Not All Clauses Are Created Equal: A Review of English Clauses

Not All Clauses Are Created Equal
A Review of English Clauses

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 9,262 views |

The definition of a clause is deceptively simple: a group of words containing a subject and a verb (or predicate).

With that said, English contains a myriad of clauses, and sorting them out and keeping them straight can be difficult for ESL students. Once your students have some foundation in English clauses, you both might find a review of English clauses helpful. Here is a list of what they will need to know and you should cover in your review.

Your Students Need to Know the Following  about Clauses

  1. 1

    Independent vs. Dependent

    Simply put, an independent clause is a sentence. It is a group of words containing a subject and a verb which can stand alone. Dependent clauses, also called subordinate clauses, still contain a subject and a verb, but they do not express a complete thought. That is, they need the association with another clause to be grammatical and logical. Here’s an example. Remember when your elementary school teacher said never start a sentence with because? That’s because this type of clause completes is dependent and must be combined with an independent clause to be grammatical.

  2. 2

    The exception to the rule

    It wouldn’t be an English grammar rule if there wasn’t an exception, would it? In this case, imperative sentences are the exception to the subject/verb rule for clauses. Though the underlying grammar follows the subject/verb clause pattern, the surface grammar does not. The reason is that the subject in an imperative sentence is implied – the speaker does not actually articulate the subject when he says the sentence. Still, the speaker and the listener know who the subject of the sentence is. Look at the following example.

    • Clean your room!

    This independent clause contains a verb and its object, but it has no articulated subject. English speakers know that the implied subject is “you” in the command.

  3. 3

    Subordinating Conjunctions

    Some dependent clauses start with a subordinating conjunction. A conjunction combines two clauses, and subordinating conjunctions are used with subordinating or dependent clauses. Some common subordinating conjunctions include the following: if, when, because, although, since, unless, where, after, before and whenever. If a clause begins with a subordinating conjunction, is a dependent clause in a complex sentence. Do not confuse these with coordinating conjunctions (and, but, so) which join two clauses to make a compound sentence.

    • I bought the movie which you recommended. (subordinating clause and complex sentence)
    • You recommended the move, and I bought it. (coordinating clause and compound sentence)
  4. 4

    Relative Pronouns

    Other dependent clauses start with a relative pronoun. These familiar words (who, whose, that, which, whom) replace a noun in a clause to create a dependent clause. Relative pronouns always appear at the beginning of the dependent clause.

    • The man who you are dating sounds handsome.
    • The girl whose books you carried likes you.
    • I bought the car that is red.
    • I found the book which you were talking about.
    • They are the ones whom I saw.
  5. 5

    Relative Adverbs

    Relative adverbs are similar to relative pronouns. They are used at the beginning of a dependent clause. They include where, when and why. Rather than replacing a noun in the clause to create a dependent clause, they replace other parts of the sentence.

    • The park where the magician performs is on the other side of town.
    • Saturdays when the weather is nice we go for picnics there.
    • The reason why we do this is to get away from our busy city lives.
  6. 6

    Zero Relatives

    Zero relatives are another possible start to a dependent clause. In the underlying grammar, they are relative pronouns (that, which, who). These pronouns can be omitted, though, in the surface grammar and are then labeled as zero relatives.

    • The dog (that) I saw in the park looked hungry.
    • The book (which) you are looking for is in the library.
    • The boy (who) you love is lying to you.
  7. 7

    Noun Clauses

    Noun clauses function as a noun in a sentence and are sometimes referred to as nominal clauses. They can fill the role of either subject or object in a sentence. They can begin with any relative pronoun, relative adjective or zero relative.

    • That you are going to be late tomorrow I am certain.
    • I believe that it is impossible for you to be on time.
  8. 8

    Adjective Clause (Restrictive and Nonrestrictive)

    An adjective clause is a clause that acts as an adjective in a sentence. This type of clause is also known as an adjectival clause or a relative clause. An adjective clause can start with a relative pronoun, a relative adverb or a zero relative. The following examples use a relative pronoun, a relative adverb and a zero relative respectively.

    • The person who stole my identity will be caught.
    • Spring is the time when a young man’s fancy turns to love.
    • I know the person you’re talking about.

    A restrictive noun clause identifies the noun in the sentence. A nonrestrictive noun clause is not necessary to identify a noun in a sentence but instead offers extra information about the noun. Nonrestrictive noun clauses are offset with commas.

    • Is the city that you are from big?
    • New York City, which is the biggest city in the country, is my home.

    Though not considered a clause, an appositive is a reduction of a relative clause. In an appositive, the relative clause is reduced to just the noun phrase in the dependent clause. Appositives can also be restrictive or nonrestrictive

    • My brother, a mechanic, always does my car repairs. (nonrestrictive- speaker has only one brother)
    • My brother the mechanic always does my car repairs. (restrictive – speaker has more than one brother)
  9. 9

    Adverb Clause

    Adverb clauses, also known as adverbial clauses, function as an adverb in a sentence. They may describe a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or they may modify the entire sentence. They are often classified into seven different categories depending on what type of information they convey.

    An adverb clause of time indicates when something happened and can start with the following relative adverbs: when, before, after, until, since and as soon as.

    • She will wait by the phone until he calls.

    Adverb clauses of place indicate a location and can start with the following relative adverbs: where and wherever.

    • He sleeps wherever he pleases.

    Adverb clauses of cause indicate a reason and can start with the following relative adverbs: because, as, since.

    • Since he is coming over later, I will not call him now.

    Adverb clauses of purpose also indicate a reason and can start with the following relative adverbs: so that and in order that.

    • He shops on line so that he can avoid crowds.

    Adverb clauses of result indicate an outcome and can start with the following relative adverbs: so…that and such…that.

    • He is such a bad driver that he often gets pulled over.

    Adverb clauses of condition indicate a requiremen and can start with the following relative adverbs: if and unless.

    • Unless you study, you will not do well on the test.

    Adverb clauses of concession indicate a contrast and can start with the following relative adverbs: although and even though.

    • Even though she was a good student, she did poorly on the test.

Clauses can be a confusing element of English grammar. However, students whose teachers take time to review English’s many clauses and give them an overall review will find clauses may not be all that confusing after all.

Which type of clause is most confusing to your students?

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