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Understanding Clauses (Relative, Independent, and Dependent Examples)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a clause as a group of words accommodating a predicate and a subject serving as a member of a compound or complex sentence. In simpler terms, a clause is made of a group of words that consist of a finite verb and a subject.

A clause generally contains only one verb and one subject. In the clause, the verb needs to be distinguishable and apparent, while the subject can be hidden or mentioned.

Independent clauseDependent clause
Express the complete idea or thought. It has a subject and verb and can stand alone as a sentence.A clause which (as alone) cannot express the complete meaning.
Example: I saw a man crying.Example: I saw a man who was crying.
Example: He bought a car, which was expensive.Example: He bought a car which was too expensive.
Example: I eat some apples in the kitchen.Example: I know the girl who took my pen.

What are clauses?

A clause generally makes up one part of a speech. It is a group of words that include a verb and a subject. Although a clause typically includes a verb and a subject, sometimes the verb phrase in a clause is accompanied by other elements. These other grammatical elements can be adjuncts, complements, and objects. In some cases, these elements become necessary to complete the exact meaning of the clause.

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a.     Fiona laughed.

The clause is only made up of the subject and the verb.

b.     Sam doesn’t feel well.

The complement ‘well’ in the sentence becomes essential to convey the meaning of the clause.

c.       They haven’t signed all the letters.

In this clause, ‘signed’ is a transitive word that needs the object, ‘all the letters’ to be a complete meaningful sentence.

Sometimes clauses also include additional words that are not necessary to convey the clear meaning of the unit. For instance:

a.     I’ll help you tomorrow.

In this clause ‘tomorrow’ is the extra word without which the sentence would still be a complete clause.

b.     All the boys shouted loudly.

In this clause, ‘all the boys’ is the subject, and ‘shouted’ is the verb. ‘Loudly’ is the additional word that has no significant role in the clause.

Sometimes a clause is only created by a definitive verb. Most of the time when a command is given the subject is dismissed:

a.     Run!

b.     Be safe.

c.      Jump!

The subject in the clause is used to make it transparent who the speaker is addressing or to reinforce the instruction. For example, ‘You be safe.’


A clause is the primary unit of English grammar. A clause is made up of a defining verb. Commonly a clause contains a verb phrase, a subject, and sometimes a compliment.

A clause can be made up of a single or a multiple number of sentences.

i.                    One clause sentence – I graduated this year.

ii.                  Two clause sentence – When he came here, he saw her.

iii.                Three clause sentence – When he came here, he saw her, and he greeted her.

All the clauses in the English language are classified into the following types:

Independent clauses

An independent clause looks like a regular sentence and holds meaning independently as a sentence. The independent clauses or main clauses can form a complete sentence on their own.

They contain a definitive verb that represents tense and is always finite.


a.     My child cries a lot.

b.     The puppies ate lunch.

c.      His house is blue.

d.     I love eating Pizza.

e.     Nick eats ham.

f.       She is a wise woman.

g.     Give it please. (the subject ‘you’ is hidden)

h.     I read the whole book.

i.        I love her.

j.        Can you do it?

From the examples above you can clearly derive that independent clauses are not long complex sentences. However, sometimes they can be part of long and complex sentences. Other types of sentences include compound-complex sentences, compound sentences, and complex sentences.

A unique type of combination of dependent and independent clauses is created by the respective types of sentences. Combined clauses will be discussed in greater detail later in the article.

To form one single sentence, two or more independent clauses can be linked by coordinators, like but, and, or, so, for, yet, etc.


a.     I want to buy a car, but I don’t have enough funds.

The two independent clauses here are joined together by the coordinator ‘but.’

b.     She went to Switzerland and visited the bankers.

The subject of the second clause is also she. Hence, the independent clause is, ‘she visited the bankers.’

Relative clauses

Relative clauses are used to connect two sentences in the English language or to give further explanations about something.


a.     I bought a new bike. It is very fast.

These are two separate sentences that when joined together form a relative clause:

           I bought a new bike that is very fast.

b.     She lives in Seattle. She loves living in Seattle.

