Most writing consists almost entirely of clauses. Good writing will connect, relate and contrast these clauses, so that the transition from one to the next appears seamless. Ultimately, however, each clause must, at the very least, name a subject and describe an action performed by or on that subject, and must place this action in time. Although the nature of the clause may seem technical, an understanding of it and its inner workings is vital to a broad and practical understanding of language. Knowing where one clause finishes and the next one begins will help you to write clearer, more concise sentences, and to link your ideas through conjugation and punctuation.
What is a Clause?
A clause is a group of related words that contain a subject and a predicate. The subject is the thing that is named in a clause that either performs or is acted on by the verb. The predicate is everything else, which will at the very least contain a verb. ‘I am’ is a clause because it has a subject ‘I’ performing the verb ‘am’. The final basic characteristic of a clause is that the verb must be finite, which means that the action being described is set in time—either the past, present or future; this is called tense.
This simple clause describes Sam, the subject, performing the verb ‘ran’ in the past tense.
This is not a clause because the verb ‘running’ is a present participle and fails to set the action in time.
Objects and Modifiers
The first example above is a very simple form of a clause. More often than not, they will be more complicated. There are two other elements that will commonly appear in a clause. They are objects and modifiers.
In the case of a clause that uses an intransitive verb, which means that the subject is transferring an action onto something or someone else, the clause will need an object.
Sam ran into Dylan.
In this instance, the subject, Sam, has performed the verbal phrase ‘ran into’ on to Dylan, the object.
Modifiers are the adjectives and adverbs that are used to modify the subject, objects or verbs in a clause.
Early this morning, Sam ran into young Dylan.
In this example, the subject-verb-object form has not changed, but the prepositional phrase ‘early this morning’ and the adjective ‘young’ have been added as modifiers, adding information and detail to the clause.
Again, the examples used here are simple. Often clauses become far more complex, but understanding the dynamics of these simple examples will help you to identify the key players when they appear in your own reading and writing.
Independent and Dependent Clauses
In academic writing, every sentence must contain at least one clause; however, many sentences will contain more than one. There are several ways in which two clauses can be joined together, for example, through conjugations or punctuation. Another method for joining clauses is by subordinating one to the other. By adding a subordinating word or phrase at the beginning of a clause, the clause in question loses its independence and requires another independent or main clause to complete the sentence.
Although Sam was tired, he got up very early.
The first clause has been subordinated to the second by the word ‘although’. Notice that if you were to remove that word, you would have an independent clause. It is also important to note that the second or main clause can stand alone as an independent clause. If we remove the subordinating word and replace the comma with a full stop, this sentence becomes two independent clauses.
Sam was tired. He got up very early.
However, here the continuity is broken and the emphasis of Sam’s getting up despite his tiredness is lost. This is where subordinating one clause to another becomes useful.
These are the very basic properties of the clause. The easiest way to learn to spot the key players is practice. By deconstructing clauses and sentences as you read, the process will become increasingly intuitive and will advance your understanding of language, and your ability to use it.