What Are Subordinate Clauses? – The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation


English has two kinds of clauses: subordinate (or dependent) and independent. The difference between them is that an independent clause can stand alone and a dependent one cannot. A subordinate clause by itself is a sentence fragment.

Complete stand-alone sentence: I want the ice cream that is made with soy instead of milk and cream.

Independent clause: I want the ice cream

Subordinate clause: that is made with soy instead of milk and cream

The subordinate clause depends on the independent clause to finish its meaning. The independent clause does not need the subordinate clause to properly function; rather, it benefits from the extra information that the subordinate clause provides.

Signals of Subordinate Clauses

Consider the following sentences and notice what they share in common:

Since I started exercising, I have noticed that I’ve been sleeping better at night.

Joanne is the mayor who can get things done for the best of the city.

Wherever Joseph decides to put that old rake is okay with me.

Each sentence includes a word that serves as a signal that a dependent thought is being expressed. The word is either a relative pronoun or a subordinating conjunction, and it subordinates the clause it is in.

From there, we can examine whether each subordinate clause is serving as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. Let’s look at the same sentences again to determine how the subordinate clauses are functioning.

Since I started exercising, I have noticed that I’ve been sleeping better at night.

Joanne is the mayor who can get things done for the best of the city.

Wherever Joseph decides to put that old rake is okay with me.

In the first sentence, since I started exercising modifies the verb phrase, have noticed, to describe the timing of the action. This makes the subordinate clause an adverb.

In the second sentence, who can get things done for the best of the city modifies mayor by further describing the noun. This makes the subordinate clause an adjective.

In the last sentence, the entire dependent clause wherever Joseph decides to put that old rake acts as the sentence subject. This makes the subordinate clause a noun.

The following table includes common signals of subordination. When you read or write them, be aware of their potential presence and function within a subordinate clause.

Relative Pronouns Subordinating Conjunctions
that whoever after as though in order that though whenever
what whom although because since unless where
which whomever as before so that until wherever
who whose as if if that when while

Subordinate Clauses: More Examples

To further solidify our understanding of what subordinate clauses are, we’ll review a few more ways of how they operate in writing.

Subordinate Clauses as Nouns

I am unsure of when they will arrive. (object of a preposition)

Do you know when they will arrive? (direct object)

That they will arrive is certain. (subject)

Subordinate Clauses as Adjectives

Walter is a man who tries to live a virtuous life. (describes man)

Walter is a man whom we have always looked up to. (describes man)

Walter has always been someone whose virtues I admire. (describes someone)

Subordinate Clauses as Adverbs (*each sentence describes the timing of the action)

We will clean up after the guests leave.

When the guests leave, we will clean up.

We will clean up whenever the guests leave.

Related Topics

Dependent and Independent Clauses
Clauses and Phrases
Who, That, Which 

Pop Quiz

Now that you understand what subordinate clauses are, identify the subordinate clause in each sentence. 

1. Sheila said that she loves your gift of flowers.

2. The judges are still deciding if Team Kryptonite should receive the award.

3. Because they are so kind to all, the Ruizes have many friends. 

4. That is an issue which can be easily resolved.

5. The gymnasts who have the best routine this round will advance to the semifinals.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Sheila said that she loves your gift of flowers. 

2. The judges are still deciding if Team Kryptonite should receive the award.

3. Because they are so kind to all, the Ruizes have many friends. 

4. That is an issue which can be easily resolved.

5. The gymnasts who have the best routine this round will advance to the semifinals.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the “Comment” box at the bottom of this page.



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