What Is a Subordinate Clause? (with Examples)
Subordinate ClauseA 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 ClausesHere 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)
Types of Subordinate Clause
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 bull that charged us is back in the field. (The subordinate clause "that charged us" describes "the bull." It is an adjective clause.)
- 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 ClauseWhen 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 ClausesHere are some more common subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns:
|Common Subordinating Conjunctions||Relative Pronouns|
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.)
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.
- 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.)
(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.