What makes an independent clause grammatical?
This is the first of two lessons about Independent Clauses. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the concept of clauses and sentences
– Learn useful distinctions between independent and dependent clauses and how they are formed
– Discuss the application of phrase functions in building grammatical clauses
Syntax is one aspect of grammar that university students using English for academic purposes (EAP) often get wrong. Syntax is a technical term that really describes sentence structure. If you’ve ever received constructive comments from your tutor that mention independent and dependent clauses, coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, and simple, compound and complex sentences, then it’s probably your syntax that needs attention.
This short two-lesson course focuses specifically on independent clauses, first describing them more generally in Lesson 1 before exploring their grammar rules in Lesson 2. After reading through this course and studying the examples, don’t forget to download our associated worksheets to improve your English proficiency before completing another related topic, such as our course on relative clauses.
What is a clause?
While many students will have heard of words, phrases, clauses and sentences, most will not be able to define what a clause is or how it differs from a sentence. Just as how words such as ‘my’ and ‘ice cream’ may be combined into subject or object phrases, phrases can also be combined into clauses. As the following shows, one rule of all clauses is that they must have a subject and verb phrase function:
The two clauses above (‘I rested’ and ‘my ice cream has melted’), though short, are both complete sentences. Because clauses like these can form complete sentences without being combined with any other clause, they are called independent clauses. A single, grammatical independent clause that forms a complete thought and can stand unaided is known also as a simple sentence. But clauses, as syntactic building blocks, can also be combined to create complex sentences. In the example sentence below, we’ve labelled five clauses that each possess the minimum subject and verb phrase functions. Can you tell which clauses are independent?
How are dependent clauses different?
While the independent clauses (2) and (4) may stand alone as simple sentences, the dependent clauses (1), (3) and (5) would be ungrammatical when expressed alone.
The clauses ‘I eat it every day’ and ‘my doctor told me’ are independent simply because they can form grammatical sentences without the assistance of any other clause, whereas clauses such as ‘because I like chocolate’ are ungrammatical without another clause to complete them. One simple way of determining whether a clause is independent or dependent is to check the cohesive marker that introduces it. Subordinating conjunctions such as ‘because’ and ‘even though’ join dependent clauses to other clauses, while coordinating conjunctions such as ‘and’ and ‘but’ are used to join independent clauses to other independent clauses.
Which phrase functions build independent clauses?
Though all clauses (and therefore sentences) require a minimum of a subject and a verb to be grammatical, these are not the only phrase functions on offer to English speakers when building independent clauses. Even a single independent clause may be composed of any of the five phrase functions – subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial:
One tip to determine the number of clauses in a sentence is to count how many unique subjects and verbs there are. If a sentence has only one subject and verb then it must be a single independent clause, otherwise known as a simple sentence.
Can independent clauses be combined?
In addition to forming simple sentences, independent clauses can also be combined to create compound sentences. A compound sentence is formed from the combining of two or more independent clauses, joined together using a coordinating conjunction (such as ‘and’, ‘so’ or ‘but’), a conjunctive adverb (such as ‘however’ or ‘therefore’) or a semicolon (;):
Independent clauses are the key building blocks of other sentence structures too, such as complex and compound-complex sentences, though these structures also require at least one dependent clause and one subordinating conjunction. For more information about this, visit our course on dependent clauses.
Clearly, there are a number of rules that students need to learn if they wish to write accurate and grammatical independent clauses. With lots of opportunity to go wrong, if you’re wishing to get a high grade in a university assignment and plan to do so by getting your sentence structures just right every time, then continue reading with Lesson 2. In our next class, we’ll discuss rules of clause coordination and punctuation and how to avoid sentence fragments, comma splices and sentence run-ons.
There are currently no PowerPoint activities, additional teacher resources or audio and video recordings created for this topic. Please come back again next semester.
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