A clause is a grammatical unit which operates at a lower level than the sentence but at a higher level than words or phrases.

  • It is sometimes helpful to think of the clause as a building block for sentences, helping to develop and expand the sentence as necessary. The verb is a key constituent of a clause. So a clause could consist of:

    One word Eat!
    Two words Sally wept.
    Three words I think so
      ...and so on.

  • A clause can be a sentence in its own right as in all the examples above, but more often it is a part of a sentence, as in the examples below (finite verbs are underlined):

    I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o'er vale and hill.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    Either date is fine by me, but I would prefer the 2nd November if it fits in with your schedule appropriately.

  • Traditional grammars used to define a clause as a block of words containing a subject and a finite verb. Indeed, many clauses do follow this pattern and initially you might find it easier to identify clauses by establishing where the finite verbs are in a sentence, and locating the clause which is built upon each of the finite verbs.

  • However, it is important to remember that not all clauses contain a finite verb and non-finite clauses are a common occurrence in both speech and writing.

  • Clauses can be co-ordinated or subordinate, each playing a different role within a sentence.

Co-ordinate clauses:

  • Co-ordinated clauses are pairs of clauses linked by a co-ordinating conjunction, such as but or and. The conjunction joins part of the sentence which have equal status: neither is more important than the other. One way to visualise this is to think of co-ordinated clauses as being like weighing scales: each clause exactly balances the other.

  • Look at these examples of co-ordinated clauses taken from 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'. (The finite verbs are underlined in green and the co-ordinating conjunction is in red.)

    Hector laughed and so Mandras laughed also.

    He dropped to his knees and went over to her on all fours.
    The doctor winced and shook his head, and Psipsina went to the door and scratched at it...

    They always had colds, but were capable of incredible endurance, and they made incomprehensible jokes...

    Look at the way each of these co-ordinated clauses relates to the others in the sentence, the way they balance each other. Note also how easy it would be to remove the co-ordinating conjunction and rewrite each sentence as several separate sentences. This is another feature of co-ordinated clauses: each clause is capable of standing on its own as a separate, independent sentence.

Co-ordinating conjunctions

  • There are relatively few co-ordinating conjunctions, and being by far the most common. Below are some of the more commonly used.

      and or  
      and so yet  
      and then neither...nor  
      but not only...but also  

  • Remember that co-ordinating conjunctions will also co-ordinate words which are not clauses, such as co-ordinating two adjectives (a red and shiny nose) or two nouns (apples and pears). To determine if the conjunction is co-ordinating two clauses look for the finite verb in each clause.

  • Sometimes using and would be too clumsy and repetitive, so a comma is used instead to separate a string of co-ordinated clauses. This is particularly a feature of lists of clauses and in each case it would always be possible to insert the word and to replace the comma (though with infelicitous consequences!). The opening to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities offers a good example of this:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity...

Subordinate clauses:

  • Subordinate clauses are those which, as their name implies, are less important than or subordinate to another clause. Subordinate clauses are dependent upon a main clause and cannot stand alone as independent units or separate sentences. One way to visualise this is to think of a tractor and trailer. The tractor is the main clause - it has the power and can operate on its own without the trailer. The trailer is the subordinate clause - it needs to be attached to the tractor and when detached it cannot move.

    He moved to Paris where He earned a living by telling fortunes
    I always kiss him like that when he comes in.
    Corelli was indistinguishable from the wet sand because he was perfectly covered in it.
    As he talked he enumerated his points on his fingers.

    Note that because the subordinate clause is dependent upon the main clause does not mean it has to follow the main clause. In the last example above, the subordinate clause precedes the main clause and this is a common structure.


  • Subordinate clauses can be formed using subordinating conjunctions or by using relative pronouns (that, who, whose, which). There are a wide range of subordinators, expressing a rich variety of meanings. Some of them are listed in the box below.

      Because   until  
      When   although  
      Where   since  
      Why   as  
      Unless   after  
      If   while  
      in order to   rather than  

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