What is Dependent Clause and Its Role?

A clause is a grammatical group of words that contains both subject and verb. It can be an independent clause representing a complete idea (he runs fast) or a dependent clause representing an incomplete idea (because he was ill). In this post, we’ll cover dependent clause.

What is a dependent clause?

Also called subordinate clause, a dependent clause is a prefabricated Lego-like unit containing both subject and verb. It conveys complex information concisely while functioning as one of the three parts of speech – noun, adjective, and adverb. The idea it carries though is not complete, and hence it can’t stand on its own as a sentence. It starts with certain marker words, which can be used to identify the clause. Examples (subject in blue font and verb in magenta):

whatever you are doing

that urgent steps are required to boost the economy

because I missed the bus

even though the product wasn’t completely ready

three of which returned losses

They’ve subject and verb, but they don’t represent a complete idea, and they start with marker words (whatever, that, because, even though, and which). They need not be short though.

although most industries showed precipitous decline in sales during initial months of Covid

If you noticed, subject in the above clauses is sometimes a regular noun, noun phrase, or pronoun (urgent steps and I) and sometimes not (that). Learn how to identify subject:

Note that when we talk of verb in a clause, whether dependent or independent, we mean finite verb. A finite verb has grammatical tense, and it corresponds to a subject in a sentence. A non-finite or non-tense verb (participle and infinitive), on the other hand, doesn’t have grammatical tense, and it doesn’t correspond to any subject in a sentence. Example: going and to go are non-finite verbs, but is going, was going, went, and has gone are finite verbs. In this dependent clause, for example, to boost is not a finite verb.

that urgent steps are required to boost the economy

Subject, verb, and incomplete idea don’t necessarily mean a dependent clause

Now, this is only for argument’s sake because such constructions don’t exist in writing.

The following sentences have subject and verb. Are they an independent clause? Or a dependent clause?

The salesman addressed.

My investment of $10,000 became.

Something is amiss in them, isn’t it? The salesman addressed what. My investment of $10,000 became how much. The two sentences don’t represent complete ideas. Hence, they’re not independent clauses though they look like one.

They’ve subject and verb, and they represent incomplete ideas. They must be dependent clauses then. Unfortunately, not. (You can’t attach them to independent clauses to make something meaningful. See the next section.) English language prescribes only certain types of constructions as dependent clauses. We’ll cover the three main types – noun clause, relative clause, and adverb clause – later in the post.

As far as English is concerned, they’re nothing. These are independent clauses though.

The salesman addressed our concerns. [Since address is a transitive verb, it needs an object.]

My investment of $10,000 became $40,000. [Since become is a linking verb, it needs a subject complement.]

Dependent clauses need support of independent clauses

Since a dependent clause can’t stand as a sentence, avoid it as a sentence unless you’re using it for some effect in informal writing. Or else you’ll leave a trail of sentence fragments. William Safire put this succinctly about dependent clauses:

A dependent clause is like a dependent child: incapable of standing on its own but able to cause a lot of trouble.

But dependent clauses thrive in company of independent clauses, adding complex information to the sentence. Compare the above dependent clauses with the following sentences, which are a result of combining them with independent clauses. Such insertion of dependent clauses into other clauses is also called embedding of clauses. Note that the subject and verb of the independent clause are different from those of dependent clause.

Whatever you are doing is not good.

The committee opined that urgent steps are required to boost the economy.

I reached the school late because I missed the bus.

Even though the product wasn’t completely ready, the company decided to launch it.

I invested in ten different companies, three of which returned losses.

Although most industries showed precipitous decline in sales during initial months of Covid, ecommerce thrived.

More resources:

Now, the dependent clause can survive while also making the sentence more informative. That’s symbiotic relationship at play. Look at the links to the three dependent clauses further down in the post for how different types of dependent clauses are combined to independent clauses.

In real pieces of writing, you’ll often see multiple dependent clauses joined to one or two independent clauses.

