Sentences and Clauses
last changed 29 May 2003
There are four types of sentence:
A clause is a group of words which acts as a single unit and is built round a verb, for example:
he lives in America
Compound and complex sentences contain two or more clauses:
To produce varied, interesting writing with effective changes in rhythm, pupils need to be able to use a variety of sentence types. They need to learn to exploit the opportunities that different clause types and clause combinations can offer.
More complex clauses may also have:
The verb is the most important word in the sentence because it is essential, whereas the subject may sometimes be missed out (for example, in imperatives):
In some languages, the subject can always be omitted; in Latin, for example, the verb dormio means "I sleep", and dormit means "He sleeps" or "She sleeps". These words can be used as complete sentences. The same is true of most of the languages derived from Latin (e.g. Spanish and Italian), and many other languages.
In English, as in other languages, the rest of the sentence may be seen as an expansion of the verb. If the verb is won, we know that the sentence is about an incident in which someone won something. Each of the other elements in the sentence answers some question about the verb:
This is just like the relation between a phrase and its head; for example:
Here the head word is victory and the words her and in the first race modify its meaning by answering the questions "whose victory?" and "victory in which event?". The verb is therefore the head of its clause, so it stands at the top of structure diagrams:
Some of the simplest sentences and clauses consist of a verb and a noun, a pronoun or a noun phrase acting as the verb's subject. The subject normally stands just before the verb.
The verb may be expanded into a chain of one or more auxiliary verbs followed by a main verb.
Each verb in the chain is tightly connected to the verbs on either side, just like links in a chain. See how forgot changes to forgotten when it follows has, and has changes to have after may. This is because each verb in the chain decides the form of the next verb:
We can show these verb-verb bonds like links in a chain:
The verb - or the last verb in a chain - may be accompanied by a second noun, pronoun or noun phrase or clause. This is the verb's object, which normally follows the verb.
Sometimes a third noun, pronoun or noun phrase stands immediately between the verb and the object. This is called the indirect object (because the action affects it less directly than it affects the ordinary, or 'direct', object). It's convenient to abbreviate these labels, so s = subject, o = (direct) object, i = indirect object.
Some verbs, for example be, seem appear, get, become, sometimes need their basic meaning to be completed. This 'complement' (c) which 'completes' the verb normally follows both the verb and the object (if there is one).
Many elements can modify the verb's meaning by adding information about time, place, manner etc. Such elements are called adverbials (a)because this is the main role of adverbs. Adverbials are not fixed to one position but move fairly freely: they can be at the start (a1), in the middle (a2) or at the end (a3).
Notice how adverbs can split the verb chain, so will be becomes will probably not be.
We can, and often do, vary the basic pattern and you should be aware of these alternatives:
The elements affected by these variations are the subject and the verb.
KS3 pupils use all these variations in speech, but they may need to be encouraged to use them more freely in their writing.
Many verbs can be either active or passive, a contrast which is traditionally called 'voice'.
The information is the same but the focus is different.
The first sentence is about what Sam did, so Sam is the subject of the active verb. The second sentence is about the house, and the house is the subject of the passive verb.
See below for how to choose between active and passive clauses.
"Who done it?"
In an active clause the "doer" or agent is always clear:
Moriati shot the stranger.
But in a passive clause it is possible not to reveal "who done it":
The stranger has been shot.
Or a doer can be identified using by :
The stranger has been shot by Dr Watson.
Sometimes we use get instead of be:
( ... or perhaps, "when should you use the passive form?")
It is considered to be a good thing.
The official photographs will be taken by Josh.
The passive voice can sometimes sound pompous and impersonal.
Using the passive
Word processing software that includes grammar checking usually "corrects" any use of the passive and suggests the active alternative. Most people agree that the passive should be avoided unless there is a particular reason to use it.
When to use the passive
A report should be written Ö
Application forms must be returned.
I have been told about these rumours.
Many schools still prefer pupils to write science reports in the passive voice.
The substance was put into a test tube, which was held with forceps over a bunsen burner until a red glow was observed.
