A main clause is complete on its own. It may be a complete sentence written with a capital letter and full stop (or ?!):
Alice saw a rabbit.
Anna is eating her favourite supper.
Finally, we arrived.
Simple sentences consist of just one main clause:
Hannah is eating her favourite supper.
Finally, we arrived.
Compound sentences consist of two or more main clauses – clauses of equal weight, joined together by and, or, but, or so. (This relationship is called co-ordination, and is explained in a separate unit.)
I’ve lost my school bag but the keys are here so I’m not locked out.
It’s late, so she’s not going.
I like reading and I love Hemingway.
Complex sentences contain one or more subordinate clauses.
A subordinate clause is part of a larger clause.
He burns easily if he doesn’t use sun cream.
Where is the cup of tea that you promised to make?
Everything she buys is really expensive.
The class I taught last year all did quite well.
Because the subordinate clause is part of the larger clause, the remainder of this clause is not itself a complete clause; so in the first example above the main clause is the entire sentence, not He burns easily.
Using subordinate clauses allows writers to vary pace and rhythm and to indicate the relative importance of different ideas.
To learn more about subordinate clauses, click any of the following links:
• Subordination signals
• Finite and non-finite clauses
• Noun clauses
• Relative clauses
• Adverbial clauses
• Nested subordinate clauses
You can usually recognise subordinate clauses easily because they are signalled:
• by a non-finite verb which is the clause’s first or only verb:
We ate early, being excessively hungry.
To be ready in time, he did without supper.
Having eaten early, we watched the news.
We helped unpack the tent.
• or by a subordinating word:
They sat there until it started to rain.
He’s the one who started it.
After he arrived things started to happen.
They will walk out unless we give in to them.
However, some subordinate clauses have no signal at all, because the subordinating word – which is always that – is omitted. They are harder to recognise, but can nearly always be identified by replacing the missing that:
I know you are hiding something. (… know that you are …)
Who says I am a coward? (… says that I am …)
That man she likes is very tall. (… man that she likes …)
The book I’m reading won a prize. (… book that I’m reading …)
This is a common feature of writing at KS3, and pupils need to understand and be able to handle it.
Finite and non-finite clauses
• Finite clauses have a finite verb as their head.
I know everyone sent their friends birthday cards this year.
• Non-finite clauses have a non-finite verb (i.e. an infinitive or a participle) as their head.
Everyone promised to send their friends birthday cards this year.
This important difference is always signalled by the first verb in the verb-chain:
I know everyone has sent their friends birthday cards this year.
Everyone hopes to have finished their projects by the end of the week.
Having already finished their projects, they can have a rest.
This difference also affects the ways in which these clauses can be used:
• Finite clauses may generally be used as complete sentences (once any subordinating words have been removed):
Everyone sent their friends birthday cards this year.
• Non-finite clauses are always part of a larger clause:
They have made plans to send their friends birthday cards this year.
This is because the use of a non-finite verb such as to send is one of the main signals that a clause is a subordinate clause.
This difference may also affect the meaning of sentences, often in a subtle way. For example, compare:
• I remembered that I was responsible. (finite)
• I remembered to do it. (non-finite)
• I saw that you did it. (finite)
• I saw you do it. (non-finite)
These highlighted clauses are non-finite:
We really enjoy sailing our dinghy.
Spurred on by the crowd, they won the match.
He struggled to read the small type.
Changing the tense of the sentence doesn’t change the non-finite clause:
• We enjoyed sailing our dinghy.
• We will enjoy sailing our dinghy.
• He struggles to read the small type.
• He will struggle to read the small type.
• Spurred on by the crowd, they won the match.
• Spurred on by the crowd, they are winning the match.
Noun clauses, like nouns, pronouns and noun phrases, can act as:
• the object of a verb: I know that Mary bought the dog.
• the subject of a verb: Why she bought it is a great mystery to us all.
• the object of a preposition: Don’t judge her by what she buys.
• a complement She seems to be pleased with it.
If a clause fulfils the role of a noun in a sentence, it is a noun clause.
At Key Stage 3, pupils should be developing the use of expressions like these, where a noun phrase is followed by a noun clause:
We discussed the idea that she had bought a cat.
We discussed the fact that she had bought a cat.
We discussed the possibility that she had bought a cat.
