Understanding Clauses and Phrases: Grammar Guide

by | Dec 8, 2023

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:


Grammar Guide for Understanding Clauses and Phrases

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:

I have studied English for ten years.
This book belongs to my sister.

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…

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:  

Grammar Guide for Understanding Clauses and Phrases

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

Gerund phrases:

eating pizza

Prepositional phrases:

on the table 

Adjective phrases:

amazingly exciting

…and more. Phrases are very versatile and important for creating meaning. But they are team players: they don’t work by themselves.

Independent Clauses 

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: 

Learning English can be fun.
The meaning of words is always changing.

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:

Learning English can be fun, so don't give up!

Dependent Clauses 

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:

When you have a good teacher
Because people are always changing

These sentences don’t have clear meaning on their own, they are dependent.  They must be paired with main clauses to become clear: 

When you have a good teacher, learning English can be fun!
The meaning of words is always changing because people are always changing.

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:
 

1. I've applied for three jobs, hoping to get one.
2. Whenever she is nervous, she bites her fingernails.
3. Kim sighed with relief as she finished answering the last question on her algebra test.
4. Would you please shut the windows before you leave?
5. As soon as I find my ID, we'll head for the airport.
6. Turn right when you reach the intersection of Main Street and Elm.

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)

You might also enjoy my Grammar Guide for Conditional Sentences or these 3 Rules for English Phrasal Verbs

Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, at no additional cost to you. Recommended resources are carefully selected and help support the operation of my blog.

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Mark Pedrin

Mark Pedrin

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Mark is an English instructor and communication specialist. He loves helping people develop language skill and insight so that they can reach their personal and professional goals.