Subordination - Clauses

This discussion of subordination owes a lot to Mightier Than the Sword by C. E. Good.

First, what's a clause? According to Good, a clause is 'a bunch of words containing a main verb'. There are two main kinds of clauses:

An independent clause is complete and can stand alone.

examples: Lions prefer to eat antelope. or Lions seldom eat zebra.

A subordinate or dependent clause is not complete and cannot stand alone.

example: Although lions eat zebra, ...

An independent clause may be introduced by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) or may not need introduction.

Subordinate clauses are more complex than independent clauses. There are three kinds of subordinate clause (adverb clause, adjective clause, and noun clause). Let's consider how each is introduced and how each can cause problems.


A. Adverb Clauses (one kind of subordinate clause)

1. Like adverbs, adverbial clauses indicate where, when, why, or how. How do adverbial clauses start?

Adverbial clauses start with subordinating conjunctions:


as well as

insofar as










as long as

even though



as soon as




example: After the lions drank at the river, they slept.

The example above has two main verbs: drank in the dependent clause and slept in the independent clause. Although adverbial clauses seldom cause problems, sometimes you may wish to reduce the adverbial clause to a phrase. After drinking at the river, the lions slept. After drinking at the river is not a clause because it lacks a main verb - it is a participial phrase functioning as an adverb.


2. Using subordination, you can combine two independent clauses into one sentence. 'The lions drank at the river.' 'The lions slept.' After they drank at the river, the lions slept. Subordination has accomplished two things here. First, it has connected two related ideas - thinking in general and developing arguments in particular depend on these connections. Second, subordination has allowed you to change sentence length and rhythm.


B. Noun Clauses (a second kind of subordinate clause)

1. Poor writers have lots of problems with noun clauses. To understand why, remember that nouns function as subject, direct object, object of preposition, object of verbal phrase, appositive, and as subject complement (I am skipping a few other functions).

Subject: Lions do not live in jungles.

Direct Object: We watched the lion.

Object of Preposition: We quietly walked by the lion.

Object of Verbal Phrase (a participle in this case): Watching the lion, we remained hidden.

Appositive: The antelope's main predator, the lion, does not live in jungles. (an appositive is a word or phrase that restates the identity of a nearby noun and is set off by commas. In this example, 'the lion' is an appositive.

Subject Complement: In this food chain, the predator is the lion.

2. Like nouns, noun clauses function in all these ways. To demonstrate, let's use the clumsy noun clause The fact that lions eat antelope in the following sentences (modified from Good's book):

Subject: The fact that lions eat antelope did not impress Walt Disney.

Direct object: We stated the fact that lions eat antelope.

Object of Preposition: Disney was not concerned by the fact that lions eat antelope.

Object of Verbal Phrase: Stating the fact that lions eat antelope, we waited for

Disney's response.

Appositive: We stressed one thing, the fact that lions eat antelope.

Subject Complement: The truth was the fact that lions eat antelope.


3. What should you do with noun clauses? First, learn to recognize them. Noun clauses often start with the following:



the fact that*







*the fact that is wordy and hackneyed. It can often be reduced to that, leaving a more compact noun clause.

4. After recognizing noun clauses, determine whether they sound clumsy and whether they are helping or hurting the independent clause. Finally, reduce noun clauses to nouns or to phrases.

Example: The fact that the lions live in groups partially explains their hunting success.

Revision: The social behavior of lions partially explains their hunting success. We replaced the noun clause with the adjective and noun social behavior.

Revision: By living in groups, lions increase their hunting success. We replaced the noun clause with the participial phrase by living in groups.


C. Adjective clauses (a third kind of subordinate clause) = Relative clauses

1. Like adjectives, adjective clauses modify nouns. They are introduced by relative pronouns:







example: The lion, which rested by the river, seemed well fed.

example: The lion that rested by the river seemed well fed.

A relative pronoun renames or refers to another noun and acts in its place as the subject of the dependent, adjective clause. In the two examples above, 'which' and 'that' rename 'the lion' and are the subjects of their dependent clauses.

2. Adjective clauses starting with that and which cause lots of trouble. Most trouble comes from excessive usage, from stringing together these clauses. Replace adjective clauses with adjectives, phrases, or adverbial clauses. These are more compact and less distracting than relative clauses starting with that or which.

example: We studied the lions that were young.

revision: We studied the young lions. (adjective clause replaced by adjective)

example: That leopards can swim across rivers means that they can cover much

territory during rainy season.

revision: By swimming across rivers, leopards can cover much territory during the rainy season.

(adjective clause replaced by participial phrase)

example: The leopard, which was crossing the creek, could not detect the antelope.

revision: Because the leopard was crossing the creek, she could not detect the

antelope. (adjective clause replaced by adverbial clause)


'That away'. If the adjective clause is short and has a subject other than that or which, you can often delete the that or which.

example: The antelope that the lion hunted was injured.

revision: The antelope the lion hunted was injured.

example: The research project that we proposed concerned predator-prey dynamics.

revision: The research project we proposed concerned predator-prey dynamics.

But be careful: retain the that if needed for clarity, especially when that introduces a noun clause with a 'cognitive' verb such as know, assume, learn, remember, believe, etc.

example: Lions learn that zebra can be dangerous prey. (Don't reduce this to 'Lions learn zebra can be dangerous prey'.)

example: The scientists claimed that the data, collected in 1989, were flawed. (Don't reduce this to 'The scientists claimed the data, collected in 1989, were flawed'.


You also may reduce adjective or relative clauses by converting the clauses into separate sentences.