Never mind that there should have been a national strategy or that states didn’t have the resources to ramp up testing on their own. The Washington Post [One independent clause + Two dependent clauses]

If you collect wisdom only through own experience, you fill a bucket through a dripping tap, but if you collect wisdom from others’ experiences as well through reading, you fill a bucket through a fully-open tap. [Two independent clauses + Two dependent clauses]

Dependent clauses have been standardized into three types

To standardize how we write dependent clauses, their three types – noun, relative (or adjective), and adverb clause – have been prescribed. They function much like their word counterparts – noun, adjective, and adverb, respectively – and hence the name. Yes, even clauses function as one or the other parts of speech. Every unit in a sentence – word, phrase, and dependent clause – has to. Here is a pictorial representation of what parts of speech dependent clauses can function as.

Dependent clauses and the part of speech they belong to

Note: To use the above image, cite the link (url) of this post.

We saw that every word, phrase, and clause must function as a part of speech in a sentence. Here is an overall picture of different parts of speech words, phrases, and clauses can function as. (In this overall picture, the first table has been summarized in column 4.)

Part of speech of words, phrases, and clauses

To use the above image, cite the link in the button below (click to copy):


Let’s take a brief look at the three dependent clauses, with their marker words alongside.

1. Noun clause

Also called nominal clause, a noun clause is a dependent clause that can take the place of a noun in a sentence. Put simply, it can do whatever a noun (or pronoun) can. It can function as subject, object of verb, indirect object of verb, object of preposition, and subject complement.

Whatever you are doing is not good. [Noun clause as subject]

Do you know how YouTube makes money? [Noun clause as object of verb]

The child threw tantrums at whomsoever he ran into. [Noun clause as object of preposition]

Whether you will get visa depends on whether you have been vaccinated. [Noun clauses as subject and object of preposition, respectively]

Noun clauses in the above sentences are functioning like one-word nouns. You can, in fact, replace these clauses with a noun or pronoun, and you’ll get meaningful sentences.

If you noticed, the above noun clauses start with whatever, how, whomsoever, and whether, which are essentially responsible for making the clauses dependent. There are limited number of such marker words that can start a noun clause, the most common of which are that, how, if, what, when, where, why, who, whom, whose, whether, and which. And somewhat less common are whoever, whomever, whatever, wherever, whenever, whichever, and however.

Learn more about noun clause and how it is joined to an independent clause:

2. Relative clause

A relative clause is a dependent clause that functions like an adjective in describing nouns. Unlike an adjective though, it is a group of words containing its own subject and verb. And unlike an adjective, which comes before the noun or after the linking verb, it is placed after the noun it describes, mostly immediately after. Because it functions like an adjective, a relative clause is also called an adjective clause.

You’ve picked a bag that is meant for children.

Tom, who was last seen on Monday, came to college today.

Tom, whose first few books bombed, has written few best sellers.

The gym where I work out is closed for renovations.

In each of the above sentences, note that the relative clause is placed immediately after the noun or noun phrase it is describing. When they’re accompanied by commas, they’re called non-restrictive relative clauses (second and third), and when they’re not (first and fourth), they’re called restrictive relative clauses.

Of the three clauses, relative clause has the least number of marker words that start the clause: who, whom, whose, that, which, when, where, and why.

Learn more about relative clause and how it is joined to an independent clause:

3. Adverb clause

An adverb clause is a dependent clause that acts as an adverb in a sentence, implying two things. First, it modifies adjectives, verbs, and adverbs (mainly verbs and rarely the other two) in the main clause. Second, it answers adverbial questions such as when, where, why, in what manner, to what degree, and under what condition to provide necessary background information in a sentence.

I reached the school late because I missed the bus. [The clause answers why while modifying the verb reached.]

When we get stuck in the day-to-day work, we fail to see the big picture. [The clause answers when while modifying the verb fail.]

You will not really learn about something unless you test it. [The clause answers under what condition while modifying the verb will not learn.]

