Section 6: Clause Forms and Functions

In the previous subsection, we analyzed clause types to understand patterns in English. We now want to take our analysis to another level of complexity by analyzing clauses for form and function, just as we did with WORDS and PHRASES in the previous sections. As a reminder, a CLAUSE is a grammatical structure with both a nominal subject and a main verb phrase. If both elements are not present in that order, then it cannot be a clause. 

There are two primary clause forms: independent clauses and dependent clauses.

An independent clause is a clause that is able to stand alone as a sentence. An independent clause can only function as an independent clause, so its form and function is always independent clause.

A dependent clause is a clause that is unable to stand independently and make good sense. The most common dependent clause forms include subordinate clauses, relative clauses, that-clauses, and interrogative clauses. More importantly, dependent clauses must perform some function (nominal, adverbial, or adjectival) in the context of a sentence. We will discuss the key markers for recognizing each dependent clause separately in more detail:

Distinguishing Independent Clauses and Dependent Clauses

You should be able to distinguish between an independent clause and a dependent clause. After you have read about each of the dependent clauses in more detail, you should then be able to identify the function of any dependent clause in the context of its sentence.

To begin, the KEY MARKER for distinguishing an independent clause from a dependent clause is the subject. For an independent clause, the subject will stand alone, while the subject of a dependent clause will always have a dependent marker that is the subject or that precedes the subject. This means that the subject of a dependent clause will be or be preceded by a subordinator or a relative or an interrogator or a nominal-that. We will discuss this in more detail on each of the dependent clause pages.

As an example, let's review the same paragraph we used before for Independent and Dependent Clauses:

Margot’s mind reeled. She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door. It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside. They were faces she once knew in a different light, but now they were putrid reflections of squalor and decay. There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except the grim reminder that she was alone. She tried to ignore the thought, but it was difficult to swallow when she was the last bastion of humanity. Death awaited her outside.

When searching for clauses, we first need to identify all main verb phrases:

Margot’s mind reeled. She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door. It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside. They were faces she once knew in a different light, but now they were putrid reflections of squalor and decay. There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except the grim reminder that she was alone. She tried to ignore the thought, but she was the last bastion of humanity. And only death awaited her outside.

Once we know where the clauses are, we can proceed to break them apart to determine if they are independent or dependent:

Margot’s mind reeled - Independent Clause

  • This is the only clause in this sentence. The subject is MARGOT'S MIND, which does not contain a dependent marker.

She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door - Independent Clause

  • This is the only clause in this sentence, and the subject, SHE, does not contain a dependent marker. 

It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside - Independent Clause

  • This is the only clause in this sentence, and the subject, IT, does not contain a dependent marker. Remember: TO CONSIDER is an infinitive phrase, not a main verb phrase.

They were faces - Independent Clause

  • There are three clauses in this sentence. The subject of this clause, THEY, does not contain a dependent marker.

[that] she once knew in a different light - Dependent Clause

  • While this clause appears to be independent, as we will discuss in the Relative Clauses page, this clause actually has a deleted relative (THAT), so this is an adjectival relative clause. Most importantly, the clause does not have markers for a second independent clause (as we'll discuss in the next clause) and fills a functional role in the sentence. 

but now they were putrid reflections of squalor and decay - Independent Clause

  • The clause is preceded by a coordinating conjunction (BUT), which, as we will discuss in more detail in Section 7, serves as a KEY MARKER for an independent clause when paired with another independent clause. The subject, THEY, is preceded by NOW, but that is an adverb, not a dependent marker.

There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes - Independent Clause

  • The subject, THERE, does not contain a dependent marker, so it can stand alone. We'll analyze the other elements in this sentence when we discuss the next clause.

except the grim reminder that she was alone - Dependent Clause

  • The subject of this clause, THAT SHE, has a dependent marker. THAT can be the trickiest dependent marker since it can serve as both a relative and as a marker for a nominal-that clause, but in ths case, the clause is modifying the noun REMINDER, so THAT is a dependent marker for a relative clause.
  • To dig a little deeper, you should be able to analyze the other elements in the sentence to verify that there are only two clauses. There was nothing left (independent clause) for her (prepositional phrase) to glean (infinitive phrase) from their lifeless eyes (prepositional phrase) except the grim reminder (prepositional phrase) that she was alone (adjectival relative clause modifying the object of the preposition). 

She tried to ignore the thought - Independent Clause

  • The subject of this clause, SHE, does not have a dependent marker. Remember, TO IGNORE THE THOUGHT is an infinitive phrase functioning nominally as the direct object. It is not a clause.

but she was the last bastion of humanity - Independent Clause

  • The subject, SHE, does not have a dependent marker since, similar to the previous example, the clause is preceded by a coordinating conjunction (BUT), which serves as a marker for an independent clause when paired with another independent clause.

And only death awaited her outside - Independent Clause

  • Independent Clause
  • While beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is frowned upon by the more pedantic prescriptive grammarians, it is clearly a stylistic choice (which we will discuss in greater detail in Section 7). AND is not normally a dependent marker, so the subject, ONLY DEATH, does not have a dependent marker.

As we stated on the previous page (but can never be said too often), remember that when analyzing clauses, always begin by identifying the Main Verb Phrase to determine if it is actually a clause. In other words, before you can determine if a clause is independent of dependent, you have to find it. The ability to recognize a clause and to know whether a clause is independent or dependent is essential to make appropriate punctuation and stylistic choices in writing. We will discuss this in more detail in Section 7

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:

CLAUSE FORM PRACTICE EXERCISE

For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following passage adapted from Heart of Darkness for clause forms.

The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the CLAUSE FORM SAMPLES ANALYSES page.