Similarly, when these two independent sentences are joined, they form the relative clause:

         She lives in Seattle, which she loves.

Defining and non-defining relative clause

In a defining relative clause, the noun in reference is clear and distinguishable.

E.g.: I adore the kid that lives next door.

If it was not said who lives next door, then it wouldn’t be clear who is the exact subject.

In a non-defining relative clause, some extra information is given that is not necessary to understand the meaning of the sentence.

E.g.: I live in Vienna, which has some spectacular views.

The location of Vienna is already established. The information about its spectacular views is just extra information.

The defining relative clause can sometimes have the object as the relative pronoun and sometimes have the subject as the relative pronoun. The relative clause can follow the object or the subject of the sentence. However, the relative pronoun is indispensable when it is the subject. When the relative pronoun is the object, it can be dropped out of the clause.

Examples where the relative pronoun is the object are as follows:

a.     Rachel loves the candy that I got.

b.     We went to the show which Tony recommended.

c.      The man who my sister loves is from Mexico.

d.     The doctor that my father prefers lives in New Orleans.

e.     Monica met a guy who I had been to college with.

Examples where the relative pronoun is the subject are as follows:

a.     He has a daughter who is a surgeon.

b.     We bought a car that is ten years old.

c.      The people that live in the forest are very friendly.

d.     The water heater that costs $150 is over there.

e.     I sent a courier that arrived four weeks later.

In the case of the non-defining relative clauses ‘that’ is not commonly used. ‘Who’ is used in reference to a person and ‘which’ is used when refereeing to a thing. The relative pronoun in the nondefining relative clause cannot be dropped even if it is the object.

Examples of non-defining relative clauses are as follows:

a.     My manager, who is brilliant, lives in Madrid.

b.     My grandmother’s house, which I grew up in, is huge.

c.      I loved the new Mexican restaurant, which we went to last week.

d.     Last week I bought a new toaster, which I don’t like now.

e.     Yesterday I called our friend Oliver, who lives in Bali.

Conditional clauses

Conditional clauses are also called conditional sentences or if clauses. These statements discuss established factors, or imaginary situations and their consequences. A complete conditional sentence includes a conditional clause along with the consequence.

There are four types of conditional sentences, zero, first, second and third type of conditional sentences.

Zero conditional sentences

Zaro conditional sentences are often used to express universal truths, where something always causes the other.

E.g.: When people drink, their health deteriorates.

The simple present tense is used for both clauses in a zero conditional sentence. Many people make the mistake of using the simple future tense, which is grammatically incorrect. Another identifying factor of a zero conditional sentence is that ‘if’ and ‘when’ can be used interchangeably in the conditional sentence. This is because, for general truths, the consequence will be the same whether or not ‘if’ it happens or when it happens.

First conditional sentences

It is used for situations where the outcome is highly probable. The simple future tense is used for the main clause, which talks about the likely outcome, and simple present tense is used for the if clause.

E.g.: If you rest, you will feel refreshed.

Second conditional sentences

It is used to express results that will not likely occur or results that are mostly unrealistic. The proper way of structuring a second conditional sentence is simple past tense for the if clause, and auxiliary model verb for the main clause.

E.g.: If I inherited a million dollars, I would shift to Mars.

Third conditional sentences

The third conditional sentence is used to express that the current situation would be different if something else had occurred in the past. It is used to express a circumstance that could have easily happened but never actually did. When using this form of a conditional sentence, past perfect is used in the if clause, and model auxiliary along with have and past participle is used in the main clause.

E.g.: If I had finished my homework, I could have gone to the mall.

Here the narrator in the first sentence could finish their homework but did not. It is a circumstance that was probable and doable but regrettably didn’t happen.

What are subordinate clauses?

The subordinate clause is also known as a dependent clause. A subordinate clause cannot function independently. It is incapable of functioning on its own because leaves a thought or an idea unfinished. The dependent clause cannot form a complete sentence by itself.

