Reduction of Clauses to Phrases

By the end of this post, you would be able to understand what is reduction of clause (and what is not) and why we reduce clauses.

What is reduction of clause?

Reduction of a dependent clause is its shortening to a phrase. Since a dependent clause contains a subject-verb unit, reduction results in losing this combination. (We call the process reduction because the resulting phrase is usually less wordy than the clause.) Of the three dependent clauses, relative clauses are most frequently reduced, followed by adverb and noun clauses.

(Reduction converts a clause to a phrase. If you’re not sure what’s the difference between the two, refer this post on difference between a phrase and a clause.)

In each of the following examples, note that the reduced clause no longer contains subject-verb unit.

John, who is our neighbor, wants to become a writer. [Relative clause]

John, our neighbor, wants to become a writer. [Reduced relative clause]

After I finished daily chores, I settled down to prepare for the next week. [Adverb clause]

After finishing daily chores, I settled down to prepare for the next week. [Reduced adverb clause]

The bank official explained how I can open a checking account. [Noun clause]

The bank official explained how to open a checking account. [Reduced noun clause]

If you’re wondering why we learnt dependent clauses when they were to be ultimately reduced to phrases, you should know that only few dependent clauses can be reduced. And even those which can be reduced are not reduced if the resulting phrase reads awkward. In real pieces of writing, therefore, you’ll find only few reduced clauses.

With step-wise process and several examples, learn how the three clauses are reduced and when they should not be reduced:

Of the three, reduction of noun clause is most intuitive, implying that you’ll likely be reducing noun clauses even without knowing their reduction rules expressly. Next in intuitiveness is reduction of adverb clause, especially adverb clause of time. The least intuitive of the three is reduction of relative clause, implying learning their reduction rules will benefit you the most.

Why do we reduce clauses?

If you’ve learnt compound sentences, you would know that when two independent clauses in a compound sentence have common subject, one of the subjects is dropped to make the sentence concise. So, He looked for his lost pen everywhere but couldn’t find it is better than the compound sentence He looked for his lost pen everywhere, but he couldn’t find it. A word less matters.

Reduction achieves the same. It makes writing concise by using phrases that are less wordy than clauses in their place. It also gets rid of at least few ‘pesky’ marker words (who, that, which, etc.) that may seem repetitive in a piece of writing. (Marker words start dependent clauses.)

Moreover, higher proportion of phrases, which can be achieved through reduction of clauses, signal professional writing.

Dropping marker word alone is not reduction of clause

Dependent clauses start with a marker word, which can sometimes be omitted. Examples:

Mac argued that he wasn’t guilty.

Don’t ask questions which people can’t or don’t want to answer.

Even though the marker word isn’t there in the above sentences, it is implied. Some erroneously call such omission of marker word as reduction of clause. It’s not. If you recall the definition of reduction we covered earlier, reduction results in a phrase. But in the above two sentences, the dependent clause still exists: Each has a subject and a verb.

Here is an example of reduction of clause and omission of marker word in the same sentence.

I would love to play sports that require lot of physical movement, but I know that I’m unlikely to play such sport because of my hectic schedule. [Original sentence]

I would love to play sports that require requiring lot of physical movement, but I know that I’m unlikely to play such sport because of my hectic schedule. [Sentence after reduction (first) and omission (second). Word added has been shown in magenta font.]

The first one is reduction as it changes the clause to a phrase; the second is mere omission of marker word. The original sentence contained two independent clauses and two dependent clauses, but its more concise version contains a dependent clause less.

In sum, reduction of clause and omission of marker word are both tools of conciseness, but they’re fundamentally different. In the former, the clause makes way for a phrase; in the latter, the clause stays as it is, albeit with a word less.

If you can reduce a clause doesn’t mean you should

We reduce clauses to make writing concise, but if it comes at the cost of even slightest awkwardness in sentences, avoid it. Conveying meaning without speed bumps is far more important. Popular publications, as we would think, do exactly that. This sentence, for example, can be reduced twice (reduced version follows) with little awkwardness, but hasn’t been even once.

Remarkably, magpies can recognize the faces of as many as 30 people, which is the average number who live within a magpie’s territory. The New York Times

Remarkably, magpies can recognize the faces of as many as 30 people, the average number living within a magpie’s territory. [Reduced]

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