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What Is a Subordinate Clause? (with Examples)A subordinate clause (or dependent clause) is a clause that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence because it does not express a complete thought.
Like all clauses, a subordinate clause has a subject and verb.
Examples of Subordinate ClausesHere are some examples of subordinate clauses (shaded). You will notice that none of the shaded clauses could stand alone as a sentence. This is how a subordinate clause (or a dependent clause) is different from an independent clause.
- She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit. (W Somerset Maugham, 1874-1965)
- A musicologist is a man who can read music but can't hear it. (Sir Thomas Beecham, 1879-1961)
- Always be nice to those younger than you because they are the ones who will be writing about you. (Cyril Connolly, 1903-1974)
- Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. (Sir Winston Churchill, 1874-1965)
Types of Subordinate ClauseSubordinate clauses can act as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns.
The Adjective Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as an adjective:
- The bull that charged us is back in the field. (The subordinate clause that charged us describes the bull. It is an adjective clause.)
- I fished until the sun went down. (The subordinate clause until the sun went down modifies the verb to fish. It is an adverbial clause.)
- Whoever dislikes the new timings is more than welcome to leave. (The subordinate clause Whoever dislikes the new timings is the subject of this sentence. It is a noun clause.)
The Link between a Subordinate Clause and an Independent ClauseWhen a subordinate clause is used as an adjective or an adverb, it will usually be part of a complex sentence (i.e., a sentence with an independent clause and at least one subordinate clause).
The link between a subordinate clause and an independent clause will often be a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun. For example:
- I fished until the sun went down. (subordinating conjunction in bold)
- The bull that charged us is back in the field. (relative pronoun in bold)
|Common Subordinating Conjunctions||Relative Pronouns|
The relative pronouns above are the simple relative pronouns. You can also have compound ones. A compound relative pronoun is formed by adding either ever or soever to a simple pronoun.
whoever (who + ever)
whosever (whose + ever)
(Spelling rule: Don't allow ee.)
whosoever (who + soever)
whosesoever (whose + soever)
COMMAS WITH SUBORDINATE CLAUSESThe big question with a subordinate clause is whether to offset it with a comma (or commas). Here are the general rules:
When the subordinate clause is an adverbWhen the subordinate clause starts with a subordinating conjunction (e.g., unless, because, as, until), it will be functioning as an adverb. When the clause starts the sentence, use a comma. If it ends the sentence, do not use a comma. For example (subordinate clauses shaded):
- Until there are no more shoppers, keep singing. (The subordinate clause is at the start, so a comma is needed.)
- Keep singing until there are no more shoppers. (The subordinate clause is at the end, so a comma is not needed.)
This works for all adverbial phrases. For example (adverbial phrases in bold):
- At 4 o'clock, the bell will ring.
- The bell will ring at 4 o'clock.
When the subordinate clause is an adjectiveWhen the subordinate clause starts with a relative pronoun (e.g., which, who), it will be functioning as an adjective. Do not use a comma before your relative pronoun if the clause is essential for meaning. However, do use a comma if the clause is just additional information. For example:
- My sister who lives in Moscow is getting married. (From this we can infer that there is at least one other sister who doesn't live in Moscow. The clause is essential for meaning. It identifies what it modifies, i.e., it specifies which sister.)
- My sister Rebecca, who lives in Moscow, is getting married. (This time, the clause is just additional information. It needs commas.)
Read more about commas before relative pronouns.
A Quick Test
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You cannot start a sentence with who or which unless it is a question (i.e., an interrogative sentence). For example:
- I enjoy weeding. Which is helpful because I have a large garden.
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