dependent clause

Understanding the Subordinate Clause

by | Dec 29, 2020 | GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 0 comments

When I was in school, I found a lot of the rules of grammar to be very abstract. I enjoyed writing and tended to excel at making a point in an essay. However, when it came time for a grammar quiz, my skills were a little shakier. After finishing school, I have continued to write for years but rarely ever think about the different types of clauses. Fortunately, identifying and using subordinate and independent clauses is a lot easier than I remember from grade school. Below are some tips and examples to help you fully understand this important part of a complex sentence.


What Is a Subordinate Clause?

A subordinate clause (also called a dependent clause) is one that cannot be used as a simple sentence by itself. It is a complete clause with a subject and a verb, but it’s not a complete sentence. In other words, a subordinate clause doesn’t express a complete thought. Instead, it helps clarify the main clause and add important meaning to a sentence.

subordinate clause

For example, “When I was a child” is a subordinate clause. The subject is “I,” and the verb is “was.” However, there obviously needs to be something after that clause for the sentence to make sense. You could complete the sentence with an independent clause such as “I liked to play with my dog.” The latter clause can stand alone, while the subordinate clause can only be used to add meaning to the independent clause: “When I was a child, I liked to play with my dog.”

It’s important to note that a clause is different from a phrase. A phrase is a group of connected words expressing an incomplete thought. However, a phrase does not include a subject and a verb. So, if you are unsure whether a part of a sentence is a subordinate clause or a phrase, just look for a subject and a verb.


Subordinate Clause Examples

Subordinate clauses are very common. So, you have probably been reading and writing them for as long as you can remember without even realizing it. The following are a few examples:

  • If I moved to a new home …
  • When I get back …
  • Because I said so …
  • Where the cat is napping …
  • Since the forecast predicts snow …

subordinate clause examples

All these examples help to modify and add meaning to independent clauses. However, if you were to leave the clauses without adding anything extra, they wouldn’t mean anything.


Subordinate Clause Definition

The above information gives a good sense of what is a subordinate clause and how to use one. However, you may be wondering what the exact subordinate clause definition is. According to the Meriam Webster dictionary, a subordinate clause is “a clause that does not form a simple sentence by itself and that is connected to the main clause of a sentence.”


Subordinating Conjunctions and Relative Pronouns

In many cases, a subordinate clause includes a subordinating conjunction. Some examples of these conjunctions include “after,” “when,” “if,” “unless” and “since.” The above examples all include subordinating conjunctions. The following examples also use these conjunctions:

  • Because I was young, I didn’t know any better.
  • Will you be coming to the party if it is after work?
  • Whereas I had a dog, my cousin had a cat.
  • I love to go to the beach when it isn’t too cold.

what is a subordinate clause

Other subordinate clauses may include a relative pronoun. These include pronouns such as “that,” “which” and “who.” These subordinate clause examples all contain relative pronouns:

  • I enjoy reading a book that has a happy ending.
  • Writing about grammar, which has a lot of complex rules, can be a lot of fun.
  • I want the bedroom where the balcony is.
  • I’m going to call John, who knows about cars.

Sometimes subordinate clauses with relative pronouns are referred to as relative clauses. However, despite the additional name, they are subordinate and follow the same rules. It wouldn’t be English if the rules were simple!


Punctuating Subordinate Clauses

Understanding how to identify a subordinate clause is more than just having a way to impress your grammar teacher. It can help you remember when you need commas and other punctuation. Typically, if a sentence starts with a subordinate clause, it needs a comma between the subordinate and independent clauses. However, there is often no need to include a comma if the subordinate clause comes last.

  • No: If you clean your room we can go to Magic Mountain.
  • No: We can go to Magic Mountain, if you clean your room.
  • Yes: If you clean your room, we can go to Magic Mountain.
  • Yes: We can go to Magic Mountain if you clean your room.

There are some exceptions to this (it is English grammar after all). Specifically, the above rule applies to how to punctuate subordinate clauses and essential relative clauses. However, if the clause is nonessential (meaning that it can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence) or interrupts the sentence, it should carry a comma even if it is at the end of the sentence.

  • No: Baby Yoda who is actually named Grogu has a cult following. 
  • No: Baby Yoda, who is actually named Grogu has a cult following. 
  • Yes: Baby Yoda, who is actually named Grogu, has a cult following. 

Both commas are necessary in this example because the information about Baby Yoda’s real name is an aside. It’s nonessential information. You don’t need to know cute Baby Yoda’s real name to understand the main point that he has a cult following. Note that the nonessential information is set apart with a comma before and after the nonessential clause.


Become a Master at Identifying Subordinate Clauses

With the above information, you should be ready to properly use and punctuate subordinate clauses in your writing. Are there any other elements of grammar you want to learn about? Comment below with your request for future GrammarSpot topics!

Chris Bennett
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