How they’re different

An independent clause can be considered a complete sentence. While the subordinate clause only constitutes the supporting part of the sentence. The subordinators function as the link between a dependent clause and another clause to convey the complete meaning of a sentence. The subordinators include subordinating conjunctions, noun clause markers, and relative pronouns.


a.      When I was dating Peter, I had a house.

b.     I know the guy who stole the car.

c.      He bought a phone which was too cheap.

d.     If you don’t finish, I won’t go.

Dependent clauses can serve three different functions. The subordinate clauses function as adjectives, nouns, and adverbs.

Adjective clauses

In a sentence, the adjective clause functions as the adjective of the sentence. The qualities of this category of the clause are similar to that of adjectives. They are also used to modify nouns in a sentence. Adjective clauses generally follow noun it has modified in the sentence and is sometimes referred to as relative clause.


a.      Dick is searching for the book that used to belong to his mom.

b.     You there, who is hiding behind the bench, come to the front and read the poem.

c.      I am searching for the blue bicycle that went missing yesterday.

d.     My sister who lives in Sweden looks like Anne Hathaway.

Noun clauses

Noun clauses are often referred to as nominal clauses. When the dependent clause acts as a noun in the sentence then it is called a noun clause. To confirm if a clause is indeed a noun clause swap it with a noun. If the sentence still makes grammatical sense, then it’s a noun clause.


a.      They recalled the spiritual reader’s presentation.

b.     I don’t know how the institute handles admissions.

c.      I love what I see.

d.     She knows how things function around here.

Adverb clauses

The dependent clauses that function as adverbs are known as adverbial clauses. They are capable of modifying the verb and adverb of a sentence.


a.      She lost weight after she gave up junk food.

b.     The TV was installed after they finished the room.

c.      He fixed the pipe without facing difficulty.

d.     I went through the novel at a lightning speed. 

Difference between independent and dependent clauses

Some clauses cannot express a complete thought whereas some clauses can. Based on the capability of expressing ideas, clauses in the English language can be classified into two categories, dependent and independent clauses. The primary difference between the two is that an independent clause can convey a complete idea while the dependent clause cannot convey a complete idea.

An independent clause is constructed by a group of words that contain a predicament and subject and can also express a coherent thought. On the other hand, a dependent clause is formed by a group of words that also contain a predicament and a subject but is unable to express a complete idea.

Another key difference is that an independent clause can be found in every sentence while the dependent clause is not necessarily found in every sentence.

The dependent clause generally follows subordinating conjunction in a sentence. When this type of conjunction is placed before an independent clause then it can become a dependent clause. While a set of two independent clauses are linked with a semicolon or coordinating conjunction.


Examples of independent clauses are as follows:

a.      Your package came early, so I accepted it right away.

b.     Henry tripped on a stone.

c.      A golden cup sits on my desk.

d.     He made a pork pie; everyone liked it.

e.      She wants to go to France because her grandparents live in Paris.

Examples of dependent clauses are as follows:

a.      They could not initiate the meeting until the President arrived.

b.     Although she liked short stories, she bought a novel.

c.      The old woman who lives by the lake sold me this book.

d.     Finish your lunch before the food gets stale.

e.      He cannot remember what he promised yesterday.

Understanding clauses vs. phrases

As we have already learned earlier in the article, a clause is a complete idea that includes a verb and a subject. While the phrase is a group of words that changes the object and the subject of a sentence, to give more information, but is not a complete idea in itself. An individual phrase cannot form a coherent sentence but a single clause can form a complete sentence.

The clauses are a necessary part of a sentence while the phrases cannot form sentences independently. For instance, in the sentence ‘Wherever you go, she will follow,’ the first part is the phrase and the second part is the clause. ‘Wherever you go’ doesn’t make sense independently. While ‘she will follow’ has a distinct subject and a verb which forms the clause as it can stand as a complete idea by itself.

The clause does not need any extra words to convey the meaning of the sentence. The phrase is an important component of a clause but cannot form a meaningful thought on its own.


E.g.: The small clock rang when the hand struck noon.

