What is Independent Clause and Its Role?

A clause is a 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 independent clause.

What is an independent clause?

Also called main clause or principal clause, an independent clause is a grammatical group of words fulfilling two conditions.

  • It contains both subject and verb.
  • It represents a complete idea.

Since it represents a complete idea, it can stand on its own as a sentence. Every sentence must have at least one independent clause. Examples (subject in blue font and verb in magenta):

he ran fast

I slammed the bag on the table

the scamsters preyed on the vulnerable

Because they can stand as a sentence, we can punctuate and capitalize them like a sentence.

He ran fast.

I slammed the bag on the table.

The scamsters preyed on the vulnerable.

More resources:

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 these independent clauses, for example, entering and to reach are not finite verbs.

I slammed the bag on the table while entering the room.

He ran fast to reach the playground on time.

These aren’t independent clauses

Here are few examples of group of words that aren’t independent clauses. The first in each pair of sentences is not an independent clause; the second, with few changes made to the first, is.

1. We discussed. [It has subject and finite verb, but it’s not a complete idea: We discussed what. It sounds incomplete because discuss, being a transitive verb, requires an object. Remember, an independent clause must fulfil two conditions – subject & verb and a complete idea.]

We discussed the issue. [Independent clause]

2. The sunset looks. [It has subject and finite verb, but it’s not a complete idea: The sunset looks what. It sounds incomplete because looks, being a linking verb, requires a subject complement.]

The sunset looks majestic. [Independent clause]

3. How to deal with such situation? [No finite verb]

How do you deal with such situation? [Independent clause]

4. The committee set up to decide whether to sell the media house’s technology blog or not. [It’s just a noun phrase, which isn’t performing any action. It can function as subject, like in the next sentence]

The committee set up to decide whether to sell the media house’s technology blog or not decided against the sale. [Independent clause]

5. Anyone attending conference? [No finite verb. This goes in spoken English, but not in written]

Is anyone attending conference? [Independent clause]

6. What you learnt? [Interrogative sentences require an auxiliary, which this doesn’t have.]

What did you learn? [Independent clause]

7. Since he was late. [It contains subject and finite verb, but it doesn’t express a complete idea, implying it’s a dependent clause.]

He was late. [Independent clause]

Imperative sentences are independent clauses

An imperative sentence issues command or makes request. Examples:

Leave now.

Pass the book.

Drop the weapon.

Some doubt they’re independent clauses because they apparently lack a subject. But imperative sentences contain an implied subject, you. The above sentences are, in fact:

You leave now.

You pass the book

You drop the weapon.

If you can recognize imperatives as independent clauses, you’ll be able to recognize these sentences as compound and complex, respectively.

Leave now, or I’m calling security. [Compound]

Don’t postpone if you can finish today. [Complex]

An independent clause can have more than one verb

Does this contain one or two independent clause(s)? There are two verbs, after all. (Subject has been shown in blue and verb in magenta font.)

The moving company arrived at my home and started loading the furniture and belongings into the truck.

Even though it contains two verbs, it is one independent clause. That’s because both the verbs point to one subject, The moving company, forming one subject-verb unit. (Such sentence is said to have compound predicate.) Two independent clauses must have two separate subject-verb units, like in these sentences.

The moving company arrived at my home, and it started loading the furniture and belongings into the truck. [Adding the subject, it, to the earlier sentence creates another independent clause.]

The moving company arrived at my home, but I was not at home. [Two independent clauses]

You can add more noun phrases to make the subject long, but it remains one subject. (Such sentence is said to have compound subject.)

The moving company and my friends arrived at my home and started loading the furniture and belongings into the truck.

In the above sentence, both the verbs point to one subject, The moving company and my friends, forming one subject-verb unit, implying it’s an independent clause.

These have two independent clauses though because they contain two subject-verb units.

The moving company and my friends arrived at my home, but I was not at home.

The moving company arrived at my home, but my friends didn’t.

Key is number of subject-verb units.

An independent clause need not be short though

We can add phrases to an independent clause to make it more informative and long. All these, for example, are independent clauses.

The tiger waited patiently.

The tiger waited patiently for the antelope. [+ Phrase]

The tiger waited patiently for the antelope to wander close. [+ Phrase + Phrase]

The tiger, hiding behind the bushes in perfect camouflage, waited patiently for the antelope to wander close. [+ Phrase + Phrase + Phrase]

The tiger, hiding behind the bushes in perfect camouflage, waited patiently for the antelope to wander close before pouncing on it. [+ Phrase + Phrase + Phrase + Phrase]

Here are two examples of such independent clauses from news dailies.

Congress gave final approval on Thursday to a bill to fund the government through March 11, averting a shutdown this week and giving lawmakers more time to cement a deal on spending for the remainder of the fiscal year. The New York Times [Note that it contains just one finite verb, gave, but several non-finite verbs – to fund, averting, giving, to cement, and spending.]

