Columns > Published on August 29th, 2012

Clause I Said So: A Refresher Course On Sentence Types

No matter the content, the inspiration, or the writer, a good piece of writing is only as strong as its sentences. In the creative writing world, practically anything is possible. Crack a novel and you will find alternative punctuation, clever sentence fragments, and creative twists on traditional grammar and usage. That’s what makes writing and literature fun and exciting. However, if you’ve read any of my articles, you’ve probably gleaned by now that I advocate knowing the rules before you break them. Call me conservative, but I can’t stand writing that ignores the basic tenets of English grammar.

With that in mind, I want to focus on the foundation of all good prose—the sentence. According to the Little, Brown Compact Handbook, Fifth Edition, a sentence is a “basic unit of expression [that is] grammatically complete.” At minimum, a sentence must contain at least one independent clause, and it must start with a capital letter and end with a closing punctuation mark such as a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. Sentences can include multiple independent clauses, dependent clauses, and phrases. Within those clauses and phrases, a variety of punctuation marks can be used, but I’m not going to get into that now. For this article, I am going to focus on the largest piece of the sentence’s construction—the clause.

No matter the content, the inspiration, or the writer, a good piece of writing is only as strong as its sentences.

What Is A Clause?

It is important to understand clauses because they drive punctuation. Knowing where to place commas, semi-colons, and colons depends on clause location and type. Clauses can also function as parts of speech in that whole groups of words can take the place of basic nouns, adverbs, adjectives, and objects. That said, clauses are specific in that they musy include a subject and a predicate.

Subject: names something, the doer of the verb, usually a noun (person, place, or thing).

Predicate: makes assertion about the subject or describes an action. The predicate will contain at least a verb plus a variety of modifiers. There are five predicate patterns that include different configurations of verbs, direct and indirect objects, and complements. However, to avoid making your head explode, I’ll leave those for another day.

*It is important to point out that sentences can also contain phrases. A clause may contain a phrase, but phrases do not have subjects or predicates. There are a whole bunch of types of phrases: verbal, participial, gerund, infinitive, absolute, appositive, adverb, and adjective are all types of phrases. I won’t get into those in this article in order to avoid head-spinning, but keep in mind that a phrase is NOT a clause but it can be part of one.

Clause Types

There are two types of clauses, and depending on who you ask, they have more than two different names. Some style guides list them as independent clauses and dependent clauses while other guides call them main clauses and subordinate clauses. In my opinion, independent/dependent makes better sense because sentences can have multiple independent clauses so using the term main is confusing. It sounds odd to say a sentence has multiple main clauses, but note that there are other ways to define them. For this article, I use the independent/dependent distinction.

An Independent clause (a.k.a. main clause) contains a subject and a predicate. It can stand alone as a complete sentence if it were separated from the rest of the sentence. Being that the independent clause can stand alone, it therefore cannot stand in as a part of speech such as a noun, adverb, adjective, etc.

A Dependent clause (a.k.a. subordinate clause) contains a subject and a predicate but starts with a subordinating word such as when, though, because, if, etc. This subordinating word changes the dependent clause into part of speech—noun, adjective, adverb—which supports the idea in the independent clause. A dependent clause without an independent clause would be a sentence fragment.

Dependent or subordinate clauses function as one of these three parts of speech:

  1. Adverb Clauses

An adverb clause is a clause that functions in the sentence as an adverb which modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. An adverb clause always starts with a subordinating conjunction such as if, because, when, though, before, until, etc.

Taylor writes articles for LitReactor when the baby finally naps.

“When the baby finally naps” is the adverb clause because it modifies the verb “writes.”

  1. Adjective Clauses

An adjective clause modifies a noun or a pronoun and it usually begins with a relative pronoun such as who, which, or that. The clause usually occurs right after the word it is modifying.

Babies who nap when it is convenient for their parents are rare.

  “Who nap when it is convenient for their parents” is the adjective clause which modifies the noun “babies.”

  1. Noun Clauses

A noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence. Like nouns, a noun clause can be a subject, a direct object, or an indirect object. The clause will begin with a how, why, what, whatever, or a relative pronoun.

Why Taylor likes to write about grammar is a mystery to most of her friends.

 “Why Taylor likes to write about grammar” is the subject of the sentence and the subject for the verb “is”. You could replace the entire noun clause with a regular noun and the sentence would still be grammatically accurate. For example:

Taylor is a mystery to most of her friends.

Sentence Types

These two clause types can be configured into four different sentence types.

  1. A simple sentence contains a single independent clause consisting of a subject and a predicate.

Taylor writes.

“Taylor” is the subject, or the who, and the verb “writes” is the predicate, or the section of the clause that makes an assertion about the subject and/or describes an action.

Here’s another example with the same subject, but a more developed predicate.

Taylor writes articles for LitReactor.

The words “articles for LitReactor” are part of the predicate because they further describe an action of the subject, but since they contain no second verb or subject, they can only exist as part of the whole idea or independent clause.

It’s important to remember that a simple sentence does not have to be short. Inexperienced writers often add unnecessary punctuation in a lengthy sentence because they assume it’s too long or that it’s a run-on sentence. A simple sentence can be quite long. For example:

Taylor writes articles and columns for an online literary community called LitReactor that was created by the same group of people who manage Chuck Palahniuk’s fan site.

Everything after the word “Taylor” is part of the predicate. Even though it’s a bit wordy and contains a lot of modifying words and phrases, the entire sentence would be considered a simple sentence because it consists of one complete thought and requires no punctuation.

  1. A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses only. Please note that since there are two independent clauses, there must be either a semi-colon or a comma/coordinating conjunction combo to connect them. See my article on commas for more about coordinating conjunctions.

Taylor writes articles for LitReactor, and LitReactor publishes them online.

Each underlined section is an independent clause connected with “, and”. Each clause is capable of standing as a single sentence:

Taylor writes articles for LitReactor. LitReactor publishes them online.

  1. A complex sentence consists of one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. These clauses may or may not be separated by a comma.

Taylor writes articles for LitReactor when the baby finally naps.

Taylor writes articles for LitReactor, although she wishes she was napping with the baby.

In the above examples, the independent clause is marked by the underline, and the dependent clause is marked by the bold with underline. Note that the clauses can appear in any order. However, a comma may become necessary if you put a dependent clause first. (See my other article on commas for more.) For example:

When the baby finally naps, Taylor writes articles for LitReactor.

  1. A compound-complex sentence is made up of (you guessed it) one or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.

Even though babies are supposed to sleep upwards of fifteen hours per day, Taylor finds it difficult to get her articles for LitReactor done on time, and she has to write apologetic emails to the editors who are always nice about it.

Now You Try

Take a look at whatever you are writing now—be it a story or an email. Choose a sentence or two and rewrite them as the following:

  1. A simple sentence.
  2. A compound sentence.
  3. A complex sentence using a noun clause.
  4. A compound-complex sentence with an adjective clause.
  5. A compound-complex sentence with a noun clause and an adverb clause.

Post them in the comments below or email them to me directly at tayor@litreactor.com

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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