Clauses: Clause types

Compare the following examples. They would usually be used to ‘do different things’:

  • She helped them.
to make a statement
  • Did she help them?
to ask a question
  • Help them.
to direct the hearer to carry out an action
  • What a help you've been!
to make an exclamation

These examples belong to four different clause types. Each type has its own grammatical characteristics, such as a particular word order.

We'll look at each type in turn. The three most common types are:

  • declarative (She helped them.)
  • interrogative (Did she help them?)
  • imperative (Help them.)

A fourth, less common clause type is:

  • exclamative (What a help you’ve been!)

This is more than just a sentence with an exclamation mark at the end, as we will see later on.

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

  • 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 phrase.

Interrogative clauses are typically used to ask questions. They can be classed as ‘closed’ or ‘open’ depending on their possible answers.

These are examples of closed interrogatives. What kinds of answers can they have?

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

These can only be answered with yes or no. (Other responses are possible, such as I don’t know, but they don’t really answer the question.) We call these ‘closed interrogatives’ because the set of answers is closed.

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. What kinds of answers can they have?

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

These each have an open-ended set of possible answers, which is why we call them open interrogatives. For example:

  • Question: When did you get married?
  • Answer: I got married last week / in October / five years ago ...

Open interrogatives are generally introduced by a ‘wh-phrase’ containing a ‘wh-word’ such as what, who, when, where, why or how (the latter 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 direct the actions of the addressee(s). Here are some examples. Can you spot some special features of these clauses?

  • 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 create exclamations:

  • What strong words you use. [W1B-003 #172]
  • How true that is! [S1A-079 #116]
  • What a labyrinth of lies and half-truths was closing around her. [W2F-003 #108]

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.

Compare: You use strong words (declarative) and What strong words you use (exclamative). You is the subject in both examples, but has a different position in the clause.

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’ clauses, functioning as exclamations.

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!

However, this is just the typical pattern – form and use do not always match up like this. Here’s an example:

  • Can you keep still, Bob. [S1A-004 #36]

The speaker here wants Bob to do something, to keep still. But this clause does not have the imperative form – it has an interrogative form (note the Subject–verb inversion). The speaker could have used an imperative instead: 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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