This structure is a useful tool to help thinking skills because it involves important distinctions about the logical status of information – e.g. as facts, beliefs, suggestions, theories, and ideas.
Relative clauses are adjectival because, like adjectives, they modify a nouns; but unlike adjectives, they come after the modified noun:
Sam is the one who usually sits here.
The shop where I work is closing.
This computer, which I usually use, is faster.
Relative clauses usually start with a relative pronoun:
that, who, which, whom, whose
or a relative adverb:
Relative pronouns and relative adverbs act as subordinating words – they signal a subordinate clause.
Using relative clauses allows KS3 writers to progress from co-ordination, producing more varied and digestible prose:
Joe bought a dog and the dog barks all night and it keeps us awake. Co-ordinated main clauses
The dog that Joe bought barks all night and keeps us awake. Relative subordinate clause
Sometimes, the relative pronoun can be left out, but sometimes it can’t.
An adverbial subordinate clause modifies the meaning of the main clause in much the same way as an adverb:
• Although I regret it, I must decline your invitation. (adverbial clause)
• Regrettably, I must decline your invitation. (adverb)
• They arrived before it started raining. (adverbial clause)
• They arrived promptly. (adverb)
Here are the main relationships expressed by adverbial subordinate clauses:
Time after, as, as soon as, before, once, since, until, when and whenever, while
Place where, wherever
Reason as, because, since
Comparison as, as if, as though, than
Condition as long as, if, in case, provided, provided that
Negative condition if … not, unless
Concession although, as long as, even if, even though, though, whereas, while
Purpose to, in order to, so that
Result so that, so … that, such … that
Notice that some of these words (those shown in bold) can be used to signal more than one relationship.
Clauses within clauses
A subordinate clause can be at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence:
While he was paying for his petrol, his car was stolen.
The teacher who has this group is away today.
His car was stolen while he was paying for his petrol.
Sentences can contain more than one subordinate clause:
While we were away, the girl who was looking after our cat heard that her grandmother had died.
Some of these clauses can be ‘nested’ one inside another, like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes. For example,
He said that his father went to America because Kate is there.
contains the clause:
(that) his father went to America because Kate is there.
which in turn contains the clause:
because Kate is there.
Pupils can learn how to show nested subordinate clauses in a sentence:
• by underlining:
• or using “Chinese boxes”:
Here is a refresher on non-finite verbs; Non-finite verbs:
• present participle: sailing
I was sailing (was is finite, sailing is non-finite)
• past participle: sailed
They have sailed (have is finite, sailed is non-finite)
• infinitive: to sail, sail
I learned to sail (learned is finite, sail is non-finite)
Watch him sail (watch is finite, sail is non-finite)
after, although, as, as if, as long as, as soon as, as though, because, before, if , in case, in order to, in that, once, provided (that), since, so that, than, that, though, until, unless, when, whenever, where, wherever, whereas, while … and others.
relative or interrogative pronouns or adverbs
how, that, what, when, where, which, who, whom, whose, why; however, whatever … and others.
When can a relative pronoun (that) be omitted?
The computer I use at home is faster. The computer crashed is outside. X
The lesson I like most is English. The lesson follows this is English. X
The Alice I know has red hair. The Alice usually sits next to me is his sister. X
The bullet he saw was silver. The bullet killed him was silver. X
When the noun that the clause refers to is the object of the relative clause and the relative pronoun would have been that, this pronoun can be omitted; but in Standard English it cannot be omitted if it is the relative clause’s subject.
What’s left when you remove the subordinate clause?
Look at this sentence:
He burns easily if he doesn’t use sun cream.
This is a main clause, which contains a subordinate clause:
if he doesn’t use sun cream
The meaning intended by the writer or speaker is conveyed by the whole main clause. One part of this main clause is the subordinate clause if he doesn’t use sun cream.
But the remainder “He burns easily” is not a clause on its own; it is part of the whole main clause: He burns easily if he doesn’t use sun cream.
Of course the words he burns easily could stand alone as a main clause in a different sentence, or context, if they conveyed the writer’s full meaning; but in some cases the main clause is grammatically incomplete if we remove the subordinate clause. For example:
He said that it was too late. (Remainder: He said.)
Why he did it is unclear. (Remainder: Is unclear.)