A Review of Clauses and Conjunctions

two semi-colons

It’s clear from the many comments I received after my last post about semi-colons, that a review of clauses and conjunctions would be helpful.


Clauses are a group of words that do a writer’s bidding. It’s important to be able to differentiate between the two main types of clauses: independent and subordinate.

An independent clause:

Contains a complete subject + complete predicate;

Stands alone;

Can be joined to other independent clauses by one of the seven COORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS:

AND – in addition, also, moreover, besides

BUT – nevertheless, however, still

YET – nevertheless, however, still

FOR – because, seeing that, since

OR – as an alternative, otherwise

NOR – and not, or not, not either [used after a negative]

SO – therefore, as a result

A Subordinate (or dependent) clause:

Is not a sentence;

Functions as a part of speech (noun, adjective, adverb);

Is introduced by subordinators:

Relative pronouns: that, what, which, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose;

Subordinating conjunctions: after, although, as, because, before, if, once, since, that, though, till, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, while;

Subordinating phrases: as if, as soon as, as though, even though, in order that, in that, no matter how, so that.

Types of Sentences:

Simple – independent clause.

All three of the following examples are built around the same independent clause; everything else is commentary.

I write.

I write essays.

I write essays for print, blogs and radio.

Compound – 2 or more independent clauses.

These can be joined by coordinating conjunctions or separated by semi-colons; “I write” is again the independent clause at the heart of these examples:

I write for readers and I write for listeners. (coordinating conjunction joining two independent clauses)

I write for readers; I write for listeners; I write for clients who hire me. (semi-colon separating three independent clauses)

Complex – a dependent clause and an independent clause.

These different clauses are connected by subordinating adverbs or phrases. The independent clause is highlighted in bold, indicating the main point.

While I think in print, I’ve learned to write for audio. (adverbial phrase)

After scribbling all morning, the writer suffered cramps. (dependent adverbial phrase)

The writer who considers her audience succeeds. (noun phrase)

Compound-Complex – one or more dependent clauses supporting two or more independent clauses

Uncertain about how best to continue building on the simple sentence “I write,” and unwilling to inadvertently bore my readers, I find that I must write my own example of a compound-complex sentence, using as many dependent clauses, joined with as many independent clauses to make my point with clarity, economy and grace; whether I have succeeded is moot.

Let’s break down the above sentence clause by clause:

  • It begins with two dependent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction “and”:
  • Uncertain about how best to continue building on the simple sentence “I write,” and unwilling to inadvertently bore my readers,
  • The independent clause that is the kernel of meaning on this side of the semi-colon “I find”;
  • “that I must write my own example of a compound-complex sentence” is a restrictive clause following the relative pronoun “that”;
  • it’s a clause because it contains both a subject “I” and a predicate “must write”
  • “my own example” is an adverbial phrase describing what the subject (I) must write
  • “of a compound-complex sentence” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adjective describing “example”;
  • “joined with as many independent clauses to make my point with clarity, economy and grace” is another dependent clause hanging off that same relative pronoun “that” and further describing “example”
  • whether I have succeeded is moot” is another independent clause, which is why it’s separated from the previous independent clause by a semi-colon.

Why learn the grammar of clauses?

  1. If you know your clauses, you can punctuate with clarity – which makes it easier for your reader to follow your train of thought;
  2. If you state your important ideas in independent clauses and your supporting evidence in subordinating clauses, you’re effectively emphasizing the importance of the point you are trying to make.
  3. If you know the so-called standard usage, you can still decide not to use it, in which case you’re exhibiting authorial control rather than ignorance.

I know, this is dense stuff, which is why I urge anyone who wants more instruction to study it further in a class, from a book, on-line, or with a tutor. But remember: you don’t need to know all the technical language around usage; what’s important is learning how to use language to express yourself with concision and clarity.

Write on!

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator who punctuates her writing life with winter sport whenever snow conditions allow. She posts an essay every Wednesday on her blog, Living In Place.

8 thoughts on “A Review of Clauses and Conjunctions

  1. Pingback: Clauses and Conjunctions–Oh, My! | Just Can't Help Writing

  2. Thank you for this thorough explanation of clauses and conjunctions! I had to reread parts to understand it better. Learning grammar while in grade school and beyond would’ve been more meaningful if teachers stressed how it would make you a better communicator and had contextualized it with reading and writing. I was a total mess understanding the meaning of grammar and why there were so many parts to it. In junior high school, I would start sweating whenever the teacher asked us to diagram sentences.
    I digressed in my comment, but I just wanted to say thanks for breaking down the explanation into bits!

    • Yes, this was a dense piece, condensing a lot of information into a small space. I’m glad you persevered! IMHO It’s absolutely stupid that grammar is ever taught separate from usage!

  3. The style of Deborah’s writing is lucid enough to bring the point home.
    Just one thing to ask by way of doubt clearing: one dependent clause with one independent clause—-can this make one compound-complex clause?
    In case of the answer being in the negative, her definition of the Compound-Complex clause seems likely to need changing.

  4. Pingback: Recent Readings – Deanna Discusses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s