The world is spending at least $1.8tn (£1.3tn) every year on subsidies driving the annihilation of wildlife and a rise in global heating, according to a new study, prompting warnings that humanity is financing its own extinction. The Guardian

As long as the group of words contains one subject-verb unit and represents a complete idea, it is an independent clause. Number of words don’t matter.

An independent clause is usually combined with other clauses

An independent clause is a sentence, but that’s not how majority of our sentences look. They’re more involved, but even they start from an independent clause (one main idea) to which more independent clauses (more main ideas) or dependent clauses (subordinate ideas) are added. (More on main and subordinate ideas in the next section.) In real pieces of writing, most sentences limit to one independent clause, sometimes stretching to two but rarely to three. But they’re relatively more accommodating of dependent clauses, with two dependent clauses being common and three not being a rarity. These sentences, for example, contain three dependent clauses each.

People are only realising it slowly, but this means that in England and Wales you are no longer completely free to bequeath what you want to who you wish. The Guardian

Those seizures were possible because law enforcement has improved at identifying the people who are trading cryptocurrency on the blockchain, where users once enjoyed a far greater degree of anonymity. The New York Times

Here is an example of how you add dependent and independent clauses to form a sentence similar to the above two. Let’s start with an independent clause.

The hungry tiger attacked the bear. [Independent clause]

We can add another independent clause to the above through a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS) or a semicolon. These two independent clauses, for example, have been joined by the coordinating conjunction but.

The hungry tiger attacked the bear, but then it retreated. [Independent clause + Independent clause]

The above sentence is more advanced than the independent clause we started with, but we can do more.

The hungry tiger attacked the bear, but then it retreated when the bear counter-attacked. [Independent clause + Independent clause + Dependent clause]

And more.

The hungry tiger, who last had a meal four days ago, attacked the bear, but then it retreated when the bear counter-attacked. [Independent clause + Independent clause + Dependent clause + Dependent clause]

You can add more clauses, especially dependent clauses, as long as it doesn’t become bloated.

When we add one or more independent clauses in a sentence, each independent clause in the sentence is called coordinate clause as they’re equal in weight to each other (the above sentence has two coordinate clauses). When we add one or more dependent clauses in a sentence, each dependent clause in the sentence is called an embedded clause (the above sentence has two embedded clauses).

An independent clause expresses the main idea in a sentence

In a sentence with both dependent and independent clause, the independent clause carries the main message of the sentence; the dependent clause(s) carry less important or subordinate information. Example:

Since his promotion is due this year, he is slogging hard to bag few more deals.

The main message of the sentence is about slogging hard and not the promotion. Why is this important? This is important because your next sentence should ideally build on the main message (slogging hard), and not on the subordinate message (promotion). So, this would be an appropriate next sentence because it builds on the main message.

Since his promotion is due this year, he is slogging hard to bag few more deals. He has been working even on weekends, which has taken a toll on his wellbeing.

But this won’t be.

Since his promotion is due this year, he is slogging hard to bag few more deals. The promotion is likely to catapult him into the much sought-after position of head of sales for the northern territory.

In the above example, we could subordinate only the clause we did because of the meaning we wanted to convey. But sometimes we’ve a choice as to which clause to subordinate and which to make independent. Example:

Rafael Nadal, who won the 2022 Australian Open in a hard-fought final, was on a comeback trail after a foot injury.

Rafael Nadal, who was on a comeback trail after a foot injury, won the 2022 Australian Open in a hard-fought final.

The first sentence would lead the discussion towards his comeback, but the second towards the final match.

So far, we’ve looked at sentences containing one independent clause. But if the sentence contains two independent clauses, it’ll carry two key messages.

How understanding of independent clauses helps your writing?

As we saw earlier, understanding that an independent clause carries the main message in a sentence, we can be more deliberate about what information to include in the independent clause and what in dependent clause.

Second, if you know that the clause you’ve written is independent, you won’t make comma splice errors like these.

The problem is yours, don’t blame it on others.

The school placed 90 percent of its students, remaining pursued higher education or started ventures.

If you utilize the peace time to get better at war, your adversaries will hesitate in waging a war on you, hence, the time of peace will stretch.

The underlined clauses are independent clauses, and they can’t be joined to the other independent clause by just a comma.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is an independent clause a simple sentence?

Yes.

A simple sentence contains one independent clause and no dependent clauses. Hence, this independent clause is also a simple sentence.

He ran fast.

Vice versa is also true: A simple sentence is an independent clause.

Is a question an independent clause?

Yes. Let’s understand this through an example.

Whom will he pick as his successor?

Does this fulfil the conditions of an independent clause? First, it has a subject and a verb. Second, it expresses a complete idea. Hence, it’s an independent clause.

An independent clause can in fact be any of the four types: declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory.

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