Subordination in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Subordination in English grammar is the process of linking two clauses in a sentence so that one clause is dependent on (or subordinate to) another. Clauses joined by coordination are called main clauses or independent clauses. This is in contrast to subordination, in which a subordinate clause (for example, an adverb clause or an adjective clause) is attached to the main clause.

Clausal subordination is often (but not always) indicated by a subordinating conjunction in the case of adverb clauses or a relative pronoun in the case of adjective clauses.

Definition of Subordination

For a clear and complete definition of subordination and how it allows readers to connect ideas, read this excerpt from Sonia Cristofaro's book, Subordination. "[T]he notion of subordination will be defined here exclusively in functional terms. Subordination will be regarded as a particular way to construe the cognitive relation between two events, such that one of them (which will be called the dependent event) lacks an autonomous profile, and is construed in the perspective of the other event (which will be called the main event).

This definition is largely based on the one provided in Langacker (1991: 435-7). For instance, in Langacker's terms, the English sentence in (1.3),

(1.3) After she drank the wine, she went to sleep.

profiles the event of going to sleep, not the event of drinking the wine. ... What matters here is that the definition pertains to cognitive relations between events, not any particular clause type. This means that the notion of subordination is independent of the way in which clause linkage is realized across languages," (Cristofaro 2005).

Example of Subordination

"In the sentence, I swear that I didn't dream it, where one clause is part of the other, we have subordination," begins Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge in Introducing English Grammar. "The higher clause, i.e., the whole sentence, is the main clause and the lower clause is a sub-clause. In this case, there is an element which actually marks explicitly the beginning of the subordinate clause, namely that," (Börjars and Burridge 2010).

Adverbial Subordinate Clauses

Adverbial clauses are subordinate clauses that begin with subordinate conjunctions and function as adverbs. Here are some examples.

  • "While Fern was in school, Wilbur was shut up inside his yard," (White 1952).
  •  "All the animals capered with joy when they saw the whips going up in flames," (Orwell 1946).
  • "One summer morning, after I had swept the dirt yard of leaves, spearmint-gum wrappers, and Vienna-sausage labels, I raked the yellow-red dirt, and made half-moons carefully, so that the design stood out clearly and masklike," (Angelou 1969).
  • "[U]nless one is inordinately fond of subordination, one is always at war," (Roth 2001).

Adjectival Subordinate Clauses

Adjectival clauses are subordinate clauses that function as adjectives. See these examples.

  • "Fern ... found an old milking stool that had been discarded, and she placed the stool in the sheepfold next to Wilbur's pen," (White 1952).
  • "Moses, who was Mr. Jones's especial pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker," (Orwell 1946).
  • "We lived with our grandmother and uncle in the rear of the Store (it was always spoken of with a capital s), which she had owned some twenty-five years," (Angelou 1969).
  • "In the cutting room, there were twenty-five men at work, about six to a table, and the Swede led her over to the oldest of them, whom he introduced as 'the Master," (Roth 1997).

Analyzing Subordinate Structures

Donna Gorrell, author of Style and Difference, argues that the subordinate sentence type is at once prominent and difficult to correctly use. "Subordination-heavy sentences are probably our most common type of sentence, either spoken or written, though they are more complicated than they may seem at first glance. In fact, this sentence by Thomas Cahill seems quite ordinary until we examine it more closely:

In the time-honored fashion of the ancient world, he opens the book at random, intending to receive as a divine message the first sentence his eyes should fall upon. —How the Irish Saved Civilization (57).

Cahill's basic sentence about St. Augustine is 'he opened the book.' But the sentence begins with two orienting prepositional phrases ('In the time-honored fashion' and 'of the ancient world') and adds detail at the end with a prepositional phrase ('at random') and a participial phrase ('intending . . .'). There is also an infinitive phrase ('to receive . . .') and a subordinate clause ('his eyes should fall upon'). For the reader, comprehending this sentence is much simpler than describing it," (Gorrell 2004).

Subordination and the Evolution of Languages

Subordination is commonplace in English, but this is not true of all languages. Here's what expert James Huford has to say about this. "Many languages make very sparse use of clause subordination while making much freer use of clause conjoining.

We can extrapolate that the earliest languages had only juxtaposition of clauses, then developed markers of coordination of clauses (like and), and only later, perhaps much later, developed ways of signaling that one clause was intended to be understood as playing a role inside the interpretation of another, i.e. marking subordination of clauses," (Hurford 2014).


  • Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969.
  • Börjars, Kersti, and Kate Burridge. Introducing English Grammar. 2nd ed. Hodder Education Publishers, 2010.
  • Cristofaro, Sonia. Subordination. Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Gorrell, Donna. Style and Difference. 1st ed., Wadsworth Publishing, 2004.
  • Hurford, James R. The Origins of Language. 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946.
  • Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997.
  • Roth, Philip. The Dying Animal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.
  • White, E.B. Charlotte's Web. Harper & Brothers, 1952.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Subordination in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Subordination in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Subordination in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).