A main clause is complete on its own. It may be a complete sentence written with a capital letter and full stop (or ?!):
Simple sentences consist of just one main clause:
Compound sentences consist of two or more main clauses Ė clauses of equal weight, joined together by and, or, but, or so. (This relationship is called co-ordination, and is explained in a separate unit.)
Complex sentences contain one or more subordinate clauses.
A subordinate clause is part of a larger clause.
Because the subordinate clause is part of the larger clause, the remainder of this clause is not itself a complete clause; so in the first example above the main clause is the entire sentence, not He burns easily. For more on this idea click here.
Using subordinate clauses allows writers to vary pace and rhythm and to indicate the relative importance of different ideas.
To learn more about subordinate clauses, click any of the following links:
You can usually recognise subordinate clauses easily because they are signalled:
However, some subordinate clauses have no signal at all, because the subordinating word - which is always that - is omitted. They are harder to recognise, but can nearly always be identified by replacing the missing that:
This is a common feature of writing at KS3, and pupils need to understand and be able to handle it.
This important difference is always signalled by the first verb in the verb-chain:
This difference also affects the ways in which these clauses can be used:
This is because the use of a non-finite verb such as to send is one of the main signals that a clause is a subordinate clause.
This difference may also affect the meaning of sentences, often in a subtle way. For example, compare:
These highlighted clauses are non-finite:
Changing the tense of the sentence doesnít change the non-finite clause:
Noun clauses, like nouns, pronouns and noun phrases, can act as:
If a clause fulfils the role of a noun in a sentence, it is a noun clause.
At Key Stage 3, pupils should be developing the use of expressions like these, where a noun phrase is followed by a noun clause:
We discussed the idea that she had bought a cat.
We discussed the fact that she had bought a cat.
We discussed the possibility that she had bought a cat.
This structure is a useful tool to help thinking skills because it involves important distinctions about the logical status of information - e.g. as facts, beliefs, suggestions, theories, and ideas.
Relative clauses are adjectival because, like adjectives, they modify a nouns; but unlike adjectives, they come after the modified noun:
Relative clauses usually start with a relative pronoun:
or a relative adverb:
Relative pronouns and relative adverbs act as subordinating words Ė they signal a subordinate clause.
Using relative clauses allows KS3 writers to progress from co-ordination, producing more varied and digestible prose:
Sometimes, the relative pronoun can be left out, but sometimes it canít. Click here for details.
An adverbial subordinate clause modifies the meaning of the main clause in much the same way as an adverb:
Here are the main relationships expressed by adverbial subordinate clauses:
Notice that some of these words (those shown in bold) can be used to signal more than one relationship.
A subordinate clause can be at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence:
While he was paying for his petrol, his car was stolen.
The teacher who has this group is away today.
Sentences can contain more than one subordinate clause:
Some of these clauses can be 'nested' one inside another, like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes. For example,
contains the clause:
which in turn contains the clause:
Pupils can learn how to show nested subordinate clauses in a sentence:
Here is a refresher on non-finite verbs; for more explanation click here.
after, although, as, as if, as long as, as soon as, as though, because, before, if , in case, in order to, in that, once, provided (that), since, so that, than, that, though, until, unless, when, whenever, where, wherever, whereas, while ... and others.
relative or interrogative pronouns or adverbs
When the noun that the clause refers to is the object of the relative clause and the relative pronoun would have been that, this pronoun can be omitted; but in Standard English it cannot be omitted if it is the relative clause's subject.
Look at this sentence:
This is a main clause, which contains a subordinate clause:
The meaning intended by the writer or speaker is conveyed by the whole main clause. One part of this main clause is the subordinate clause if he doesnít use sun cream.
But the remainder "He burns easily" is not a clause on its own; it is part of the whole main clause: He burns easily if he doesnít use sun cream.
Of course the words he burns easily could stand alone as a main clause in a different sentence, or context, if they conveyed the writerís full meaning; but in some cases the main clause is grammatically incomplete if we remove the subordinate clause. For example: