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What Is a Subordinate Clause?

By
Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #506

Before Bobby leaves for practice, Mom always makes sure he has a bottle of water.

Unless Marta brings cookies, I will need to stop at the store on the way home. 

When the ice cream man comes, I will be ready this time.

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

Mom always makes sure Bobby has a bottle of water before he leaves for practice.

I will need to stop at the store on the way home unless Marta brings cookies. 

I will be ready this time when the ice cream man comes

If it bothers you to start a sentence with because or other subordinating conjunctions (or if it bothers your boss), you can see that it’s easy to flip your sentence around and put the subordinating clause at the end—but you don’t have to. There’s no adult grammar rule against it.

Complex-Compound Sentences

Of course, sentences can get even more complex. For example, they can have more than one main (independent) clause joined to a subordinate (dependent) clause. These are called complex-compound sentences.

You still need a comma after the subordinate clause if it comes at the beginning of the sentence, and you also need a comma to join the two main clauses.

Before Bobby leaves for practice, Mom always makes sure he has a bottle of water, and Dad always makes sure he has his gear.

Unless Marta brings cookies, I will need to stop at the store on the way home, and I should also call Steve to let him know I’ll be late.

But if the subordinate clause comes in the middle, then the sentence doesn’t need the extra comma. Here are some examples with the subordinate clause in the middle: 

Mom always makes sure Bobby has a bottle of water before he leaves for practice, and Dad always makes sure he has his gear. 

I will need to stop at the store on the way home unless Marta brings cookies, and I should also call Steve to let him know I’ll be late. 

Prepositions or Conjunctions?

Some subordinating conjunctions, such as before, after, and until, can also act as prepositions. The way to tell the difference is to remember that subordinate clauses are still a type of clause, meaning they always have a subject and verb. 

If a word such as until is followed by a clause, it’s acting like a subordinating conjunction. If it is followed by just a noun or noun phrase, then it’s acting like a preposition. The good news is that either way, if it’s at the beginning of a sentence, you should put a comma after it.

Here’s an example where until heads up a prepositional phrase:

Until summer break, I need the car on weekdays. [until heads up a prepositional phrase]

Here’s an example where until heads up a subordinate clause:

Until we’re out of school, I need the car on weekdays. [until heads up a subordinate clause because we’re out of school has a subject and verb.] 

In Summary

In summary, Subordinating clauses make your sentences more interesting and complex. Just make sure they’re attached to a main clause and you put a comma after them if they come before the main clause.

what is a subordinate clause

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This version of this article originally appeared in Office Pro Magazine.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.