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The Secret Lives of Clauses

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Old 12-03-2011, 11:11 AM
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Default The Secret Lives of Clauses

Originally written by Andrew Braun

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus: Together, they’re known as the Clauses. Before they were jolly, chubby, and retired at the North Pole, however, they led a life of mystery and intrigue in the exciting world of...


They were quite a pair in their skintight red uniforms, tracking down Run-On Sentence and his evil army of comma splice minions. They so radically influenced the grammar world that even to this day, people speak in hushed tones about them.

The Clauses.

Why should you care about the Clauses? Well, in their honour, two integral parts of sentence structure were named after them:

Santa, flying free in his sleigh, is an independent Clause.

Their reindeer, who depend on the elderly couple for care and feeding, are dependent Clauses who can be written off when tax season rolls around.

Understanding their legacy will help you dramatically in identifying common errors and pinning down exactly how sentences are built. Many people use independent and dependent clauses instinctively, without actually understanding them. They’re a basic, but nonetheless important, part of grammar.

First of all, independent clauses: back in his wild days, Santa gained quite a reputation as a maverick, thus leading to the dubbing of this particular part of speech. It’s formed out of a subject and a predicate. Simple as that. Here’s an example:

The badger toted a backpack.

“The badger” is the subject. “toted a backpack” is the predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about; the predicate contains the verb and tells you something about the subject. Another example:

Badgers are fuzzy critters. (“Badgers” = subject; “are fuzzy critters” = predicate.)

Two independent clauses. Very simple. It gets more complex, though! Literally. Complex subjects and predicates happen when you begin tacking such things as modifiers and prepositional phrases onto your simple subjects/predicates. Here’s a bare-bones independent clause for you:

The rabbit carried a satchel.

Let’s make that subject a little more complex.

The paranoid-schizophrenic rabbit with terroristic intentions...

We’ve added some modifiers and a prepositional phrase. Let’s see what we can do with the predicate

...carried a satchel containing a crudely-constructed IED.

All together now: The paranoid-schizophrenic rabbit with terroristic intentions carried a satchel containing a crudely-constructed IED.

If you’ve ever written a clause more complicated than “Spot fetched the ball,” you’ve written a complex sentence. Give yourself a pat on the back. You now know how to build an independent clause from the ground up. And if you skimmed this, I suggest you go back and read it more carefully. Or you might not get any presents this Christmas. Also, make sure not to mix up complex clauses with complex sentences! A complex clause is, as you've just seen, a clause with modifiers and such tacked on. A complex sentence, however, is a a sentence made up of dependent and independent clauses--which can be either simple or complex themselves.

As you have probably noticed, this is all very complex.

So far, this has been basic stuff. Independent clauses = one complete sentence, right? A subject and a predicate construction that expresses a complete thought in and of itself. It can stand without anything else to support it—that’s how you know it’s an independent clause. Now let’s move on to the reindeer, or dependent clauses. This is where things begin getting tricky.

Dependent clauses are also built with a subject-predicate construction. All right, you say, what’s so different about them, then? One word.

Yes, that’s right—one word! A dependent marker. There is a rather formidable list of these words that we won’t go into, but the basic gist of it is that the dependent marker comes before the dependent clause. Words like who, why, where, since, after, and if are all dependent markers . Here are some in action, joined up with independent clauses (red words are dependent markers, underlined bits are dependent clauses).

Cute woodland animals are cute if they don’t plan to kill you.

Since many of them actually do plan to kill you, they cannot be accurately called “cute”.

As the second example shows, dependent clauses can come before or after independent clauses. Now here comes the most important part: Dependent clauses are called dependent clauses because they cannot stand on their own.

If they don’t plan to kill you.

Since many of them actually do plan to kill you.

Both of those are fragments. In dialogue, such construction works fine; that’s how we talk. Writing, however, is a different game. A past issue of the Writer’s Beat Quarterly dealt with the artistic value of fragments, and they are indeed a legitimate tool, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll consider fragments to be the pinnacle of all that is evil. A dependent clause without an independent clause is a fragment. Therefore, it is not to be trusted.

Learning how to manage your dependent clauses, and realising how seamlessly you can integrate them with independent clauses, helps keep your writing smooth and cohesive. As a general rule, unless you’re aiming for a certain effect, a whole bunch of shorter sentences where you could have a single sentence is annoying.

We have to sidetrack into the punctuation side of things for a moment. One of the most common mistakes in the writing world is the comma splice. Clauses play a very important role in these devilish mistakes. Namely, two independent clauses play an important role, if you join two complete sentences (independent clauses) with a comma, that is very wrong. Notice the underlined part of the last sentence—that is a comma splice. Independent clauses can be separated by semicolons, periods, em-dashes, and a few other choice pieces of punctuation. Never by commas.

Understanding your clauses is important. They’ll be brought up many times in many different contexts by editors and proofreaders and are a building block of grammar that provides room for much more to be stacked on top. Plus, you are now that much closer to understanding the true meaning of Christmas.

Twenty-year-old Marisa discovers her life is all a lie:
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