What Is a Dependent Clause? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Dependent Clause

A dependent clause (or subordinate clause) is a clause that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence because it does not express a complete thought.

Like all clauses, a dependent clause has a subject and verb.

Examples of Dependent Clauses

Here are some examples of dependent clauses (shaded). Notice how the shaded clauses could not stand alone as sentences. This is how a dependent clause differs from an independent clause.
  • The crew could see the whale, which had surfaced only 50m behind them.
  • Do you know the butcher who went to court on Saturday?
  • I am not tidying the dishes unless Peter helps.
  • The excellence of a gift lies in how appropriate it is rather than how valuable it is.

Types of Dependent Clause

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

dependent clause

The Adjective Clause. Here is an example of a dependent clause acting as an adjective:
  • The car that your wife sold me last week has broken down.
  • (The dependent clause that your wife sold me last week describes the car. It is an adjective clause.)
The Adverbial Clause. Here is an example of a dependent clause acting as an adverb:
  • He literally stitched mail sacks until his fingers bled.
  • (The dependent clause until his fingers bled modifies the verb to stitch. It is an adverbial clause.)
The Noun Clause. Here is an example of a dependent clause acting as a noun:
  • Whoever turned the ovens off is keeping quiet.
  • (The dependent clause Whoever turned the ovens off is the subject of this sentence. It is a noun clause.)

The Link between a Dependent Clause and an Independent Clause

When a dependent 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 dependent clause). The link between a dependent clause and an independent clause will often be a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun. For example:
  • He literally stitched mail sacks until his fingers bled.
  • (subordinating conjunction in bold)
  • The car which your wife sold me last week has broken down.
  • (relative pronoun in bold)

Subordinating Conjunctions and Relative Pronouns Used with Dependent Clauses

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)

Why Should I Care about Dependent Clauses?

Here are two common issues related to dependent clauses.

(Issue 1) Using a comma with a dependent clause

Writers are often unsure whether to offset dependent clauses with commas.

Here are the rules:

(Rule 1) If your dependent clause is a fronted adverb, offset it with a comma.

A dependent clause that starts with a subordinating conjunction (e.g., "when," "unless," "because," "until") will be functioning as an adverb. When the clause is positioned at start of the sentence, offset it with a comma. If it ends the sentence, do not use a comma. In these examples, the dependent clauses are shaded and the subordinating conjunctions are bold.
  • When the egg whites have the consistency of shaving foam, stop whipping and add the vanilla essence.
  • (The dependent clause is at the start, so a comma is needed.)
  • Stop whipping and add the vanilla essence when the egg whites have the consistency of shaving foam.
  • (The dependent clause is at the end, so a comma is not needed.)
Read more about subordinating conjunctions.

NB: This ruling also applies 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.

(Rule 2) If your dependent clause is a nonessential adjective, offset it with a comma (or two commas if it's mid-sentence).

When the dependent clause starts with a relative pronoun (e.g., "which," "who," "that"), it will be functioning as an adjective. Do not use a comma before your relative pronoun if the clause is essential for meaning (called a restrictive clause). But, use a comma if the clause is just additional information (called a non-restrictive clause).

For example:
  • My auntie who lives in Australia was bitten by a snake.
  • (From this we can infer that there is at least one other auntie who doesn't live in Australia. The clause is essential for meaning. It identifies what it modifies, i.e., it specifies which auntie. This is an example of a restrictive clause.)
  • My auntie Sally, who lives in Australia, was bitten by a snake.
  • (This time, the clause is just additional information. It needs commas. This is an example of a non-restrictive clause.)
Read more about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.
Read more about relative pronouns.

(Issue 2) Don't start a declarative sentence with "which."

You cannot start a declarative sentence (i.e. a statement) with "who" or "which." For example:
  • I hate mowing the grass. Which isn't good because I have a huge lawn.
Of course, "who" and "which" can be used to start a sentence that is a question (i.e., to start an interrogative sentence).

Read more about using "who" and "which" to create questions.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

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