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English Grammar: Types of Clauses September 8, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Grammar, Language.

Got grammar? See Everything You Need to Improve Your English Grammar.


A clause is essentially a phrase, but with both a subject and predicate (more on those in the next post). Clauses are either dependent or independent. An independent clause can exist by itself as a complete sentence (as in “I love grammar.“), while a dependent clause cannot.

Dependent or Subordinate Clauses

A dependent or subordinate clause depends on an independent clause to express its full meaning (as in “Because I love grammar.”). These clauses begin with a dependent word, like a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun.

Dependent clauses can function as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs:

  • Adjective Clause (or relative clause) – “I listened to the song that you told me about.” An adjective clause describes a noun just like an adjective. Which song? The new song, the good song, the song that you told me about. Often called relative clauses, they’re either restrictive or nonrestrictive (also called defining and non-defining, essential and nonessential, or integrated and supplementary):
    • Restrictive Clause – “The building that they built in San Francisco sold for a lot of money.” A restrictive clause begins with a relative pronoun like that or who (or sometimes which — see Which Versus That). It specifies or restricts the noun; in this case, it specifies which building the speaker is referring to. Note: the relative pronoun is often omitted (“The building (that) they built”), leaving what is called an elliptical clause or contact clause.
    • Nonrestrictive Clause – “The building, which they built in San Francisco, sold for a lot of money.” A nonrestrictive clause begins with a relative pronoun like which or who. It adds extra information about an already-specific noun; in this case, there’s only one building to talk about, whereas the example for the restrictive clause implies that there could be several buildings.
  • Adverb Clause – “I’ll do the laundry when I’m out of clothes.” Like all adverbials, adverb clauses express when, where, why, and how something occurs. A dependent clause is an adverb clause if you can replace it with an adverb, as in “I’ll do the laundry later.”

Note: appositives can include clauses, but I’ve yet to find a source mentioning an “appositive clause.” They’re generally regarded as a type of noun phrase, even though they can be restrictive or nonrestrictive like relative clauses.


1. Dana - September 8, 2006

Man, I totally hate differentiating between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. While I understand the concept when it is presented to me, I don’t seem to be able to explain it to others because it doesn’t really make too much sense. I know there’s a difference between “the builing” and “the building that they built,” but when it is explained in the context of adding extra information, the information seems to be important in both instances. At least it does to me.

Anyhow, I get the sense (from reading usage guides and linguistic blogs and such) that the whole that/which interchangeability issue is highly contested anyhow, so I will continue to go merrily on my way without paying heed to which word I use when. I’m happy that I understand that I need to use commas with “which” – that’s as far as I’ll go to process the difference between these words. Is this willful ignorance?

2. LearningNerd - September 8, 2006

I can see how both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses add extra information, but there is a difference: restrictive clauses use the extra information to specify which noun is being discussed, and nonrestrictive clauses use the extra information just to say more about a noun that has already been specified. It all depends on the context.

We use adjectives in restrictive and nonrestrictive ways, too. “My red chair” would be restrictive if I had a group of chairs and only wanted to talk about the red one. But “my red chair” would be nonrestrictive if I only had one chair, and I just wanted to describe it more so that others would be able to imagine it better. So, relative clauses work the same way: I can either say “my chair that is red” or “my chair, which is red”. In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter much; either verison works in many cases.

3. Kiri - September 8, 2006

My thesis advisor was pretty draconian about this: she required me to change all instances of “which” to “that”, unless the meaning would be changed. Apparently she felt that “which” is overused. Your post draws a very nice distinction between them, which helps me resolve it in my own head. ;)

4. goofy - September 13, 2006
5. LearningNerd - September 14, 2006

Interesting link! I am aware of this usage of which, and I included a couple links on that subject in my post about nouns and pronouns. I’ll edit this post to be more clear, though. Thanks!

6. GLORIA LIZONDE - October 13, 2006

hello my name is GLORIA
I want information about punctuation of adjective clauses

7. LearningNerd - October 13, 2006

Nonrestrictive clauses are set off with commas, while restrictive clauses are not.

Nonrestrictive: My room, which I just painted, is a complete mess.

Restrictive: The room that I just painted is a complete mess.

Send me an email if you need any more help, Gloria. :)

8. laarif maryam - December 17, 2006


i have a problem in grammar. how can i know that the sentence is dependent or independent clause ; beyond it is complete or not , please can you help me to understand this course . thanks

9. jed manela - January 30, 2007

i love you

10. jonathan - February 23, 2007

I have problrm with elliptical phrases give me more exmples

11. Chido - February 26, 2007

I think your site is great. English grammar can get rather sticky some times. It takes a whole lot of logical (as well as lexical) reasoning to unravel its mysteries.

12. David - February 28, 2007

I’m trying to figure out the difference between an adjective clause and a noun clause functioning as an appositive. I’m helping someone study for the TOEFL, and according to the instructions, noun clauses can function as appositives as well:

“Her idea that I hire you was a very good one.”
-“that I hire you” is EITHER a noun clause acting as a restrictive appositive to the noun “idea” OR an adjective clause modifying the same noun. TOEFL says it’s a noun clause. I don’t see a difference.

Any help is appreciated. Thanks!

13. Rowhia - April 19, 2007

i need some exercises about (Cleft Sentences) ,please.

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