Independent Clause

What Is an Independent Clause?

An independent clause is a clause that can stand alone as a sentence (i.e., it expresses a complete thought). A dependent clauses (or subordinate clause) is one that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence (i.e., it does not express a complete thought). For example:
  • The argument started when she took my book.
  • ("The argument started" is an independent clause because it could stand alone as a sentence. "When she took my book" is a dependent clause because it could not stand alone as a sentence.)

Table of Contents

  • Easy Examples of Dependent and Independent Clauses
  • Video Lesson
  • Some Real-Life Examples of Dependent and Independent Clauses
  • The Link between an Independent Clause and a Dependent Clauses
  • Why Independent Clauses Are Important
  • Test Time!
independent clause

Easy Examples of Dependent and Independent Clauses

In all these examples, the independent clauses are highlighted, and the dependent clauses aren't. Also, remember that every clause must have a subject and a verb. In every clause, the subject is underlined and the verb is in bold.
  • The patrol had spotted the sniper, who was hiding in an attic.
  • Do you know the butcher who went to court on Saturday?
  • I am not tidying the dishes unless Peter helps.
  • When it rains, the daffodils bow their heads.
Notice how the shaded clauses could all stand alone as sentences. They are independent clauses. Here is a video summarizing this lesson on independent clauses: video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

Some Real-Life Examples of Dependent and Independent Clauses

  • The secret of life is honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made. (Groucho Marx)
  • If you have heard this story before, don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again. (Groucho Marx)
  • (Notice there is no subject in the independent clause. "Don't stop me" is an order (i.e., an imperative sentence), and the subject "you" is implied. We'll discuss the comma before "because" later.)
  • Go, and never darken my towels again. (Groucho Marx)
  • (These are both imperatives. The subject "you" is implied in both.)
Do not confuse clauses and phrases. The non-highlighted texts in the example below are not dependent clauses. (With no subjects and verbs, they're not clauses. They're adverbial phrases.)
  • Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read. (Groucho Marx)

The Link between an Independent Clause and a Dependent Clauses

An independent clause is linked to a dependent clause with a subordinating conjunction (common ones are "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," and "where") or a relative pronoun (common ones are "which," "who," "whom," "whose," "why," "whoever," and "whosever.") Look at these examples:
  • If I held you any closer, I would be on the other side of you. (Groucho Marx)
  • (The dependent clause is linked to the independent one with the subordinating conjunction "if.")
  • Wives are people "who" feel they don't dance enough. (Groucho Marx)
  • (The dependent clause is linked to the independent one with the relative pronoun "who.")
Dependent Clauses inside Independent Clauses. Grammarians are divided on whether a dependent clause can be a component of an independent clause. Some say yes, and some say no. The no-camp claims that a dependent clause must be linked with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun to an independent clause.
  • Whoever named it necking was a poor judge of anatomy. (Groucho Marx)
  • (According to the yes-camp, "whoever named it necking" is a dependent clause despite being the subject of the independent clause.)
Types of Dependent Clause. Let's quickly look at dependent clauses. They can function as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns.
Adjective ClauseI refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. (Groucho Marx)
(The dependent clause "that would have me as a member" describes the club. It's an adjective clause.)
Adverbial ClauseI find television very educating. When it's on, I go into the other room and read a book. (Groucho Marx)
(The dependent clause "When it's on" modifies the verb "go." It is an adverbial clause.)
Noun ClauseA black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere. (Groucho Marx)
(According to the yes-camp, "that the animal is going somewhere" is a dependent clause despite being part of the independent clause.)
The Types of Sentence Structure. The number of independent clauses and dependent clauses in a sentence determines the sentence-structure type. There are four.
Simple SentenceOne independent onlyHumour is reason gone mad. (Groucho Marx)
Complex SentenceOne independent and at least dependentNo man goes before his time, unless the boss leaves early. (Groucho Marx)
Compound Sentencetwo independentsI have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it. (Groucho Marx)
Compound-Complex SentenceAt least two independents and at least one dependentThose are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others. (Groucho Marx)
There's only one reason to care about independent and dependent clauses: comma placement.

There are three, well, four at a push, noteworthy points linked to comma placement.

(Point 1) Use a comma before an "and" that links two independent clauses.

If your "and" links two independent clauses, precede it with a comma. This rule does not apply only to "and." It applies to any coordinating conjunction (e.g., "but," "or"). Put another way, the rule is "use a comma before a conjunction that joins the independent clauses in a compound sentence."
  • Yesterday is dead, and tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just today, and I'm going to be happy in it. correct tick (Groucho Marx)
  • (This quotation has two compound sentences. In each one, there are two independent clauses linked by "and" with a comma.)
  • I never forget a face, but in your case I will be glad to make an exception. correct tick(Groucho Marx)
  • (Remember that it's all coordinating conjunctions not just "and.")
  • I have a mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it. correct tick (Groucho Marx)
  • (There is no comma before the "and" because "beat you over the head with it" is not an independent clause. This is a simple sentence, i.e., it's one independent clause with one subject.)
  • In Hollywood, brides keep the bouquets and throw away the groom. correct tick (Groucho Marx)
  • (There is no comma before the "and" because "throw away the groom" is not an independent clause.)

