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What Is a Subordinate Clause?

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #506
What is a subordinate clause?

Phrases and clauses are both groups of words that work together in a sentence. The difference is that a clause has a subject and a verb—often, a clause could be a sentence if it were all by itself, and when it could be, we call it a main clause or an independent clause

Zombies hunt the surviving humans. [main clause]

A phrase, on the other hand, is missing something. Phrases work within sentences. There are prepositional phrases, noun phrases, and so on. Phrases can play a lot of different roles in a sentence, but they work with main clauses. Somewhere, every sentence must have a main clause. Here’s an example of a prepositional phrase followed by a main clause.

On the TV show The Walking Dead, zombies hunt the surviving humans.

[prepositional phrase]            [main clause]

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Subordinating Conjunctions

Subordinate clauses get their name from the fact that they always start with a subordinating conjunction such as since, because, although, and while

Fragments 

“Subordinate clause” is the name you’re more likely to have learned in school, but the other name, “dependent clause,” may help you better understand what they do because adding that subordinating conjunction to the head of the clause makes it dependent on a main clause. A dependent clause without a main clause is a fragment. The dependent clause needs the main clause—it depends on the main clause—to make it a proper sentence. Fragments are generally frowned upon in business writing, but you do often see them in fiction, especially in dialog because they create a conversational, punchy, informal tone. 

I know summer is right around the corner. [main clause]

The days are getting longer. [main clause]

Because the days are getting longer. [fragment]

I know summer is right around the corner because the days are getting longer. [complex sentence with a main clause followed by a dependent clause]

Subordinate Clauses

You may have been taught not to start a sentence with the word because (one of the subordinating conjunctions), but that is a fib used by beleaguered teachers to keep small children from writing sentence fragments (e.g., Before Bobby leaves! Unless Marta brings cookies! When the ice cream man comes!) 

A subordinate clause can go at the beginning of a sentence or later in a sentence. The only difference is that if it goes at the beginning, you need a comma after the subordinate clause, and if goes later, you don’t need a comma.

Here are some examples with the subordinate clause at the beginning of the sentence:

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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