What is a Clause?

We all know what a sentence is. But it’s useful to break a sentence down and talk about Clauses as well when you’re teaching English.

These are, essentially, the building blocks of sentences and each sentence contains one or more clauses.

a sentence = one or more clauses

Think of them like a pontoon bridge. One piece can span a narrow river but that same piece can also be combined with other pieces to span a wider river.

What Makes a Clause?

A clause is made up of a subject and a verb and then optionally some other words.

These are all clauses:

{subject} + {verb}

my aunt + arrived

the sun + sank

{subject} + {verb} + …

my aunt + arrived + with a load of suitcases

the sun + sank + slowly into the horizon

So far they look like sentences, however we can also join clauses together using conjunctions:

{clause} + {clause with conjunction}

my aunt arrived with a load of suitcases + as the sun sank slowly into the horizon

Clauses or Sentences or Phrases?

In practical terms then, a clause is often the same as a sentence.

What we can actually say is that a clause is either the same as a sentence or a group of words which is part of a sentence.


The sun sank slowly into the horizon,


the sun sank slowly into the horizon

as the sun sank slowly into the horizon

clauses or phrases

There is one other important distinction to make.

When the group of words contains a subject and a verb then they are a clause. If, however, they do not contain both a subject and a verb, they are simply a phrase.


the sun sank slowly into the horizon


the sun

sank slowly into the horizon

into the horizon

sank slowly

Different Types of Clauses

Clauses can be combined in different ways and there are different types of clauses. What they are and how to use them are explored below.

independent clauses

Clauses that can stand by themselves and still make sense are called Independent Clauses. When a clause acts as an independent unit, it is usually referred to as a sentence‏‎.

He is 80 years old.

Mary worked very hard for her exam.

I can go to the theater tonight.

See the main article, Independent Clauses‏‎.

subordinate clauses

Clauses which need an independent clause to make sense are called Dependent or Subordinate Clauses. A subordinate clause depends on an independent clause for its meaning so that without the independent clause, the sentence could not be understood fully.

For example:

* and he can still drive.

* an asterisk at the beginning is used to indicate something is not grammatical.

In the example above we cannot really understand what is being said. However, if we add an independent clause all becomes clear:

He is over 90 years old + and he can still drive.

See the main article, Subordinate Clauses‏‎.

nominal clauses

A Nominal Clause modifies (or tells us more about) a noun. They follow a relative pronoun such as that, which, whichever, who and so on.

The man smiled.

The man who spoke to me yesterday smiled.

relative clauses

A Relative Clause, also known as adjective clause, gives more information about a noun but also functions as an adjective‏‎. It answers the questions what kind?, how many?, which one?

Jane, who is supposed to be Faye’s best friend, says she is totally unreliable.

My husband and I met in the same place where my parents had met 40 years ago.

See the main article, Relative Clauses‏‎.

In addition, in English sentences you can find:

  • Object Clauses – acting as an object in a sentence
  • Conditional Clauses– part of a conditional sentence
  • Adverbial Clauses – a clause which acts the same as an adverb in a sentence

Useful Links

Sentences‏‎ in English Grammar – how we make sentences

Phrases‏‎ in English Grammar – all about phrases

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Posted in Sentence Structure.

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