Subordinate Clause

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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 Clauses

Here 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.

Types of Subordinate Clause

Subordinate clauses can act as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns.

The Adjective Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as an adjective: The Adverbial Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as an adverb: The Noun Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as a noun:

The Link between a Subordinate Clause and an Independent Clause

When 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: Here are some more common subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns:
Common Subordinating Conjunctions Relative Pronouns
after
although
as
because
before
even if
even though
if
provided
rather than
since
so that
than
though
unless
until
whether
while
how
that
what
when
where
which
who
whom
whose
why

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 CLAUSES

The 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 adverb

When 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): Read more about commas with subordinating conjunctions.

This works for all adverbial phrases. For example (adverbial phrases in bold):

When the subordinate clause is an adjective

When 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: Here's a good tip: If you'd happily put parentheses () around your clause, it needs commas. (Commas, after all, are just a type of parenthetical punctuation.)

Read more about commas before relative pronouns.

A Quick Test

You cannot start a sentence with who or which unless it is a question (i.e., an interrogative sentence). For example: Read more about who and which as interrogative pronouns.


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See Also

What is a clause? What is an independent clause? What are adjective clauses? What are adverbial clauses? What are noun clauses? What is a subordinating conjunction? What is a relative pronoun? Glossary of grammatical terms