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A Clause May or May Not Express a Complete Thought
A clause may express a complete thought when the group of words is an independent clause, or it may express an incomplete thought when the group of words is a dependent clause.
It is important to understand the difference between a sentenceOpens in new window and a clause. Both are grammatical labels for a group of words that must contain a subject and a verb.
A sentence may contain more than one subject/verb groups; in other words, a sentence may consist of one, two, or more clauses. Regardless of the number of clauses a sentence has, it always expresses a complete thought.
A clause = Subject + Verb ⇒ may or may not express a complete thought.
Sentence = Subject + Verb ⇒ expresses a complete thought and may contain several clauses.
To find how many clauses a sentence has, consider breaking it down into separate clauses by underlining the subject (noun or pronoun) and verb (action or state of being) in each group of words or clause.
|Number of clauses: 1
|Number of sentences: 1
|Number of clauses: 5
|Number of sentences: 1
In underlining the subject (noun or pronoun) and verb (action or state of being) in each clause, you can see the number of clauses each sentence has.
Types of Clauses
A clause may express a complete thought when the group of words is an independent clause, or it may express an incomplete thought when the group of words is a dependent clause. Therefore, there are two types of clause: independent and dependent.
Learning to recognize the difference between independent and dependent clauses is important as it will help you create and punctuate complex sentences without confusing your reader.
Just as you need to learn how to balance and place blocks of differing size, shape, and weight, so, as the writer, you must learn how to arrange and connect clauses of differing completeness and purpose.
Independent Clause: A Clause That Makes Sense on Its Own
An independent clause (IC) contains a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought. Simply as its name suggests, an independent clause is a complete sentence that can stand by itself and does not need more information to give it meaning.
- Dan laughed.
In the example above, Dan is the subject and laughed is the verb. You might want to know what made Dan laugh, where he is and who he is with, or whether his laugh was happy or bitter— but these pieces of information are not essential for understanding what the sentence means.
Grammatically, all that matters is that the sentence has a subject and a verb and that it makes sense on its own. Dan laughed, therefore, is an independent clause.
Independent Clause = Subject + Verb ⇒ Complete Thought
Dependent Clause: A Clause That Requires More Information to Make Complete Sense
A dependent clause (DC) has a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought. As its name suggests, a dependent clause is dependent on more information to give it meaning. It cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence.
- When Dan laughs.
This sentence on its own makes no sense. Although Dan is the subject and laughs is the verb, you need to know more to make a complete statement.
What happens when Dan laughs? Does someone smile or get mad at him? Do other people join him? You need more information to complete the meaning of this clause. Adding another clause will provide the needed information:
- When Dan laughs, the walls shake, and the baby wakes up from his nap.
When Dan laughs, therefore, is a dependent clause.
Dependent Clause = Subject + Verb ⇒ Not a Complete Thought
Notice that the dependent clause in the example above was created by the addition of an opening word (when) which signaled the reader to wait for additional information. When is one of a group of words called subordinating conjunctionsOpens in new window. Learning this group thoroughly will help you to see if a clause is independent or dependent, complete or incomplete.
Use the acronym WASBIT to help you memorize the most common subordinating conjunctions: