Traditionally a clause is defined as a group of related words that has both a subject and a verb. In attempting to identify clauses, they are often contrasted with phrases, which do not have a subject and verb.
In the interest of accuracy, we should acknowledge that linguists have a much more complicated understanding of clauses and phrases, but for the purposes of basic grammar, we’ll stick with the simple definition.
Therefore, in the sentence, “She has not met the person who will move into her old office,” “She has not met the person” and “who will move into her old office” are both clauses. On the other hand, “into her old office” is a phrase.
The challenge in learning to identify clauses lies in the number of grammar terms needed for the discussion. So, if you are feeling a little shaky on subjects, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions and/or relative pronouns, this would be the time for review.
Okay, here we go.
There are two types of clauses:
An independent clause, which functions alone, is not dependent on another clause for context or function. You can read an extensive discussion of independent clauses here, but the following examples will give you the basic idea.
An independent clause has at least one subject and one verb.
The ice melted.
Ah, wouldn’t grammar be easy if every sentence was three words long? But, even sentences with a lot of words may have only one subject and one verb.
Sometimes the subject and verb are right next to each other:
Hurricane Ike barreled west across the already beleaguered islands of the Caribbean on Sunday, raising the death toll and destruction across the waterlogged region.
Sometimes the subject and verb are separated by several words:
The failure to obtain convictions on the plane-bombing charge was a blow to counterterrorism officials.
Some independent clauses have more than one subject and verb.
Obama and Biden met with the committee and discussed the economy.
A sentence can have more than one independent clause. The clauses are connected by a conjunction or a semi-colon.
Caroline Kennedy is seeking the Senate seat, and the governor will speak with her.
A dependent clause, sometimes called a subordinate clause, cannot function independently. In other words, it is dependent on another clause for context or function. In case it is still not clear: A dependent clause CANNOT exist without an independent clause.
Again, you can read an extensive discussion of dependent clauses here, but the following examples will give you the basic idea.
In the following examples, the independent clauses is underlined, the subject of the dependent clause is bold and the verb is bold and underlined.
A clause that begins with a subordinating conjunction is dependent.
The rest of the industry was not ready when Vista finally arrived.
“When” is a subordinating conjunction connecting the dependent clause to the independent clause.
A subordinating conjunction can begin a sentence.
Although the band has been a significant commercial success, radical politics have always been baked into their music.
“Although” is a subordinating conjunction connecting the dependent clause to the independent clause.
Dependent clauses that connect to the independent clause with relative pronouns rather than subordinating conjunctions are further classified as restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. But, just because nothing in grammar is simple, these clauses are sometimes called essential or nonessential, respectively.
The good thing is, the name tells the story of the clause’s value to the sentence:
Nonrestrictive/nonessential clauses are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Because it can be removed from the sentence without changing its basic meaning, it is set off by commas. Think of the commas as little handles you can grab to toss the clause to the side. Restrictive/essential clauses are, you guessed it, essential to the meaning of the sentence. (No commas, please.)
Several people who have counseled the governor on the pending vacancy said that Kennedy has emerged as a clear front-runner.
“Who” is a relative pronoun and the subject of the restrictive dependent clause. “Kennedy” is the subject of a second dependent clause, which is connected to the independent clause by the subordinating conjunction “that.”
Muntader Zaidi, who remained in custody Monday, provided a rare moment of unity in a region often at odds with itself.
“Who” is a relative pronoun and the subject of the nonrestrictive dependent clause.
A final note:
A dependent clause typically functions as a single part of speech in a sentence (e.g., noun, adjective, adverb).
Ritchie, whose career has never scaled the same heights since, was mobbed outside the theater by a gaggle of paparazzi.
The nonrestrictive dependent clause modifies RITCHIE; therefore, it is an adjective clause.
Unless the Pentagon comes up with a better strategy, the United States and its allies may well lose the war.
The dependent clause explains a condition or reason in relation to the independent clause; therefore, it is an adverb clause.