Understanding Clauses and Phrases –
Developing advanced language skills requires understanding the structures and rules that are working inside sentences to create meaning. Language learners need to know the jobs that words can do both individually and when they join together.
Phrases and Clauses are two of these basic structures that get used all the time, but they can be difficult to understand. In this Grammar Guide, we’ll cover ways they are similar and different plus their basic uses.
What is a Clause?
A clause is a group of words that are working together and that contains a subject + verb within it. This group of words gets energy from the interaction between the subject and the verb inside. Think of clauses like a train that has an engine attached:
This train can go places because it has an engine. In the same way, clauses can do things because there is a verb inside. The examples below are clauses because they contain a subject + verb:
A little bit later, we will talk about the two types of clauses: independent and dependent. But first, let’s see the difference between Clauses and Phrases…
Like Clauses, Phrases are also a group of words working together. However, unlike a clause, a phrase has no subject + verb inside. Because there is no subject + verb to give it energy, phrases can’t go places on their own.
Phrases are like a group of train cars that are connected, but don’t have an engine attached:
Phrases need an engine nearby to help them go places; they can’t do it by themselves. They often live inside of clauses to provide support for specific meanings. Phrases come in many varieties…
There are noun phrases:
my best friend
on the table
…and more. Phrases are very versatile and important for creating meaning. But they are team players: they don’t work by themselves.
An independent clause (also called a main clause) is, first of all, a clause: a group of words with a subject + verb. What makes an independent clause different from a dependent one is that it has a clear, understandable meaning all by itself. Though it will work with other clauses and other sentences to give more information, a main clause does not feel “broken” if you read it alone.
Look for the subjects and verbs in these two main (independent) clauses:
Independent clauses can be joined together within a single sentence, but doing this requires a coordinating conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so (remember this list with the acronym ‘FANBOYS’). When the second independent clause in the sentence begins with a coordinating conjunction, you need to use a comma after the first clause:
While dependent clauses also do have subject +verb inside them (because they’re clauses, not phrases), they do not have an understandable meaning all by themselves. They need to connect with a main (independent) clause to make sense. When read alone, they feel incomplete because essential information is missing.
In these dependent clauses, you will find a subject + verb, but they don’t make sense by themselves:
These sentences don’t have clear meaning on their own, they are dependent. They must be paired with main clauses to become clear:
Every sentence with clear grammar has to have an independent clause, but dependent clauses are optional.
Try to identify the independent clauses and dependent clauses in the sentences below. Then click the button to check yourself:
Thanks for spending time with this Grammar Guide for using Clauses and Phrases.
Be sure to see my favorite ESOL grammar resource: Grammar in Use (American English) by Raymond Murphy (available on Amazon)
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