Subordinate Clause Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In English grammar, a subordinate 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. Also known as a dependent clause. Contrast with main clause and coordinate clause.

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


    Examples and Observations

    • "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)

      Grammatical Juniors

      "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)

      Types of Subordinating Conjunctions

      "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)

        Subordinate Clauses in Poetry

        "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)

        Pronunciation: suh-BOR-din-it