How to use (and when to avoid) subordinate clauses

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My obsession with subordinate clauses (and cutting them out of stories) became a running joke in the newsroom when I filled in as deputy editor in 2018. Here’s the thing, though: I love a subordinate clause, but only in moderation. 

Subordinate clauses are the sort of thing which can quickly feel repetitive or can be quite jarring if not executed properly. 

What is a subordinate clause?

I’m going to take one step back and clarify that a clause is a very basic sentence. It should contain a subject and a verb, or in very basic terms someone or something (subject) should carry out an action (verb). 

A simple sentence (clause) will make sense on its own, while a subordinate clause won’t. 

Subordinate clauses are also known as dependent clauses because if they’re read without the main clause, they’ll just be a confusing fragment.

Basically, the information in the subordinate clause is a nice little addition to your main point but doesn’t make sense when read alone. 

Subordinate clauses will start with either a subordinate conjunction or relative pronoun. I know the technical terms are intimidating but I've broken everything down with examples and included an infographic you can save for later.

Here are a few examples:

After Becky dropped the cake

(After is a subordinate conjunction, Becky is the subject, and dropped is the verb)

While Emily built a sandcastle

(While is a subordinate conjunction, Emily is the subject, and built is the verb)

Who left the milk out of the fridge

(Who is both the relative pronoun and subject, left is the verb)

All of these examples are fragments, and need to be attached to a main clause if they’re going to make sense to your reader. But how do you do that correctly? 

If you’re starting the sentence with a subordinate clause, use a comma. (That was an example in itself, but I’ve included another below). 

While Emily built a sandcastle, James swam in the ocean.

(Subordinate clause + comma + main clause)

When you’re adding the subordinate clause after your main clause, you don’t need punctuation. 

We’ve decided to cook dinner rather than spend money on take-away food.

(Main clause + subordinate clause)

Grammar and punctuation explained: subordinate clauses

Relative pronouns and subordinate clauses

Earlier I mentioned relative pronouns. These are used to create relative clauses that must be related to the noun they’re adding information to. For example:

James lives in Brighton, which is in south-east England.

(The subordinate clause relates directly to Brighton, the noun)

You can also create embedded clauses by adding the information to the middle of a sentence. Like this:

Betty, who is 81, still likes to walk along the beach every morning.

(The subordinate clause relates to Betty, the subject and noun)

But because English likes to keep us on our toes, there are also two types of relative clauses. The examples above are non-restrictive. That is, they’re not essential to the meaning of the sentence and should be separated by commas.

A restrictive clause is an essential part of the sentence. For example: 

I like reading books which are set in fantasy worlds.

(While ‘I like reading books’ stands on its own, the sentence has a whole new meaning without the relative clause)

It’s important to understand clauses because you can use them to add variety to your writing. On the flip side if you’re always starting sentences with subordinate clauses or using them in the same way it can quickly feel repetitive and start to drag.

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Simple grammar explained: subordinate clauses