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Independent and Dependent Clauses Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 22, 2011

Independent and Dependent Clauses

At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction.

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING (1806–1861)

ENGLISH POET

Sometimes they're a sentence, and sometimes they're not. Clauses, like phrases, add detail and information to your sentences. In this lesson, you will see how and why clauses are necessary elements within a piece of work.

Unlike a phrase, a clause is a group of words that has its own subject and verb. This allows some clauses to be considered sentences. Others, despite the fact that they have their own subject and verb, are not sentences because they don't express a complete thought. There are three kinds of clauses: independent, subordinate, and relative. Let's look at them more closely.

Independent clauses

The independent clause, or main clause, can stand alone as a simple sentence, because it not only has the two main components of a sentence, a simple subject and a simple predicate, but it also expresses a complete thought.

Two or more clauses can be put together, with the help of semicolons or coordinating conjunctions (and, or, for, nor, but, yet, and so), to form a longer sentence.

Henry walked home from school; it began to rain.
Henry walked home from school and it began to rain.
Henry walked home from school and it began to rain, but luckily he had an umbrella stashed in his book bag; he is always prepared.

We will learn more about combining clauses to make longer sentences in Lesson 14.

Subordinate Clauses

A subordinate clause, also referred to as a dependent clause, cannot stand alone as a simple sentence, even though it contains a subject and a verb. Such clauses must be connected with an independent clause to help them do their job.

Even though they may look similar to independent clauses, subordinate clauses are different because they must begin with either a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun. The following charts give some examples.

Tip

When you begin a sentence with a subordinate clause, you have to put a comma after it.

Whether I like it or not, Mom says I must wear my helmet when I skateboard.

However, when you end a sentence with one, you don't.

Mom says I must wear my helmet when I skateboard whether I like it or not.

Relative Clauses

A relative clause is one that begins with a relative pronoun (see the preceding chart). In a sentence, a relative clause acts like an adjective by giving more information about the subject of the sentence. Even though relative clauses have their own subject and verb, though, they cannot stand alone as a sentence because they don't express a complete thought. For example:

that won in last week's county fair answers which one? about the noun recipe.
who skis well answers which one? about the proper noun Austin.

A practice exercise for this concept can be found at Independent and Dependent Clauses Practice Exercise.

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