In the above sentence, ‘the small clock’ is the phrase that is an integral part of the sentence but cannot stand independently. By itself, it doesn’t convey the complete meaning. The clause in this sentence is ‘The small clock rang.’ Here the clock holds a subject and a verb and is an independent sentence on its own. The resultant sentence is hence made up of both the phrase and the clause.

Other examples of clauses with phrases are as follows:

a.      White and almond chocolate are mouth-watering.

b.     The cook piped icing on the pastry.

c.      The beautiful tiny flowers are blossoming in the garden.

The underlines parts of the sentence are phrases. These particular parts of the sentence do not function as complete sentences. 

Why are clauses important?

When compared to other parts of speech and sentences clauses seem abstract. Then why do we need them?

Clauses express complicated information while performing as part of speech. The clauses are used to convey complex thoughts concisely within a sentence, as they pack more information than their word equivalents or parallels. That is why they are abundantly used in professional writing.

Clauses are also used to bring structure to the writing. When larger units like phrases and clauses are used to construct a sentence the chances of making an error reduce substantially. Understanding the function of dependent clauses and independent clauses in a sentence makes the overall writing much smoother.


The boy ran down quickly.

The boy ran down as if someone was chasing him.

In the first sentence, the adverb used is ‘quickly.’ It is used to describe the manner in which the boy ran down. In the second sentence the adverbial clause, ‘as if someone was chasing him’ also serves the same function. Only the adverbial clause provides greater details while serving the purpose of the adverb.

Clauses chart
Clauses chart

Grammar rules for using clauses

A clause is constituted of a collection of words that include a predicament and a subject but cannot always be regarded as a full sentence. Clauses can either be classified as independent (main) clauses or dependent (subordinate) clauses. All the grammar rules of the function and types of clauses have already been thoroughly discussed in the article.

An adverbial clause functions as an adverb in a sentence and is a type of dependent clause. The adverb clauses give information about the purpose, manner, place, time, manner, and many other things in a sentence. There are many types of adverb clauses each with its particular set of functions and common conjunction:


The adverbial clauses expressing time generally include the words, before, until, as long as, after, and while as answers when something happens.

E.g.: They hiked after they ate supper.


The adverbial clause of place, makes use of ‘where’ and ‘wherever’ as its trigger words.

E.g.: The man followed me wherever I went.


Conditional adverb clauses use subordination conjunctions like lest, provided that, and if to convey the likely result of a situation.

E.g.: We will go to the park if it’s sunny.

A clause is considered to be the basic unit of English grammar. The proper usage and placement of clauses in a sentence improve the quality of writing. Go through the article and learn everything there is to know about the function of clauses.


What are the various types of clauses?

Adjective clause, adverbial clause, appositive clause, comment clause, comparative clause, concessive clause, conditional clause, contract clause, conditional mood coordinate clause, defining relative clause, dependent clause, finite clause, if clause, independent clause, main clause, nominal clause, non-defining relative clause, non-finite clause.

What is a clause?

A clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a verb. The clause functions as one part of speech.

Can a sentence have multiple clauses?

Yes. A sentence can have multiple clauses, especially in a complex sentence. Two clauses can appear in a single sentence. Although, it can create a sentence fragment if not used correctly.


  1. What is a clause? – Learn Grammar
  2. Clauses- Cambridge Dictionary
  3. What are relative clauses? – Perfect English Grammar
  4. Conditional Sentences- Grammarly
  5. Adverbial Clause Explained- Masterclass
  6. Noun Clauses: Explanation and Example- Grammar Monster
  7. Difference Between Dependent and Independent Clause- Pediaa
  8. Phrases Vs Clauses- Twinkl
  9. What is Clause and Why Learn it? – Lemon Grad
  10. Adverbial Clauses Explained- Mater Class
  11. Grammar Rules for Clauses- White Smoke

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About the author

Dalia Y.: Dalia is an English Major and linguistics expert with an additional degree in Psychology. Dalia has featured articles on Forbes, Inc, Fast Company, Grammarly, and many more. She covers English, ESL, and all things grammar on GrammarBrain.

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