What Is an Independent Clause? (with Examples)
Independent ClauseAn 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).
Remember that a clause has a subject and a verb.
Easy Examples of Dependent and Independent ClausesIn all examples, the independent clauses are highlighted, and the dependent clauses aren't. Also, in each 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.
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've 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.)
- 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 ClausesAn 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.)
- 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.)
|Adjective Clause||I 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 Clause||I 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 Clause||A 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.)
|Simple Sentence||One independent only||Humour is reason gone mad. (Groucho Marx)|
|Complex Sentence||One independent and at least dependent||No man goes before his time, unless the boss leaves early. (Groucho Marx)|
|Compound Sentence||two independents||I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it. (Groucho Marx)|
|Compound-Complex Sentence||At least two independents and at least one dependent||Those are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others. (Groucho Marx)|
Why Should I Care about Independent and Dependent Clauses?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. (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 . (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. (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. (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. (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. (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. (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. (Groucho Marx) (Here, the clause is essential to specify anyone.)
Remember that this rule does not apply only to who and which. It applies to any relative pronoun (e.g., whose, why).
relative pronounsRead 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.
- If it is meant to be, it will be.
- Whenever I see you next, remind me not to talk to you. (Groucho Marx)
- Before I speak, I have something important to say. (Groucho Marx) (As the adverbial dependent clauses are at the front, they are offset with commas.)
- It will be if it is meant to be.
- Remind me not to talk to you whenever I see you next.
- I have something important to say before I speak.
(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.)
- 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?)
- 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.)