A clause contains a conjugated verb and its subject and may also have a direct and/or indirect object. It can
stand alone as a sentence or can be joined to other clauses by a relative pronoun or a conjunction.
A conjunction is a word which links words, groups of words, phrases or clauses in a sentence.
Co-ordinating conjunctions are:
These words join two independent clauses into one sentence. Each clause could stand alone as a sentence, but
there is a logical relationship between the two clauses as they are closely connected in thought.
Now notice the conjunction in the following sentence:
You left because I was angry.
Because is a subordinating conjunction and the clause containing it (because I was angry) depends on the main
clause, you left, for its meaning. The subordinate clause could not stand on its own as a complete thought.
The dependency established by this type of conjunction can be demonstrated in a little experiment. If we simply
reverse the clauses around the conjunction, we get
I was angry because you left.
This is still a proper sentence, but its meaning is different from the original sentence. This tells us that because is
an essential part of the clause it belongs to: the dependent or subordinate clause. Knowing that, we can reverse
the positions of both complete clauses and keep the same meaning:
Because I was angry, you left.
Notice that this cannot be done with co-ordinating conjunctions:
And I was angry you left.
Thus, the subordinating conjunction belongs to and must remain with the subordinate clause, making this clause
dependent on the main clause to complete its meaning.
Some other subordinating conjunctions are:
as long as: She waited as long as she could.
while: Martin always reads while he watches tv.
until: Some people like to shop until they drop.
although: Although I love you, I can't marry you.
that: I thought that you liked tacos.
From Clauses to Phrases
Words functioning as conjunctions can also play other roles in different contexts. Before is a subordinating
conjunction in the following sentence because it joins two clauses:
You left before I did.
But we can change its function without changing the form of the word itself.
You left before noon.
Before noon is a prepositional phrase, with no conjugated verb. It now functions as a preposition, a word that
shows the relationship of a noun or pronoun to another word in the sentence, with noon as object of the
preposition. The preposition and its object form a phrase.
Some words can function as subordinating conjunction, preposition or adverb, depending on what (if anything)
follows them. When you remove the conjugated verb from the subordinate clause, a phrase remains. Look at
the function of the underlined words in the following sentences:
You must clean your room before leaving. (preposition)
You must clean your room before you leave. (conjunction)
Have you ever cleaned your room before? (adverb)
In the next examples, notice that in a prepositional phrase, a preposition without its noun can become an
adverb. Both the prepositional phrase and the adverb give more information about the action - where the going,
running and throwing happened - and for this reason the prepositional phrases in these sentences could also be
called adverbial phrases.
Words or groups of words which modify verbs by giving such information as where, when, how, or how often
perform as adverbs:
(1) I went up the stairs.
I took the elevator up.
(2) He ran around the track.
When we found her she was wandering around.
(3) He threw it across the room.
Throw it across to me.
While the phrases above are introduced by a preposition, others can begin with a participle:
I like the picture hanging on the wall.
The participial phrase gives us more information about the picture, and, as it is modifying a noun in this case, it
performs an adjective function:
I like the hanging picture
The same effect would be achieved if we used a relative clause.
I like the picture that is hanging on the wall.
English has these options, but other languages might require the relative clause form.
Note: It is important to keep the participial phrase close to the noun or pronoun it modifies to make the
meaning clear. Think about the difference in meaning between these two sentences:
Waiting for the bus, a brick fell on the man's head.
The man waiting for the bus had a brick fall on his head.
In the first sentence, we say that the participial phrase is dangling - that is, it is modifying a brick instead of the
man. In the next sentence the participial phrase is next to the man, leaving no doubt as to who or what was
waiting for the bus.
A clause is a part of a sentence containing a conjugated verb and its subject; it may also contain an object.
Although it has the basic elements of a sentence it may or may not stand on its own as a complete thought. Thus
we have main or independent clauses, as well as subordinate or dependent clauses. A phrase, on the other
hand, has no conjugated verb and can never stand on its own.
The Relative Clause
The relative clause can be difficult to identify, but if you understand its characteristics and function, you should
have no problem. We will first discuss how the it is formed and its relation to the rest of the sentence, and then
we can examine its function within the sentence.
The subject of the verb to be is often enhanced or completed by the subject complement. In much the same
way, the relative clause and its relative pronoun give more information about the noun which precedes it. In this
way the relative clause functions the same way as an adjective does, i.e., by describing, modifying, or qualifying
a noun or noun function.
Compare these sentences:
The man ate too much. The message was clear.
Which man? Which message?
