What Is a Subordinate Clause? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Subordinate Clause

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.
  • She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit. (W Somerset Maugham, 1874-1965)
  • A musicologist is a man who can read music but can't hear it. (Sir Thomas Beecham, 1879-1961)
  • Always be nice to those younger than you because they are the ones who will be writing about you. (Cyril Connolly, 1903-1974)
  • Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. (Sir Winston Churchill, 1874-1965)
In the examples, the independent clauses are not shaded. Notice how they could all be standalone sentences.

Types of Subordinate Clause

subordinate clause

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

The Adverbial Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as an adverb:
  • I fished until the sun went down.
  • (The subordinate clause "until the sun went down" modifies the verb "fished." It is an adverbial clause.)
The Adjective Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as an adjective:
  • The bull that charged us is back in the field.
  • (The subordinate clause "that charged us" describes "the bull." It is an adjective clause.)
The Noun Clause. Here is an example of a subordinate clause acting as a noun:
  • Whoever dislikes the new timings is more than welcome to leave.
  • (The subordinate clause "Whoever dislikes the new timings" is the subject of this sentence. It is a noun clause.)

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:
  • I fished until the sun went down.
  • (subordinating conjunction in bold)
  • The bull that charged us is back in the field.
  • (relative pronoun in bold)

Subordinating Conjunctions and Relative Pronouns Used with Subordinate 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 Subordinate Clauses?

Here are two questions often raised by writers about subordinate clauses.

(Question 1) When do you use a comma with a subordinate clause?

By far the most common question related to subordinate clauses is whether to offset one with a comma (or commas).

Here are the rules:

(Rule 1) If your subordinate clause is a fronted adverb, use a comma.

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):
  • Until there are no more shoppers, keep singing.
  • (The subordinate clause is at the start, so a comma is needed.)
  • Keep singing until there are no more shoppers.
  • (The subordinate clause is at the end, so a comma is not needed.)
Read more about commas with subordinating conjunctions.

This ruling also applies to adverbial phrases.

For example (adverbial phrases in bold):
  • At 4 o'clock, the bell will ring.
  • The bell will ring at 4 o'clock.

(Rule 2) If your subordinate clause is a nonessential adjective, use a comma.

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:
  • My sister who lives in Moscow is getting married.
  • (From this we can infer that there is at least one other sister who doesn't live in Moscow. The clause is essential for meaning. It identifies what it modifies, i.e., it specifies which sister.)
  • My sister Rebecca, who lives in Moscow, is getting married.
  • (This time, the clause is just additional information. It needs commas.)
Read more about commas before relative pronouns.

(Question 2) Can you start a sentence with "which"?

You cannot start a sentence with who or which unless it is a question (i.e., an interrogative sentence). For example:
  • I enjoy weeding. Which is helpful because I have a large garden.
Read more about who and which as interrogative pronouns.
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