Clause types: advanced

In the National Curriculum no terminological distinction is made between the grammatical patterns of the clause types, and the way that these clause types are used. In linguistic studies different terminology is used for the former and latter. What follows is not statutory in the NC, but some readers may appreciate some more background on terminology.

In linguistics the terms declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamative are used to talk about grammatical patterns.

By contrast, the terms statementquestioncommand and exclamation are used to speak about the typical uses of these patterns.

Let's look at each of the clause types and how they are typically used.

Declarative clauses are the most common type of clause. They are typically used to make statements. Here are some examples:

  • She helped them.
  • We had a very good turnout. [S1A-005 #212]
  • The Labour Party doesn’t want a war. [S1B-035 #33]
  • Officially I was doing a unit of English. [S1A-006 #11]

In declarative clauses, the Subject comes in its typical position before the verb.

Interrogative clauses are typically used to ask questions.

They can be classed as closed interrogatives or open interrogatives,  depending on their possible answers.

With closed interrogatives the set of answers is closed, namely yes or no. (Other responses are possible, such as I don’t know, but they don’t really answer the question.) Here are some examples:

  • Did she help them?
  • Are you planning parties? [S1A-019 #350]
  • Does she play tennis? [S1A-020 #221]
  • Are you cold? [S1A-080 #265]

Closed interrogatives have a special word order, where the Subject comes after a verb. Compare these examples:

  • You are planning parties. (declarative)
  • Are you planning parties? (closed interrogative)

The order of the Subject and the auxiliary verb are switched when we turn this declarative into a closed interrogative. This is called Subject-verb inversion.

The following are examples of open interrogatives. These are called open interrogatives because they can have an open-ended set of possible answers. Here are some examples:

  • Who told you that? [S1A-059 #15]
  • When did you get married? [S1A-056 #230]
  • How much is she getting paid? [S1A-041 #162]

Open interrogatives are generally introduced by a ‘wh-phrase’ containing a ‘wh-word’ such as what, who, when, where, why or how (the last item does not strictly begin with wh-, but is nevertheless part of the same group).

If the wh-phrase is not the Subject, there is Subject-verb inversion. Compare:

  • She is getting paid £100. (declarative)
  • How much is she getting paid? (open interrogative)

Imperative clauses are typically used to command a person to do something. Here are some examples.

  • Help them.
  • Leave that battery alone. [S1A-007 #184]
  • Try again. [S1A-044 #162]
  • Be alert when out and about. [W2D-009 #53]

These clauses have no Subject. We understand that it is the person(s) addressed who is to do these things. Also, the verbs are in the base form: compare imperative Be alert with declaratives You are alert, He is alert, and so on.

To tell someone not to do something, we can put don’t before the main verb: Don’t tell Kate; Don’t be mean. These are negative imperatives.

Exclamative clauses are used to utter exclamations:

  • What a labyrinth of lies and half-truths was closing around her! [W2F-003 #108]
  • What a great help you have been!
  • How true that is! [S1A-079 #116]

Exclamative clauses generally start with a phrase containing what or how. This phrase comes first even when it is not the Subject, which often gives a special word order.

People often use shorter, reduced structures to exclaim:

  • What a nuisance! [S1A-021#289]
  • Oh how confusing! [S1A-023#64]

These have no verbs, so they are treated as ‘reduced’ exclamative clauses.

We’ve seen that each clause type has a particular grammatical form, and a typical use (or discourse function). Here’s a summary.

  • declarative clause: regular order of words and typically used to make a statement, e.g. She helped them.
  • interrogative clause (open or closed): with Subject-verb inversion and typically used to ask a question, e.g. Did she help them? Who helped them?
  • imperative clause: without a Subject and typically used to direct someone to act, e.g. Help them.
  • exclamative clause: often involving what or how before a and typically used to exclaim, e.g. What a help you’ve been!

These are the typical uses of the four clause patterns. However, it is important to be aware of the fact that a pattern and its use do not always match up like this. Consider these examples:

  • Can you pass the pepper?
  • Can you keep still, Bob? [S1A-004 #36]

Notice that these patterns have an interrogative form, but they are not used to ask questions. Instead, the speaker here wants the hearer to do something, i.e. 'to pass the salt' and 'to keep still'. In other words, the interrogative patterns are used as commands. Of course, the speaker could have used an imperative clause instead: Pass the salt; keep still, Bob!

Another example where form and function don’t match is She helped them?, spoken with a rising tone of voice. This has a declarative form, but is used as a question.

Why do we talk about declaratives, imperatives, and so on, as clause types rather than sentence types? One reason is that different clause types can be combined together in a sentence.

Here are some examples where main clauses are combined with coordinating conjunctions. Can you identify the clause types?

  • We’ll probably like them but what happens if we hate them? [S1A-100 #150]
  • Get rid of the infection and your symptoms will subside. [S1A-087 #191]

Here is the first example again with the answer:

  • We’ll probably like them but what happens if we hate them?

This involves a declarative clause combined with an interrogative clause

And here is the second example:

  • Get rid of the infection and your symptoms will subside.

This involves an imperative clause combined with a declarative clause.

This shows that the categories apply to clauses rather than sentences. (Here we have focused on main clauses. Some of the categories can apply to subordinate clauses as well, but these work a little differently.)

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