Explanation

A clause is a special type of phrase whose Head is a verb. Clauses can sometimes be complete sentences. Clauses may be main or subordinate.

Traditionally, a clause had to have a finite verb, but most modern grammarians also recognise nonfinite clauses.

  • It was raining. [single-clause sentence]
  • It was raining but we were indoors. [two finite clauses]
  • If you are coming to the party, please let us know. [finite subordinate clause inside a finite main clause]
  • Usha went upstairs to play on her computer. [non-finite clause]

A clause is a structure which typically expresses a situation such as an action, process or state of affairs (declarative clause), but it can also be used to ask a question (interrogative clause) or issue a command (imperative clause). One or more clauses can make up a sentence. For example, He will find them is a main clause which stands alone as a sentence. By contrast, that he will find them is a subordinate clause functioning as a Direct Object within the main clause I know that he will find them.

The National Curriculum's definition of a clause as "a special type of phrase whose Head is a verb" presents us with a new way of looking at clauses. This may take some getting used to. However, the definition makes sense if you view a clause as a grouping of words in which one word stands out as pivotal, and this is the verb. This idea isn't really any different from regarding a group of words whose pivotal element is a noun as a noun phrase, and a string of words whose main element is an adjective as an adjective phrase.

See also: clause type.

Clause types in context

Exploring how different clause types help to construct social meaning

The four clause types are a central part of English grammar. An understanding of declarative, imperative, interrogative and exclamative clause types can help students recognise how writers use these structures to create meaning in different ways, and can help them develop a better repertoire of structures in their own writing.

Clause types in context: Activity

You’re visiting a friend’s house. You’re in a cold room and the window is open. What can you say to each of the following to get the window shut?

  1. your friend
  2. your friend’s grandmother
  3. your friend’s annoying little brother

You’re carrying several boxes of DVDs and books. Then you drop one, spilling its contents all over the floor. You need help and there are people around who could be of assistance. What do you say to each of the following?

Subordinate clauses in sentences

The Activity page appears in the menu entitled 'This Unit' in the upper right corner of this page. The slide in the Activity page can be displayed on a projector or smart board.

On the slide are several subordinate clauses, including finite and nonfinite clauses. Ask your students to compose 10 new sentences, each containing at least one of the subordinate clauses. Encourage them to use more than one subordinate clause in a sentence.

There are some strong grammatical patterns that guide us. For example, compare:

Ambiguity and headlines

Newspaper headlines often compress sequences of actions into very compact structures. Sometimes the meaning becomes ambiguous as a result.

Ambiguity and headlines: Activity

Police chase driver in hospital

Violinist linked to Japan Airlines crash blossoms

BT ducks break-up with price cuts

Reagan wins on budget, but more lies ahead

Juvenile court to try shooting defendant

Clauses in composition

Goals

  • Identify sentence structures and clauses in example texts.
  • Describe and evaluate the effects of the clause and sentence structure choices in the examples.

Lesson Plan

Looking at clauses and sentences in linguistic detail can give you an extra level of analysis that can be used to open up a text’s depths. The slides in the Activity page in the right hand menu present some examples. The examples include interesting clause structures, all of which seem to be designed to create effects.

Clauses in composition: Activity

Extract from a charity advertisement:

Nana-Kwame will never see his brothers. He will never see his sisters. He will never see his mother or father. They are dead.

Extract from a charity advertisement:

You can make the difference. You have the power. If you give just £10 we can make huge changes to these children’s lives.

Taken from Louis Sachar, Holes

Nonfinite clauses in literature

In this activity, students look at how nonfinite clauses might be used in their own writing and that of others to vary the structure of a text. On one level, this is about creating something that people like to read: something that is interesting, varied and engaging and designed to hook the reader or suit the style you are hoping to adopt. On another level, it’s about students showing teachers and examiners that they know about different forms and can use them in their writing.

Present participles in composition

This activity involves working with nonfinite clauses to do some sentence-splitting and sentence-joining. The purpose is to develop your awareness of the different kinds of structures that are available to you as a writer.

Sentence generator

What did you and your family do on the holidays? In this activity you will experiment with our special sentence generator which reports on some unusual holiday happenings.

Sentence generator: Activity

Click on each column to scroll up and down, and make different combinations.

Click on the dice at the top of the columns to get a new random ordering of elements.

In slide 2, re-order elements by clicking within a column and dragging to left or right (or by clicking on the arrows at the tops of the columns).

Sentence types: Simple, compound or complex?

Simple, compound or complex? Look at each of the following examples, and click on the right sentence type.

Subordinate or main clause?

Try to identify which clauses can stand on their own (click Main) or those which can’t (click Subordinate). The capitals and punctuation marks have been removed to make this slightly less obvious.

Y6 GPaS Test: Question, command, statement or exclamation: Advanced

Identify the type of clause highlighted in each multi-clause sentence below.

The punctuation has been removed to make the answers less obvious.

Y6 GPaS Test: Subordinate clause?

Select whether the example sentence contains a subordinate clause or not.

Clause types: statements, questions, commands and exclamations

The National Curriculum recognises four clause types (also called ‘sentence types’ ). They are usually used to ‘do different things’:

Each clause type has its own typical pattern (i.e. word order).

In statements, the Subject comes in its typical position before the verb. Here are some examples:

Clauses

Clauses are considered to be very important units in the study of language. But what is a clause? What makes it different from a word, a phrase, or a sentence? Why are clauses so important?

A clause is a powerful structure because it can express a whole situation. Here’s an example:

Clauses: Further guidance for teachers

Modern grammatical descriptions of English differ in some ways from the accounts in traditional grammars. This can sometimes lead to confusion. Here we note a few important differences in relation to the analysis of clauses and sentences.

Clauses: Main and subordinate clauses

Typically, a clause expresses a particular situation – an event or state of affairs. To do this, it usually needs to contain a verb. Here is an example of a clause:

  • My brother phoned my cousin on Tuesday night.

This expresses an event, with the verb phoned indicating the type of event.

Here are some more examples of clauses, with the verb phrases highlighted:

Clauses: Relative clauses

Look at the highlighted clauses in these examples. What do they add to the meaning of the sentences?

Grammatical functions in the clause

The description of word classes, phrases, and clauses in terms of their structure is part of the study of form. We now turn to the study of grammar from the perspective of function: this notion refers to what words, phrases and clauses do as units of language.

Sentence types: simple, compound, complex

This unit further explains simple sentences, compound sentences and complex sentences, which were introduced in the unit 'Clauses: main and subordinate'. Simple sentences contain one clause, while compound and complex sentences contain more than one clause.

National Curriculum note: The National Curriculum now refers to sentences that contain one clause as single-clause sentences, and those that contain more than one clause as multi-clause sentences.

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