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In grammar, a clause is the smallest grammatical unit that can express a complete proposition. In some languages it may be a pair or group of words that consists of a subject and a predicate, although in other languages in certain clauses the subject may not appear explicitly as a noun phrase. It may instead be marked on the verb (this is especially common in null subject languages). The most basic kind of sentence consists of a single clause. More complicated sentences may contain multiple clauses, including clauses contained within clauses. Clauses are divided into two categories: independent clauses and dependent clauses. Independent clauses can be easily differentiated from dependent clauses by their ability to stand by themselves, even when connected with different clauses in the same sentence. A sentence made up of just one clause which can stand by itself is made up of an independent clause. Dependent clauses would be awkward or nonsensical if they were to stand by themselves, and therefore require an independent clause in the same sentence.

Clauses are often contrasted with phrases. Traditionally, a clause was said to have both a finite verb and its subject, whereas a phrase either contained a finite verb but not its subject (in which case it is a verb phrase) or did not contain a finite verb. Hence, in the sentence "I didn't know that the dog ran through the yard," "that the dog ran through the yard" is a clause, as is the sentence as a whole, while "the yard," "through the yard," "ran through the yard," and "the dog" are all phrases. However, modern linguists do not draw the same distinction, as they accept the idea of a non-finite clause, a clause that is organized around a non-finite verb.

Functions of dependent clauses

Under this classification scheme, there are three main types of dependent clauses: noun clauses, adjective clauses, and adverb clauses, so-called for their syntactic and semantic resemblance to nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, respectively. In the following English examples, dependent noun clauses are shown in bold:

  • "I imagine that they're having a good time."
  • "I keep thinking about what happened yesterday."

(The word that is optional in the first sentence, highlighting a complication in the entire dependent/independent contrast: "They're having a good time" is a complete sentence, and therefore an independent clause, but "that they're having a good time" is a dependent clause.)

An adjective clause modifies a noun phrase. In English, adjective clauses typically come at the end of their phrase and usually have a relative pronoun forming a relative clause. The pronoun can sometimes be omitted to produce a reduced relative clause:

  • "The woman I saw said otherwise."
  • "I found the book that she suggested to me."

An adverb clause typically modifies its entire main clause. In English, it usually precedes (in a periodic sentence) or follows (in a loose sentence) its main clause. The following adverb clauses show when (with the subordinating conjunction "when") and why (with the subordinating conjunction "because"):

  • "When she gets here, all will be explained."
  • "She's worried because they were already an hour late."

The line between categories may be indistinct, and, in some languages, it may be difficult to apply these classifications at all. At times more than one interpretation is possible, as in the English sentence "We saw a movie, after which we went dancing," where "after which we went dancing" can be seen either as an adjective clause ("We saw a movie. After the movie, we went dancing.") or as an adverb clause ("We saw a movie. After we saw the movie, we went dancing."). Sometimes the two interpretations are not synonymous, but are both intended, as in "Let me know when you're ready," where "when you're ready" functions both as a noun clause (the object of know, identifying what knowledge is to be conveyed) and as an adverb clause (specifying when the knowledge is to be conveyed).

Structures of dependent clauses

The other major way to classify dependent clauses is by their structure, although even this classification scheme does make some reference to the clause's function in a sentence. This scheme is more complex, as there are many different ways that a dependent clause can be structured. In English, common structures include the following:

  • Many dependent clauses, such as "before he comes" or "because they agreed," consist of a preposition-like subordinating conjunction, plus what would otherwise be an independent clause. These clauses act much like prepositional phrases, and are either adjective clauses or adverb clauses, with many being able to function in either capacity.
  • Relative clauses, such as "which I couldn't see," generally consist of a relative pronoun, plus a clause in which the relative pronoun plays a part. Relative clauses usually function as adjective clauses, but occasionally they function as adverb clauses; in either case, they modify their relative pronoun's antecedent and follow the phrase or clause that they modify.
  • Fused relative clauses, such as "what she did" (in the sense of "the thing she did"), are like ordinary relative clauses except that they act as noun clauses; they incorporate their subjects into their relative pronouns.
  • Declarative content clauses, such as "that they came," usually consist of the conjunction that plus what would otherwise be an independent clause, or of an independent clause alone (with an implicit preceding that). For this reason, they are often called that-clauses. Declarative content clauses refer to states of affairs; it is often implied that the state of affairs is the case, as in "It is fortunate that they came," but this implication is easily removed by the context, as in "It is doubtful that they came."
  • Interrogative content clauses, such as "whether they came" and "where he went" (as in "I don't know where he went"), are much like declarative ones, except that they are introduced by interrogative words. Rather than referring to a state of affairs, they refer to an unknown element of a state of affairs, such as one of the participants (as in "I wonder who came") or even the truth of the state (as in "I wonder whether he came").
  • Small clauses, such as "him leave" (as in "I saw him leave") and "him to leave" (as in "I wanted him to leave"), are minimal predicate structures, consisting only of an object and an additional structure (usually an infinitive), with the latter being predicated to the former by a controlling verb or preposition.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Clause" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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