What is a Clause?

Last updated: May 28, 2018 at 4:21 am

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Explaining to students of English what a sentence clause really is can be a bit of a challenge. It would be much easier to explain to a three year old what is a Santa Clause!

Anyways, we’re not talking about Santa Clause here, we’re talking about the “Sentence Clause,” and I’m sure you’re more than three years old! So let’s get straight to the point. Shall we?

OK. We may say that a clause is part of a sentence. But some sentences only have one clause. And in that case, the clause is the whole sentence.

So is a clause a sentence? It is “part” of a sentence, except in cases where the sentence is a one-clause sentence and then the clause and the sentence are one!

Yes, that can get confusing. The thing is that a sentence may have one, two, three or even more clauses.

So I guess we can divide sentences in “single clause sentences” and “multi-clause” sentences.

By definition, we say that a clause is a sentence unit that contains both a subject and a predicate.

Here is an example of single-clause sentence.

The rain is falling.

Subject: The Rain

Predicate: is falling

So, there we have a sentence with one clause. What’s the clause? The clause is: The rain is falling.

So, we can say that in single-clause sentences, the clause and the sentence are one and the same.

Now let’s look at a multi-clause sentence.

The rain was falling while we were going home.

The sentence above contains two clauses:

  1. The rain was falling.
  2. while we were going home.

Let’s examine these two clauses.

Clause one: The rain was falling.

Subject: The rain.

Predicate: Was falling

Clause two: while we were going home.

Subject: we

Predicate: were going home.

The conjunction “while” joins the two clauses.

In a multi-clause sentence, at least one clause must a principal clause and the other(s) may be either principal or subordinate clause(s).

So in the sentence: The rain was falling while we were going home, there are two clauses: one is principal and one is subordinate.

Can you guess which clause is principal and which is subordinate in that sentence? Imagine walking into a room and declaring, “while we were going home.”

Everyone would look at you and wait for you to complete your sentence. That is because the clause “while we were going home,” is an incomplete statement. Everyone would wonder “what happened” while you were going home.

But if you told someone “the rain was falling,” they would understand something. The clause “the rain was falling,” therefore is a principal clause, and the clause “while we were going home,” is a subordinate clause.

The subordinate clause does not make sense by itself. The subordinate clause depends on the principal clause to complete its meaning.

A sentence may be made up two or more principal clauses. When this happens, we use a “coordinate conjunction” to join the two principal clauses.

A sentence may even be made up of three or more principal clauses. The rule is that a sentence must have at least one principal clause, and the others can be either principal or subordinate.

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