The Fat Skinny on Subordinate Clauses

The word grammar typed in all caps and seen through a magnifying glass.Image from PDPics from Pixabay

While I know a few other word nerds like myself, I don’t know anyone who loves talking about parts of speech. There’s something about the terminology related to parts of speech that is vague and intimidating to many (including myself), probably because parts of speech aren’t covered as thoroughly as they probably should be in U.S. schools.

Like many things, though, parts of speech ad their seemingly high-brow terminology start to make sense once you’ve dived in and analyzed what they’re all about. Take subordinate clauses, for example. The term itself sounds intimidating at first, even to writers — probably because it sounds like something a writer ought to understand. The “clause” part is easy enough as it indicates we’re taking about a group of words as in a phrase. And “subordinate” — while multisyllabic — is understood as meaning something that might be less important than something else and/or answers to something else.

Put those two seemingly innocent words together, though, and you have a term that doesn’t exactly sound like a lot of fun. Turns out a subordinate clause can actually be considered a somewhat sad part of speech — a tactic that helps me remember what it is — because it can’t stand on its own. Also called a dependent clause for this reason, a subordinate clause is a fragment when unaccompanied by a main clause (which is also called an independent clause because it can stand alone).

Examples and punctuation

The easiest way to identify a main/independent clause and a subordinate/dependent clause in a sentence is to use what I call a parent/infant test. A main clause, like a parent, can stand on its own, and a subordinate clause, like an infant, can’t.

Consider this sentence: “As soon as it was light, they ran outside to play.” Within this sentence is the simple statement “They ran outside to play.” Since that clause can stand on its own, it’s the main clause of the longer sentence. The phrase, “As soon as it was light,” however, can’t stand on its own because it’s a fragment, making it a subordinate clause.

As in the above example, a subordinate clause can begin a sentence, but it can also end a sentence. Consider this example: “They played outside until the streetlights came on.” In this sentence, the subordinate clause, “until the streetlights came on” follows the main clause. You’ll also note that there’s no need for a comma in this sentence. This also would be the case if we were to turn around our first example above and write, “They ran outside to play as soon as it was light.” Again, the subordinate clause follows the main clause — and no comma is needed. (When a subordinate clause is placed in the middle of a sentence, it’s usually framed by two commas as in, “Their son’s car, which was bought used, has lots of miles on it.”)

Types of subordinate clauses

If you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of subordinate clauses, you might like to know there are three types: noun clauses, adjective clauses, and adverb clauses. Consider the statement: “You are what you eat.” In this example, “what you eat” is a subordinate clause that’s acting like a noun, making it a noun clause. Consider this statement: “The child laughed at the seals, who were playing in the water.” In this example, “who were playing in the water” is an adjective clause because it modifies something (the seals) just as an adjective would. And now consider our original example above: “As soon as it was light, they ran outside to play.” In this sentence, “As soon as it was light,” is an adverb clause because it modifies a verb (ran) just as an adverb would.

I find adverb clauses the most interesting of the three because they provide specific details related to an action. Such details can cover when something occurred/is occurring/will occur (as in “as soon as it was light”), why something occurred/is occurring/will occur (as in “because she was tired”), under what conditions something occurred/is occurring/will occur (as in “if the price is right”), and even despite what something occurred/is occurring/will occur (as in “Even though he wanted to skip class”).

While all that is interesting (to me at least!), when it comes to subordinate clauses, I’d argue the most important thing to keep in mind is this: When a subordinate clause begins a sentence, it should be followed by a comma, but no comma is needed when a subordinate clause ends a sentence. Despite how tempting it might be to put a comma before a subordinate clause at the end of sentence (especially one that starts with a word like “as,” “unless,” or “until”), it’s just not needed — and your comma will be deleted if the sentence is reviewed by an editor. To remember this, consider what’s wrong with this sentence: “Your comma will be deleted, if the sentence is reviewed by an editor.” Exactly.

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