Clauses & Phrases

When constructing sentences, writers will use different building blocks of clauses and phrases to construct varied sentences. This handout will review how those phrases and clauses are constructed and where they can be placed in a sentence.

Clauses

Dependent Clauses

A dependent clause has a subject and a verb but does not express a complete idea and cannot stand alone as a simple sentence. The clause below does not express a complete idea because of the subordinator at the beginning of the clause. Subordinators are words that are commonly used to shift independent clauses into dependent clauses. These dependent clauses can help writers connect ideas together and see the relationship between clauses. Common subordinators include after, although, because, before, once, since, though, unless, until, when, where, and while.

Example: Since it is going to rain soon.

  • Subordinator: Since
  • Subject: It
  • Verb: Is going

Common Subordinators: After, Although, As, Because, Before, Even though, Even if, If, Since, Then, Though, Until, When, Where, Whether, While

Independent Clauses

An independent clause has a subject and a verb, expresses a complete idea, and is a complete sentence.

Example: The soccer game was cancelled.

  • Subject: Game
  • Verb: Was

Independent clauses are also referred to as simple sentences or complete sentences.

Combining Clauses

When combining independent and dependent clauses, there is a simple rule to remember. If the dependent clause comes before the independent clause, there must be a comma that separates the two clauses. If the dependent clause comes after the independent clause, then no comma is needed.

Dependent clause first: When I was young, I loved swimming.

Dependent clause last: I loved swimming when I was young.

This rule also applies to more complex sentences when there are multiple independent and dependent clauses. For more information, see our handout on sentence patterns.


Phrases

Much like in daily conversations you have with friends, family, or colleagues, phrases are used in academic studies to enrich and provide variety to formal writing. Phrases are small groupings of words that function as a part of a sentence, like a verb, adjective, or noun. Even though a phrase might contain a subject and a verb, in relation to the other words in the sentence, that particular group of words may be modifying or describing another word in the main sentence.

Example: Running through the forest, Katniss avoided the other tributes.

  • Phrase: Running through the forest
  • Subject: Katniss
  • Verb: Avoided

In the example above, the phrase has a verb and a noun but it cannot stand alone since it is missing a subject. This phrase is meant to add more detail to the subject, so the whole phrase acts like an adjective. Below you will find some of the most common kinds of phrases used in academic writing, but there are many kinds of phrases to choose from. For more information on comma placement with phrases, see our Commas handout.

Participial Phrases

Participial phrases add descriptions to nouns and pronouns in your writing because they function as adjectives even though they resemble actions.

Example One

No Phrase: Avatar earned the most money at the box office.

Phrase: Earning the most money at the box office, Avatar became the highest grossing film ever.

Example Two

No Phrase: The filmmakers of Jurassic Park accumulated millions of dollars.

Phrase: The filmmakers of Jurassic Park, accumulating millions of dollars, made three sequels.

Absolute Phrases

The absolute construction resembles the participial phrase and includes a noun (person, place, thing, or idea) and a participle (a word that looks like an action ending in –ed or –ing in most cases, but a participle is actually an adjective describing a noun).

Example One

No Phrase: George Miller likes dramatically choreographing his Mad Max films.

Phrase: Dramatically choreographed, George Miller’s Mad Max films are beautifully envisioned.

Example Two

No Phrase: Ripley’s pounding heart scares her.

Phrase: Heart pounding, Ripley confronted the alien.

Appositive Phrases

An appositive phrase adds details to other nouns. The difference between an appositive phrase and a participial phrase is that an appositive also functions as a noun; therefore, an appositive phrase frequently begins with “a, an, or the.”

Example One

No Phrase: M is a male character in the James Bond movies.

Phrase: M, a role originally played by men, was later recast as a woman.

Example Two

No Phrase: Alec Guinness was cast as the original Obi-Wan Kenobi in first Star Wars movie.

Phrase: A legendary stage actor, Alec Guinness was cast as the original Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie.

***The clauses portion of this handout was inspired from John Haslem’s “Sentence Pattern and Punctuation” handout, who relied heavily upon the Harbrace College Handbook, 12th edition, for word lists and definitions of grammatical terms.