,” “how?” and “why?” They begin with a subordinate conjuction.

    The dog ran until he got to the county fair.

    This sentence answers the question “how long did the dog run?” with the adverb clause “until he got to the county fair.”

    After the dog arrived he ate popcorn.

    With the adverb clause “after the dog arrived,” this sentence answers, “when did the dog eat popcorn?”

    5. How to Write a Subordinate Clause and Avoid Mistakes

    As you’re learning how to write a subordinate clause, it’s important to review the things that it always needs:

    • A subject
    • A verb
    • A subordinate conjunction or relative adverb

    A subordinate clause can be at the beginning of a sentence or the end of a sentence, so long as it is paired with an independent clause. That’s because, as mentioned, it only adds extra details to sentence. So, start with an independent clause:

    1. The dog ate.
    2. Next, add some extra details—remember: we need to include another subject and verb to make a subordinate clause.
    3. The dog ate whatever he wanted to.

    This full sentence uses the noun clause “whatever he wanted to.” It begins with a subordinate conjunction, followed by a subject (he) and a verb (wanted). It needs the first part of the sentence to be complete.

    To avoid mistakes with subordinate clauses, always remember: a subordinate clause is never a full sentence on its own. Therefore, the most common mistake you can make is a fragment sentence (an incomplete sentence). That’s because a subordinate clause doesn’t express a complete thought. For example:

    Whoever gave the dog popcorn. This is a fragment sentence.

    Though it has a subject (whoever) and a verb (gave), it isn’t complete. It doesn’t express a whole thought, and leaves the question, “what happened to whoever gave the dog popcorn?” So, we need to add information:

    Whoever gave the dog popcorn is in trouble! This is a complete sentence.

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