Embedding in English Grammar

Nesting dolls on a window sill
Another term for embedding in English grammar is nesting. Sharon Vos-Arnold/Getty Images

Embedded clauses are tools that allow the writer to restructure or rearrange a sentence or group of sentences for clarity and flow, or intentionally break up the flow of a sentence for more impact. Instead of a string of plain old, dull Subject > Predicate sentences, by using embedded clauses you can transform some of those sentences into dependent clauses and insert them into the main (known as the root or matrix clause).

What Is an Embedded Clause?

Embedded clauses are a type of dependent clause, and, as such, they can't stand alone: they are always part of a sentence. But, as with subordinate clauses you can use embedded clauses to pare down extra words to make your point clearer, or repackaging information into a sentence in a pleasing manner. The most apparent embedded clauses are those that physically interrupt the subject and are commonly marked with paired commas, paired em dashes, or paired parentheses.

  • Before: We binge-watched "Downton Abbey" over the weekend. It was fascinating! However, my roommate wants me to call him "Earl" now.
  • After: My roommate Earl, formerly known as Joe, binge-watched too much "Downton Abbey" with me over the weekend.

The main clause (we binge-watched over the weekend) is broken up by the embedded clause (roommate's new name) and separated from the root by a set of commas.

  • Before: There was a storm last night. The baseball game was rained out. We ran for cover into a bowling alley.
  • After: The baseball game was rained out—there was a storm last night—and we ran for cover into the nearby bowling alley.

Types of Embedded Clauses

Embedded clauses are usually classified by the kind of words you use to embed the information as well as the function they play in the sentence. Embedded clauses can function as subjects and objects, but also as modifiers of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

Noun clauses or nominal clauses, when used as an embedded clause, function as a subject, object, or complement within those sentences.

  • Everyone knows that Evelyn went home.
  • Susan told me the cherries were bad.

An adverb clause used as an embedded clause indicates time, place, or purpose.

  • He reads books if they are required.
  • I'll meet you at the diner about seven.

Gerunds can be used to turn an embedded clause into a subject:

  • My roommate's studying all night is not good for him.
  • Watching too much "Downton Abbey" made my roommate change his name from Joe to Earl.

Infinitives can be used as well:

  • We all want industry to stop polluting the environment.
  • The only thing to do now is to vote in an election based on what you want for your future.

Breaking the Rules: Hemingway

As someone once said, a good writer knows when to break the rules. The rules in using embedded clauses are (1) don't string a series of uninterrupted subject > predicate sentences together, and (2) don't overuse embedded clauses.

Hemingway's nonuse of embedded construction is worth exploring as an object lesson. Here, Hemingway's Nick Adams is living through a flashback in a series of drumbeat-like sentences, some with embedded clauses but some without.

By the time you have finished reading this passage in Hemingway's short story "Three Shots," first published in 1972, you know it will end badly.

"Last night in the tent he had the same fear. He never had it except at night. It was more a realization than a fear at first. But it was always on the edge of fear and became fear very quickly when it started. As soon as he began to be really frightened he took out the rifle and poked the muzzle to the front of the tent and shot three times. The rifle kicked badly. He heard the shots rip off through the trees. As soon as he had fired the shots it was all right."

Breaking the Rules: Austen

A terrific example of breaking the rule for using far too many embedded clauses is found in Jane Austen's 1815 novel "Emma." In this passage, the endearing and tiresome Miss Bates' incessant chattering gives us an excellent feel for what the experience of an early 19th-century ball was like.

"Jane, Jane, my dear Jane, where are you?—Here is your tippet. Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet. She says she is afraid there will be draughts in the passage, though every thing has been done—One door nailed up—Quantities of matting—My dear Jane, indeed you must. Mr. Churchill, oh! you are too obliging! How well you put it on!—so gratified! Excellent dancing indeed!...'Oh!' said I, 'I shall not forestall Jane; I left her dancing with Mr. George Otway; she will love to tell you all about it herself to-morrow: her first partner was Mr. Elton, I do not know who will ask her next, perhaps Mr. William Cox.' My dear sir, you are too obliging.—Is there nobody you would not rather?—I am not helpless. Sir, you are most kind. Upon my word, Jane on one arm, and me on the other!—Stop, stop, let us stand a little back, Mrs. Elton is going; dear Mrs. Elton, how elegant she looks!—Beautiful lace!—Now we all follow in her train. Quite the queen of the evening!"

Embedded Clauses: Key Takeaways

  • Embedded clauses occur when a writer breaks up plain subject > predicate sentences by adding dependent clauses.
  • The purpose of embedding clauses, in general, is to intentionally break up the flow of a sentence for more impact or interest.
  • Breaking the rules of embedded clauses is another way to empower the writer and bring interest to one's writing.

Sources

Perrin, Porter G., and Wilma R. Ebbitt. "Writer's Guide and Index to English." Glenview, Ill.: Foresman and Company, 1972. Print.

Strunk, William, Jr., and E.B. White. "The Elements of Style." Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.

Van Gelderen, Elly. "An Introduction to the Grammar of English." Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010. Print.