What is a Clause?

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  • 0:01 What Is a Clause?
  • 1:00 Independent Clauses
  • 4:21 Dependent Clauses
  • 5:57 Relative Clause
  • 9:21 Noun Clauses
  • 10:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will define what a clause is. We will then look at the different types of clauses, define each of the types, provide some examples of each, and then discuss why they are important in our writing.

What Is a Clause?

We write sentences every day. We write sentences when we send emails, texts, develop papers for school, or even leave a note behind at work. Written communication would not work if we did not have sentences. Sentences develop paragraphs, paragraphs develop essays, and essays develop into our written voice. It is our written voice that allows us to express our point of view, feelings, opinions, and beliefs about a topic.

But, what develops sentences? How does this cycle begin? With clauses.

A clause is a group of related words containing both a subject and a verb. Remember that the subject is the who or what and the verb is the action. For example, in this sentence: 'I run daily,' the subject, or who, is 'I,' and the verb, or action, is 'run.' When discussing clauses, it is important to not just know the different types, but also how to use these clauses to develop a sentence. Let's take a look at some different clauses now!

Independent Clauses

There are four different types of clauses: independent, dependent, adjective, and noun. An independent clause is a clause that can stand-alone as a sentence. It has a subject, verb, and a complete thought. For example, 'John likes hot dogs.' The subject is 'John,' the verb is 'likes,' and the complete thought (what he likes) is 'hot dogs.' Although an independent clause is a complete sentence by itself, we can join independent clauses together, but only with the right punctuation. When you join two independent clauses together, you are showing your audience that the two statements are equally important and directly relate to each other.

The first way to join two independent clauses together is with a comma and a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction is a word that is placed between the two clauses to show the relationship. We can remember coordinating conjunctions with the acronym 'FANBOYS,' which stands for 'for,' 'and,' 'nor,' 'but,' 'or,' 'yet,' 'so.' Let's say you have the two independent clauses: 'I was tired. I went to sleep.' Both are complete thoughts and could stand-alone, but you decide that they relate to each other and want to combine them. You can now write, 'I was tired, so I went to sleep.'

The second way to join independent clauses together is with a semicolon. You would use a semicolon in place of a period if you want to emphasize how closely related to each other the statements are. In our previous example, the idea of being tired and going to sleep strongly relate to each other. Because of this, you could write, 'I was tired; I went to sleep.' Just remember that you should only use semicolons if there is a complete sentence before the semicolon and a complete sentence after it.

The final way to join independent clauses is with a semicolon, transition (a word that explains the relationship), and a comma. This one may sound a little tricky, but it really is not! You just have to remember our earlier rules. You should have two complete thoughts that are closely related to each other. You know that you want to join them with a semicolon, but you also want to offer a further explanation of how they are related. For example, 'I was tired; however, I could not fall asleep.' We have two complete thoughts that are directly related to each other. Now that we have added 'however,' our audience knows that even though we are tired, we just cannot fall asleep.

How can I use independent clauses in my writing?

Independent clauses are really just simple sentences, which is the start of writing. However, one way to grow in your writing is to create more complex sentences. To do this, you could join two simple sentences together. This way, you are improving your writing style with new techniques, and you are making the relationship between your ideas more clear to your audience. Finally, knowing how to correctly join two independent clauses in your writing will help you avoid run-on sentences, which is when clauses just run together with no punctuation, like 'I was tired I went to bed.' This can be confusing to your audience, and you should be sure to avoid them!

Dependent Clauses

A dependent clause is a clause that cannot stand-alone and does not express a complete thought. Although it may have a subject and a verb, it depends on another clause to make the thought complete. Dependent clauses start with a subordinate conjunction, a word that joins two clauses. These words may represent cause, comparison, time, place, or condition. Using a subordinate conjunction will let the audience know that there is more to come or something is expected to follow. There are many different subordinate conjunctions, but some that you may already know are because, since, although, whenever, and after.

Because a dependent clause cannot stand-alone, you want to be sure to join it with an independent clause. For example, 'Because I hate scary movies' is a dependent clause. It starts with a subordinate conjunction 'because,' and it does not contain a complete thought. We are left wondering what happened next. To fix this, you would combine with an independent clause: 'Because I hate scary movies, I did not watch the new one.' 'I did not watch the new one' is a complete thought and could stand-alone, but it completes the dependent clause that cannot stand-alone.

How will this help my writing?

It is important to know how to identify dependent clauses to avoid fragments. Fragments are incomplete thoughts that cannot stand alone. Now that you know that dependent clauses begin with subordinate conjunctions, you can look for these in your writing, identify them as fragments, and then correct them by joining the dependent clause with an independent one.

Relative Clause

A relative clause, also known as an adjective clause, is a clause that describes the noun. Just like a dependent clause, the relative clause cannot stand-alone because it is not a complete thought. You can identify a relative clause by looking for three main components. First, it will contain a subject and a verb. Second, it will begin with a relative pronoun or relative adverb. These would include 'who,' 'whom,' 'whose,' 'that,' and 'which' for a pronoun and 'when,' 'where,' or 'why' for an adverb. Looking for these signal words can help you identify this type of clause!

Finally, the relative clause will function as an adjective, answering questions about the noun, such as 'Which one?' or 'What kind?' There are two ways to write a relative clause. First, you could have a relative pronoun, subject, and then verb. For example, 'When Bob reads and writes.' 'When' is the relative pronoun, 'Bob' is the subject, and 'reads and writes' are the verbs. Second, you would have a relative pronoun as a subject followed by the verb. For example, 'who loves a night out.' In this example, 'who' is our subject and 'loves' is the verb. Or, for another example, 'that fluttered outside the window.' In this example, 'that' is the subject and 'fluttered' is the verb.

Remember that relative clauses cannot stand-alone. These are incomplete thoughts and should be joined to an independent clause to become a complete sentence. In our earlier examples, we could write, 'When Bob reads and writes, he is happy.' The phrase 'he is happy' is an independent clause that completes the phrase. Or, in our second example, 'who loves a night out,' we could write, 'Mary is a girl who loves a night out.'

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