How to Recognize and Use Clauses in English Grammar

Martin Luther King Jr. making 'I Have a Dream' speech
"We cannot walk alone" from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech) is an independent clause.. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

A clause is the basic building block of a sentence; by definition, it must contain a subject and a verb. Although they appear simple, clauses can function in complex ways in English grammar. A clause can function as a simple sentence, or it may be joined to other clauses with conjunctions to form complex sentences.

Definition

A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. It may be either a complete sentence (also known as an independent or main clause) or a sentence-like construction within another sentence (called a dependent or subordinate clause).

When clauses are joined so that one modifies another, they are called matrix clauses.

Independent: Charlie bought a '57 Thunderbird.

Dependent: Because he loved classic cars

Matrix: Because he loved classic cars, Charlie bought a '57 Thunderbird.

Clauses can function in several ways, as outlined below.

Adjective Clause

This dependent clause (adjective clause) is also known as a relevant clause because it usually contains a relative pronoun or relative adverb. It is used to modify a subject, much as an adjective would, and is also known as a relative clause. Example: This is the ball that Sammy Sosa hit over the left-field wall in the World Series. 

Adverbial Clause

Another dependent clause, adverbial clauses function like an adverb, indicating time, place, condition, contrast, concession, reason, purpose, or result. Typically, an adverbial clause is set off with a comma and a subordinating conjunction.

Example: Although Billy loves pasta and bread, he's on a no-carb diet.

Comparative Clause

These comparative subordinate clauses use adjectives or adverbs such as "like" or "than" to draw a comparison. They are also known as proportional clauses. Example: Julieta is a better poker player than I am.

Complement Clause

Complementary clauses function like adjectives modifying a subject.

They usually begin with a subordinating conjunction and modify the subject-verb relationship. Example: I never expected that you would fly to Japan.

Concessive Clause

A subordinate clause, the concessive clause is used to contrast or justify the main idea of the sentence. It is typically set off by a subordinating conjunction. Example: Because we were shivering, I turned up the heat.

Conditional Clause

Conditional clauses are easy to recognize because they usually begin with the word "if." A type of adjectival clause, conditionals express a hypothesis or condition. Example: If we can reach Tulsa, we can stop driving for the night.

Coordinate Clause

Coordinate clauses usually begin with the conjunctions "and" or "but" and express relativity or relationship with the subject of the main clause. Example: Sheldon drinks coffee, but Ernestine prefers tea.

Noun Clause

As the name suggests, noun clauses are a sort of dependent clause that functions as a noun in relation to the main clause. They are typically offset with "that, " "which," or "what." Example: What I believe is irrelevant to the conversation.

Reporting Clause

The reporting clause is more commonly known as attribution because it identifies who is speaking or the source of what is being said.

They always follow the noun or noun clause. Example: "I'm going to the mall," shouted Jerry from the garage.

Verbless Clause

This kind of subordinate clause may not seem like one because it lacks a verb. Verbless clauses provide tangential information that informs but is not directly modifying the main clause. Example: In the interest of brevity, I will keep this speech short.