Dependent Clause: Definition and Examples

Is it a noun clause, adverb clause, or adjective clause?

In English grammar, a dependent clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. It's a clause that implies that there is more to come and is incomplete. It is also known as a subordinate clause.

Dependent clauses include adverb clauses, adjective clauses, and noun clauses. They can appear at any point in a sentence and start with signal words.

Types of Dependent Clauses

Adverbial clauses start with a subordinating conjunction and answer wh- questions such as when something happened, where, and why as well as how and to what degree, such as "As soon as winter hits, her nephew earns money shoveling the neighbors' driveways." It answers the question when (with the subordinating conjunction as soon as) and has a verb in it, hits. The subject of that verb is winter, but the clause cannot stand on its own as a sentence, as it is incomplete. 

An adjective clause functions to describe a noun in the sentence and starts with a relative pronoun, as in, "Her nephew, who is industrious, shovels neighbors' driveways in the winter to earn money." The clause describes the nephew, contains a verb (is) and starts with a relative pronoun (who).

A noun clause functions as a noun in the sentence, as in, "That looks delicious. I want some of whatever she's having." The clause functions as a noun in the sentence (it could be replaced by a noun or noun phrase, such as that cake), contains a subject (she) and a verb (is having) but cannot stand on its own. Some signal words for dependent noun clauses include relative pronouns and subordinating conjunctions such as: what, whoever, whether, that, which, how, and why.

You'll be able to tell what kind of clause something is by looking at how it functions in the sentence. For example, the clause in "The city where I come from is Spokane" is an adjective clause because it describes the noun city. In this next example, "Where I come from is much larger than this town" the clause functions as a noun. In "She's planning to move to where I come from," the clause functions as an adverb because it answers the question of where the person will move. 

Locations in a Sentence

Although exceptions can be found, a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma (as in this sentence). However, when a dependent clause appears at the end of a sentence, it's not usually set off with a comma, though again (as in this sentence), there are exceptions. They can also be located inside other dependent clauses. Authors Peter Knapp and Megan Watkins explain:

"There can be levels of complexity within complex sentences. Within a dependent clause, for instance, there can be another dependent clause. For example, in the following sentence there is a main clause..., a dependent clause in an adverbial relationship with the main clause (in italics), and a dependent clause [bold italics] in an adverbial relationship with the first dependent clause:​
"If you want to survive the elements when you go hiking, you should remember to bring along a drink, pocket knife, whistle, map, torch, compass, blanket and food.​" (Peter Knapp and Megan Watkins, Genre, Text, Grammar: Technologies for Teaching and Assessing Writing. University of New South Wales Press, 2005)

If you would like to practice finding clauses in sentences, check out the exercises "Identifying Independent and Dependent Clauses" and "Identifying Adverb Clauses."