The Structure of English Language - Clause Functions

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Coordinate clauses | subordinate clauses | adverbial clauses | adjectival clauses

Coordinate clauses

The simplest sentences may contain a single clause. (Simple is a standard description of one kind of sentence.) Where a sentence contains more than one clause, these may be considered of equal grammatical importance. If this is so, these are coordinate clauses. They are joined by a coordinating conjunction, such as and or but. (Some grammarians call the first clause of the sentence the main clause, and the others coordinate clauses). Here are some examples. Apart from the conjunctions (or, so and and, everything else is a main/coordinate clause):

  • You can travel by tube, you can drive or you can take the train.
  • The weather was hot, so I went on my bike.
  • Lucy opened her window, and in came Count Dracula.

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Subordinate clauses

Sometimes the clauses are placed in a hierarchy: the more important ones are main clauses, while the less important are subordinate clauses. A main or coordinate clause could stand on its own as a sentence, but a subordinate clause works only within a sentence. A subordinate clause can do the job of other clause elements. It can work as subject, object, complement and adverbial, as in these examples:

  • Subordinate subject clause: What you say is stupid.

    Clause as subject = What you say; main clause = X is stupid, verb = is

  • Subordinate object clause: I did not know that you were here.

    Clause as object = that you were here; main clause = I did not know X; verb = did not know

  • Subordinate complement clause: Your first job is learning this grammar.

    Clause as complement = learning this grammar; main clause = Your first job is X; verb = is

  • Subordinate adverbial clause: Come round when you're ready.

    Clause as adverbial = when you're ready; main clause = Come round (X); verb = Come

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Clauses that function as subject, object or complement replace noun phrases, so they are called nominal clauses. Those that function as adverbs/adjectives are adverbial/adjectival clauses.

Some other kinds of nominal clauses are shown below. For clarity, they are all shown in object position. This is not the only place where they may occur, but is the most common.

  • That clause: I think (that) you know each other. (That may be omitted if understood.)
  • Wh- clause: I know what you did last summer. (Clause introduced by who, when, what, why, whether.)
  • -ing clause: I don't recall seeing her there. (Clause introduced by present participle.)
  • inf. clause: I wish to confess to my crimes. (Clause introduced by to + infinitive.)

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Adverbial clauses

These are introduced by a subordinating conjunction, which explains the adverbial meaning of the clause. These include when/before/after/while (time); because/since (reason); if/unless/lest (condition), as in these examples:

  • When the bell sounds, you may leave the room.
  • We cannot send you the goods, because we are out of stock.
  • Unless you are good, Father Christmas will bring you nothing.

Two minor types of adverbial clause are inf. and -ing clauses.

  • Inf. clause: I went to the shop to buy some presents. (Clause introduced by to + infinitive.)
  • -ing clause: Jane broke her arm while fighting. (Clause introduced by present participle.)

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Adjectival clauses

A familiar type is the relative clause, introduced by a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, that, which), as in these examples:

  • Here is the woman (whom) I married.
  • This is the book (which) I am reading.
  • The drink (that) I most like is orange-juice.

The relative pronouns are in brackets, as they may be omitted if understood.

Two minor types of adjectival clause are -ing and -ed clauses.

  • -ing clause: The train now standing at platform four is the 5.30 to Leeds.
  • -ed clause: She is the celebrity pursued by the press.

Since past participles do not all end in -ed we may find other verb forms in such clauses: The tea drunk by the students or the exam taken by the pupils.

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Clause elements may be single words of the appropriate category, they may be phrases or even some kinds of subordinate clause. Explaining even simple structures is difficult. Verbal explanations are less easy to make than diagrams. These work best when there is a hierarchical level, as sentences are analysed into clauses, which are further analysed into (more clauses and) phrases, which are analysed into words, which are analysed into morphemes.

In an exam, you are very unlikely to be required to analyse long sequences. Use clause analysis (or phrase analysis) selectively, to establish some point about language acquisition (learning to make or understand structures), about language and society (how structures embody social attitudes to language), language change (how structures or paradigms change over time) or stylistics (how structures embody style).

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