(Point 2) Use commas with nonessential dependent clauses that start with "who" or "which" (or any relative pronoun for that matter).

If a dependent clause functioning as an adjective is essential to specify its noun, it's not offset with commas. (NB: In these examples, the dependent clauses are shaded.)
  • My sister who lives in London was arrested. correct tick
  • (Here, the clause is essential to identify "my sister." From this, readers would infer that I have more than one sister.)
  • My sister, who lives in London, was arrested. correct tick
  • (Here, the clause is nonessential. It does not specify "my sister." From this, without more context, readers would infer that I have one sister. The clause is just additional information. It could be deleted without disrupting the readers' understanding of "my sister.")
  • The first thing which I can record concerning myself is that I was born. This life, which neither time nor eternity can bring diminution to, began. My mind loses itself in these depths. correct tick (Groucho Marx)
  • (Here, the first dependent clause is essential to specify "thing." The second clause is nonessential. It does not specify "life." It is just additional information. Therefore, it is nonessential and offset with commas. The nonessential clause could have been offset with brackets instead of commas or even deleted, and that's a good test of whether a clause is essential or nonessential.)
  • Anyone who says he can see through women is missing a lot. correct tick (Groucho Marx)
  • (Here, the clause is essential to specify "anyone.")
When used to head an adjective dependent clause, "which" and "who" are relative pronouns. Such clauses are often called "relative clauses."

Remember that this rule does not apply only to "who" and "which." It applies to any relative pronoun (e.g., "whose," "why"). Read more about relative pronouns.

(Point 3) Use a comma after an adverbial dependent clause that sits before the independent clause. Don't use a comma before the clause if it follows the independent clause.

Using a comma after a fronted adverbial dependent clause is such a common style, it's becoming increasingly safe to call it a rule. The purpose of the comma is to aid reading. It shows your readers where the clause ends. Omitting a comma isn't a hideous crime (and lots of writers do it, even prefer it), but omitting the comma can cause your readers to stumble as they try to find the end of the dependent clause.

Can you read these without stumbling?
  • When the witch cooked her cat lurked by her feet.
  • While cleaning the water can steam.
Here are some examples with commas. (NB: In these examples, the independent clauses are shaded.)
  • If it is meant to be, it will be. correct tick
  • Whenever I see you next, remind me not to talk to you. correct tick (Groucho Marx)
  • Before I speak, I have something important to say. correct tick (Groucho Marx)
  • (As the adverbial dependent clauses are at the front, they are offset with commas.)
With the clause at the back, there's no comma.
  • It will be if it is meant to be. correct tick
  • Remind me not to talk to you whenever I see you next. correct tick
  • I have something important to say before I speak. correct tick

(Point 4) There's more to Point 3.

Let's complicate the issue a bit. The rule that states "do not use a comma when the adverbial clause follows the independent clause" is not really the rule. In fact, the rule for post-positioned adverbial clauses is the same as for post-positioned adjective clauses (see Point 2). In other words, use a comma if the adverbial clause is nonessential. The problem is that it's way more difficult to decide whether an adverbial clause is essential or nonessential than it is with an adjective clause. As the vast majority of adverbial clauses are essential, it's pretty safe, but not entirely safe, to declare that a post-positioned adverbial clause isn't preceded by a comma.

This issue typically crops up with "because" that explains a negative.
  • Jack didn't win because he was the best player. He won because he paid the referee.
  • (In this example, Jack actually won. The dependent clause "because he was the best player" is deemed essential to distinguish it from the situation below.)
  • Jack didn't win, because he was the worst player.
  • (In this example, Jack lost, as you'd expect the worst player to.)
The comma distances the dependent clause from "didn't win." In the two examples above, the contexts make the meaning clear, but what about this example:
  • Jack didn't win because he was rich.
  • (Now we're unsure whether Jack won. The absence of a comma tells us he did win, but, really, who'd read this sentence and deduce that Jack won?)
The take-away point here is that a comma before a post-positioned adverbial clause distances it from the verb in the independent clause. It makes the clause nonessential.
  • He died as you'd expect a young officer to.
  • (He died with honour.)
  • He died, as you'd expect a young officer to.
  • (This could mean he died because he was useless or because it was statistically likely.)
If you ever find yourself relying on the comma before a post-positioned adverbial clause for clarity, don't. Reword.
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This page was written by Craig Shrives.