Subordinate and Independent Clauses in English Grammar
Some clauses are like mature grown-ups. They have their own house or apartment, pay their own expenses, and wash the dishes frequently enough to ward off a visit from the health inspector. These clauses have made a success of life; they’re independent.
Other clauses are like the brother-in-law character in a million jokes. They still live at home, or they crash on someone’s couch. They’re always mooching a free meal, and they never visit a Parental Unit without a bag of dirty laundry. These clauses are not mature; they can’t support themselves. They’re dependent. These clauses may be called dependent clauses or subordinate clauses. (The terms are interchangeable.)
Following are two sets of clauses. Both have subject-verb pairs, but the first set makes sense alone and the second doesn’t. The first set consists of independent clauses, and the second of subordinate clauses.
Elena blasted Bobby with a radar gun.
Bobby was going 50 m.p.h.
The cougar could not keep up.
Did Bobby award the trophy?
After she had complained to the race officials
Because Bobby had installed an illegal motor on his skateboard
Which Tom bought from an overcrowded zoo
Whoever ran the fastest
Independent clauses are okay by themselves, but writing too many in a row makes your paragraph choppy and monotonous. Subordinate clauses, however, are not okay by themselves because they don’t make sense alone. To become complete, they have to tack themselves onto independent clauses. Subordinate clauses add life and interest to the sentence (just as the guy crashing on your couch adds a little zip to the household). But don’t leave them alone, because disaster will strike. A subordinate clause all by itself is a grammatical felony — a sentence fragment.
Standardized test-makers are hooked on complete sentences. Steer clear of fragments and run-ons when you’re taking one of these exams.
The best sentences combine different elements in all sorts of patterns. In the following example, independent clauses and subordinate clauses are used to create longer, more interesting sentences:
After she had complained to the race officials, Elena blasted Bobby with a radar gun.
Because Bobby had installed an illegal motor on his skateboard, he was going 50 m.p.h.
The cougar, which Tom bought from an overcrowded zoo, could not keep up.
Did Bobby award the trophy to whoever ran the fastest?
Combine the ideas in each of these sets into one sentence.
Betsy screamed at the piano mover.
The mover dropped the piano on the delicate foot of the violinist.
Anna solved a quadratic equation.
The equation had been troubling the math major.
Michael gave special trophies.
Some people wanted those trophies.
Those people got the trophies.
Answer: Several combinations are possible. Here are three:
A. Betsy screamed at the piano mover who dropped the piano on the delicate foot of the violinist.
B. Anna solved a quadratic equation that had been troubling the math major.
C. Michael gave special trophies to whoever wanted them.