Since I spoke about something that addressed his needs, he asked me to meet afterwards. [The clause answers why while modifying the verb asked.]

Adverb clause, like an adverb, can occupy more than one position in a sentence. In the above sentences, it has been placed in the front as well as at the back.

The list of marker words that start adverb clause is much longer than that of the other two clauses. The common ones are before, after, as, since, because, whether, if, as soon as, when, until, unless, whenever, wherever, although, even though, while, and whereas.

More resources:

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Dependent clauses express subordinate idea in a sentence

An independent clause expresses the main idea of a sentence; a dependent clause, less important or subordinate idea. In first sentence below, for example, reaching the school late is the main idea, and missing the bus is subordinate. In the second, failing to see the big picture is the main idea, and getting stuck in day-to-day work is subordinate.

I reached the school late because I missed the bus.

When we get stuck in the day-to-day work, we fail to see the big picture.

An implication of this is that the next sentence in the sequence should ideally build on the main idea, and not subordinate.

I reached the school late because I missed the bus. With trepidation, I entered the class, which was already 15 minutes into business.

When we get stuck in the day-to-day work, we fail to see the big picture. As a result, many end up wasting years together.

Clause within clause: A dependent clause may contain other dependent clauses

A dependent clause may contain other dependent clauses:

If you don’t know who you’re dealing with, don’t blame me if you land in trouble.

The above sentence contains three dependent clauses. The clause If you don’t know who you’re dealing with contains another who you’re dealing with. The third is if you land in trouble.

Another example:

Many children in the refugee camp grew up in a world where they don’t know what their lineage is and which place they belong to.

This sentence too contains three dependent clauses, with the ones starting with what and which being part of the clause starting with where.

You can go another level deeper. That’s like nesting dolls. Once you gain expertise in clauses, such nested clauses will come naturally to you.

How understanding of dependent clauses helps your writing?

Why use dependent clauses? Knowing that dependent clauses are incomplete ideas and hence can’t stand as sentences helps us avoid sentence fragments. They also help us to:

1. Squeeze in complex information into independent clauses

Consider these sentences:

The winter chill continued long. [Adverb]

The winter chill continued as if it would never end. [Adverb clause]

The adverb clause in the second sentence squeezes in more complex information than just an adverb in the first sentence. This can be extended to multiple dependent clauses in the same sentence.

This is something that nearly all snooping devices can do to some extent, but exactly how they do it depends on what software they use. [Relative clause + Noun clause + Noun clause]

2. Avoid punctuation errors

Noun clauses are relatively more prone to unnecessary commas. If you know what constitutes a noun clause and what role it plays in a sentence, you can avoid commas like these.

Whether he lied under oath, should be investigated impartially.

Susan knows how apps are coded, and digital marketing works but Tom doesn’t know how to do those things.

The noun clause Whether he lied under oath is functioning as the subject of the sentence and hence shouldn’t be followed by a comma, like a one-word noun in its place wouldn’t be. The comma in the second sentence is a result of failure to recognize the noun clause, how apps are coded and digital marketing works. There, in fact, be a comma before but as it joins two independent clauses.

I wrote the following sentence deliberately at the start of this section to drive home the point that a long noun clause doesn’t need a comma to pause in between or immediately after, as the entire clause is functioning as subject of the independent clause.

Knowing that dependent clauses are incomplete ideas and hence can’t stand as sentences helps us avoid sentence fragments.

As an aside, this isn’t a good sentence because it’s top-heavy (long subject).

3. Avoid subject-verb disagreement

Understanding how dependent clauses work in a sentence will help you avoid subject-verb agreement errors like these.

How he managed two jobs are admirable.

The player who has been plagued by injuries have decided to opt out of the tournament.

In the first sentence, the verb of the main clause are should correspond to the noun clause How he managed two jobs, and not to jobs. In the second, the verb have should correspond to The player, and not injuries. The correct versions would be:

How he managed two jobs is admirable.

The player who has been plagued by injuries has decided to opt out of the tournament.

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Anil Yadav

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