Clauses are like trains. You have the locomotive or principal/main clause to which you can add a number of carriages or subordinate/dependent clauses. The locomotive can run on its own as does the main clause, but the carriages need to be attached to a locomotive, and these are the dependent clauses. Sometimes a train has two or more locos to pull a heavier load of carriages. You can also have what are called coordinate clauses that can each stand on their own but add to the information conveyed. They must be joined by a conjunction, such as ‘and’, ‘but’, or ‘or’.
Examples: The letters are typed and the files are in order.
I have finished the research but (I) have not written the report.
Each of these coordinate clauses can stand on their own.
There are three main types of subordinate clauses — Adjectival, adverbial and noun clauses.
As the name suggests, an adjectival clause performs the function of an adjective, adding meaning to a noun or pronoun. You can usually recognise adjectival clauses as they begin with one of the relative pronouns who, whom, whose, which or that.
Examples: The car, which he had bought for his son, was green.
The farmer, whose crop was wheat, went bankrupt.
The team that came last in the competition were not pleased.
Note in these examples that the main clause has been split by the adjectival clause. If you remove the adjectival clause, the sentence will still stand on its own, however the subordinate clauses cannot stand on their own. The noun that each adjectival clause qualifies is called the antecedent, and in these instances are car, farmer and team.
Again, like its namesake, an adverbial clause performs the function of an adverb and can be thought to answer questions like ‘when?’, ‘where?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ and in order are adverbial clauses of time, place, manner and reason.
The examples given are: I arrived before the bank opened.
Helen went where she wouldn’t be disturbed.
Nick hid the biscuits as quickly as he could.
The car skidded because the road was covered with ice.
A noun clause, therefore, performs the function of a noun, acting as a subject or object. It appears similar to an adjectival clause, using the same subordinating conjunctions, but instead of splitting the main clause, it extends the function of the subject or object noun.
The examples given are: That he had the operation was news to me.
She told me (that) he needed an operation.
I soon learnt what I should do.
Nick knew who was behind all the trouble.
When you add a subordinate clause to a main clause, you create a complex sentence. You can add a number of these subordinate clauses, but there will be a point where it becomes unwieldly, like a person talking for a long time without taking a breath to pause. They add breadth and volume to a sentence that will otherwise be lost in a staccato of simple sentences. They link up thoughts and actions, creating movement and flow.
The examples and source of the information for this blog post are derived from the Guide to grammar at the back of the Macquarie Encyclopedic Dictionary (The Signature Edition), published 2011 by Australia’s Heritage Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney.