Independent and Dependent Clauses

Why it is important to know the difference?

Understanding sentence structure can vastly improve your writing. Writing a simple sentence and writing a more complex one are two different things. A solid understanding of the components of complex sentences benefits your writing in several ways. You can write more types of sentences, which makes your content have more style and stay more engaging. It also helps you write clearly and avoid some of the common mistakes many writers make, such as run-on sentences, comma splices and sentence fragments.

What is a clause?

To refresh your memory a clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate. A predicate must contain a verb, and it tells something about the subject. A clause either expresses a complete thought or an incomplete one.

Independent clauses

Independent clauses contain both a subject and a predicate, and they are a complete thought. They can stand alone as a sentence. An independent clause can form a simple sentence by itself, or it can create a more complex one when combined with other clauses or phrases. The examples below contain independent clauses:

Example 1: The writer is sleepy. (“Writer” is the subject, and “is” is the verb. “Is sleepy” is the predicate, which contains the verb and tells something about what the subject is doing.)

Example 2: Joanna and her sister walk to the coffee shop every morning. (“Joanna and her sister” is the subject, and “walk” is the verb. “To the coffee shop every morning” is the predicate, which describes what the subject is doing and contains the verb).

Dependent clauses

Dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a sentence. As their name implies, they are dependent on something else to form a complete sentence. Usually, the “something else” is an independent sentence. Dependent clauses do not express a complete thought, but they do contain a subject, verb and predicate. Dependent clauses often start with a dependent word, also known as a dependent marker word. Common dependent words include “after,” “while,” “if,” “since,” “when” and “because.” When dependent clauses are not paired with something else, they create sentence fragments or incomplete sentences. The following are dependent clauses:

Example 3: If you are not done with your homework on time

Example 3 is a dependent clause because it is an incomplete thought. You would leave your readers asking, “What happens if the homework is not done on time?” It is a clause because it contains a subject (you), a verb phrase (are not done) and a predicate (are not done with your homework on time).

Example 4: While you might love dancing in the rain

In Example 4, there is a subject (you), a verb phrase (might love) and a predicate (might love dancing in the rain), but it does not contain a complete thought, making it a dependent clause.

Putting them together

In most cases, dependent clauses are put together with independent clauses to form a complete thought. In a similar fashion, two independent clauses are put together to form more complex sentences. Whichever type of clauses you are combining, it is important to use the right grammar to ensure your words have clarity and are properly constructed. If you are unsure of how to punctuate different sentence formations, review the sections on for comma usage, run-on sentences and comma splices. Below are examples of more complex sentences using dependent/independent clauses and independent/independent clauses:

Example 5: If you are not done with your homework on time, you cannot watch TV before bed.

Example 6: While you might love dancing in the rain, constant rainfall is depressing.

Both Examples 5 and 6 use the dependent clauses from previous examples paired with an independent clause to create a more complex sentence structure.

Varying your sentences

When you write, it is important to vary your sentence structure to create more engaging content. You should aim for a mix of independent sentences that stand alone, those that are paired together with commas and coordinating conjunctions, those that are connected with semicolons and those that are paired with dependent clauses. Also make sure to vary how you connect dependent clauses to independent ones by placing the dependent clause at the beginning of the sentence in some cases and at the end of the sentence in others. Sentence variety is one of the keys to writing with excellence.