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Dependent Adverb Clause

What Is a Dependent Adverb Clause?

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A dependent adverb clause is a group of words that plays the role of an adverb and that contains a subject and a verb. Like any adverb, a dependent adverb clause tells us things like when, where, why, how, how often, or under what condition the main verb in the sentence takes place.

Let's compare a normal adverb to a dependent adverb clause:
  • The otter surfaced occasionally.
  • ("Occasionally" is not a dependent adverb clause. It is a normal adverb. It tells us when the otter surfaced. "Surfaced" is the main verb in the sentence.)
  • The otter surfaced when we looked the other way.
  • (This is a dependent adverb clause. It still tells us when the otter surface. This time though, the adverb is a clause.)
Like all dependent clauses, a dependent adverb clause cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. Like all clauses, a dependent adverb clause includes a subject and a verb.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Dependent Adverb Clauses
  • The Link between a Dependent Clause and an Independent Clause
  • Why Dependent Adverb Clauses Are Important
  • Test Time!
dependent adverb clause

Examples of Dependent Adverb Clauses

Here are some examples of dependent adverb clauses (shaded):

A Dependent Adverb Clause as an Adverb of Time (When)

  • Press the button when I say I'm ready.
  • Press the button now.
  • (The word "now" is a normal adverb of time.)

A Dependent Adverb Clause as an Adverb of Place (Where)

  • Charlie used to run where his father ran as a boy.
  • Charlie used to run here.
  • (The word "here" is a normal adverb of place.)
  • Charlie used to run in the park.
  • (The phrase "in the park" is an adverbial phrase.)

A Dependent Adverb Clause as an Adverb of Reason (Why)

A Dependent Adverb Clause as an Adverb of Manner (How)

  • The shark circled like it meant business.
  • The shark circled menacingly.
  • (The word "menacingly" is a normal adverb of manner.)

A Dependent Adverb Clause as an Adverb of Frequency (How Often)

  • The penguins returned as soon as their crops were full of fish.
  • The penguins returned hourly.
  • (The word "hourly" is a normal adverb that shows how often. NB: Adverbs of frequency are also classified as adverbs of time.)

A Dependent Adverb Clause as an Adverb of Condition (If...Then)

  • If they predict rain, cancel the concert.
  • If yes, cancel the concert.
  • (Most adverbs of condition are clauses. "If yes" is a bit contrived.)
Not all dependent clauses function as adverbs (like the ones in the examples above). A dependent clause can also function as an adjective or a noun. Read more about dependent clauses.

The Link between a Dependent Clause and an Independent Clause

The link between a dependent adverb clause and an independent clause is called a subordinating conjunction. For example:
  • We used to read until the candles went out.
  • (The subordinating conjunction is in bold.)
Here is a list of common subordinating conjunctions:
  • after, although, as, as soon as, because, before, by the time, even if, even though, every time, if, in case, in order that, in the event that, just in case, like, now that, once, only if, provided that, rather than, since, so that, than, that, though, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, whether, whether or not, while, why
Here are the same examples again. This time, the subordinating conjunctions are in bold.
  • Press the button when I say I'm ready.
  • Charlie used to run where his father ran as a boy.
  • I went to Dublin because I like Guinness.
  • The shark circled like it meant business.
  • The penguins returned as soon as their crops were full of fish.
  • If they predict rain, cancel the concert.

Why Dependent Adverb Clauses Are Important

Native English speakers can use dependent adverb clauses without too many snags. By far the most common questions asked by writers about dependent adverb clauses relate to commas.

Using Commas with Dependent Adverb Clauses

Here are the rules for using commas with dependent adverb clauses:

Clause at the Front

If your dependent adverb clause is a fronted, offset it with a comma. For example:
  • Unless you are willing to compromise, society cannot live together. (Economist Alan Greenspan)
  • (The dependent clause is at the start, so a comma is needed. It is useful to mark where the main clause starts.)

Clause at the Back

If your dependent adverb clause is at the back, do not use a comma. For example:
  • Nothing is an obstacle unless you say it is. (Entrepreneur Wally Amos)
  • (The dependent clause is at the end, so a comma is not needed.)
This is not a fixed ruling. It's quite rare, but sometimes a comma is needed to distance the adverb from the main verb. Look at this example:
  • Janet didn't go to the party because her boss was there. She went to meet her friends.
  • (In this example, Janet actually went to the party.)
  • Janet didn't go to the party, because her boss was there. She doesn't like her boss.
  • (With the comma distancing "because her boss was there" from the verb (i.e., making the clause a non-restrictive clause, Janet didn't go to party.)
This situation is complicated, but, luckily, it's rare. It happens most often with a clause starting "because" that modifies a negative verb.

Unfortunately, that's not the whole story. Often a pause for effect is appropriate. Look at this example:
  • You can't go wrong with pizza, unless it's terrible pizza. (Comedian Andy Kindler)
  • (The comma is acceptable.)
Here's the bottom line. If your adverb clause is at the back (called "post-positioned"), then don't use a comma. However, if you think that a pause is appropriate or that a comma would help your readers identify where the main clause ends and the adverb clause starts, then it's safe to use a comma. Read more about commas preceding post-positioned adverb clauses (see Points 3 and 4).

Clause in the Middle

If your dependent adverb clause is in the middle, use two commas. For example:
  • Once you have your schtick that you think is good, unless you get something way better, just do that. (Controversial political commentator Gavin McInnes)
  • ("Schtick" means idea, piece, or routine (e.g., comic routine).)
An adverb placed mid-sentence is sometimes called an "interrupter." Don't forget the second comma.

NB: These rules also apply to adverbial phrases. For example (adverbial phrases in bold):
  • At the stroke of midnight, the carriage will turn back into a pumpkin.
  • The carriage will turn back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.
  • The carriage, at the stroke of midnight, will turn back into a pumpkin.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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