The tall man ate too much. The faxed message was clear
The man who was tall ate too much.
The message that was faxed was clear.
The adjectives tall and faxed relay the same information as the relative clauses in the sentences above, and
some grammarians even call these clauses adjective clauses. It is often possible to find a one-word adjective to
replace a relative clause.
In these sentences, who and that are relative pronouns which relate back to the man and the message, and
describe them in greater detail. These nouns are the antecedents or words which come before the relative
pronoun. Notice that each relative clause
who was tall and that was faxed
has its own subject and conjugated verb, as does any sentence. In these instances the clause is an essential part
of the whole sentence since it adds to our understanding of the antecedent, the noun it follows.
On its own each could be
- a complete question - Who was tall?
- a statement - That was faxed.
The answer to the question would be the man. In the statement "that" refers to the message. This clearly shows
that the relative pronouns relate back to the nouns they replace - the antecedents.
Sometimes the antecedent is more than one word, and in this instance the only relative pronoun we can use is
We did not have a web site, which posed a problem.
The lack of a web site is the problem in this sentence. The comma plays a key role in this sentence. When it is
in place, the word which refers back to the entire previous clause. The relative pronoun refers not to the web
site alone but to the entire clause that precedes it. Without the comma the sentence has quite a different meaning:
We did not have a web site which posed a problem.
The inference here is that, although we may have many web sites, we do not have one which poses a problem.
These two sentences which appear so similar depend on one comma to deliver quite different messages.
Here are more examples of relative clauses with sentence antecedents and one-word antecedents:
The exams were cancelled, which allowed us to stay at home.
The exams which allowed us to stay at home were cancelled.
Four hungry tigers suddenly appeared, which made us flee in terror.
The form of the relative pronoun depends on the nature of the antecedent, whether it is a person, a thing or a
Here are the options:
person who that
thing that which
That can refer to either a person or thing, although who is usually preferable when the antecedent is a person.
Which can refer to either a thing or a clause (see below).
What and whose as relative pronouns
Whose is the possessive form of the relative pronoun. Its antecedent may be a person or a thing.
I have friends whose children are badly behaved.
He lives in a room whose walls and ceiling are crumbling.
The relative pronoun what can be difficult to identify, as it has no antecedent expressed in the sentence.
What he doesn't know won't hurt him.
What really expresses the idea of that which or the thing which/that, and can be seen as both antecedent and
relative pronoun rolled into one word:
The thing which/that he doesn't know won't hurt him.
The relative pronoun takes its person, number, and gender from its antecedent, but its case depends on the
verb in the relative clause:
The woman whom you insulted is your new boss.
gives the relative
The relative pronoun can function in the relative clause as subject, direct object, or object of a preposition:
(1) The dog that was run over was the farmer's.
(2) People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
(3) We know children who can speak three languages.
Remember that it is the function of the pronoun in the relative clause which determines its form; in (3) above,
the antecedent children is the direct object of know in the main clause:
We know children...
but in the relative clause the pronoun is the subject of the verb of that clause, can speak.
...who can speak three languages.
Notice what happens if you treat this as if it were an independent sentence. When it becomes a question, -Who
can speak three languages? - the answer is the antecedent in the original sentence [children].
(1) The man whom I loved joined the navy.
(2) The man who I loved joined the navy.
(grammatically incorrect but often heard)
(3) The man that I loved joined the navy.
(4) The man I loved joined the navy.
There are four options. The most formal is (1), where the object form of the pronoun is most clearly seen.
However, the word whom is becoming rarer in English, and therefore the other three possibilities for the object
form are more common. In fact, (4) is most often heard in English, and it is most problematic for your
purposes. Although it lacks a relative pronoun,
remains a relative clause within the sentence:
The man...joined the navy.
You can test whether this is true by replacing the relative clause with an adjective, since these are also called
(5) The young man joined the navy.
While the meaning changes, the grammatical sense does not, and we still are getting information about the man
who joined the navy. In (4) the man is described as "the one I loved," while in (5) the man is described as
"young" -- both are descriptions and play adjective functions.
Object of a preposition
(1) The course to which I devote most time is my favourite.
(2) The course which I devote most time to is my favourite.
(3) The course that I devote most time to is my favourite.
(4) The course I devote most time to is my favourite.
Again, there are four options, and again the most commonly heard sentence would be (4), where the relative
pronoun (because it is an object) is omitted. Sentence (4) presents a further complication: not only must you
express the relative pronoun in another language, you must also move the preposition back to its normal
position. In (2)-(4) the preposition is dangling.
verb of relative
its case (objective)