by Bill Ball
It is assumed for the purposes of this article that the reader will have a reasonable knowledge of the various grammatical elements of the English language that are known collectively as 'parts of speech'. The traditional parts of speech are verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. 'Interjections' are usually included even though they are often single-word exclamations, such as Bravo! Oh! and 'Hurrah!, that are 'thrown' into a sentence without playing any part in its grammatical construction.
Within the sentence structure there will be groups of words that that are known as phrases and clauses. Phrases, such 'in the mood' and 'at the top of her voice', are groups of two or more words that do not include a finite verb. A clause, on the other hand, always contains a finite verb. In simple terms, a finite verb is a verb that has a grammatical subject, as in, for example, 'He goes' and 'She has left', where 'He' and 'She' are respectively subjects of the verbs 'goes' and 'has left'. The main non-finite parts of the verb are the infinitive (to go etc.) and the present and past participles (going, gone etc.).
There are two types of clause: main and subordinate. A main clause normally makes sense on its own, and often functions as a complete sentence in its own right. A subordinate clause always depends on another clause (frequently the main clause) for its real meaning.
We should note from the outset (a) that a main clause does not always appear at the beginning of a sentence, which in turn means that a subordinate clause does not always follow the main clause (b) that one clause sometimes breaks into the middle of another clause, as in, for example, 'He is, although he does not know it, an idiot', as an alternative to 'He is an idiot, although he does not know it.
A subordinate clause is equivalent to an adjective, an adverb or a noun in another clause (hence adjective clause, adverb clause, noun clause). Here are a few notes with simple examples, which I hope will help to make this clear.
An adjective clause is the equivalent of a simple adjective: it qualifies a noun or pronoun in another clause. It is always introduced by a relative pronoun (mainly 'who', 'whom' whose' 'which', 'that') or a word that acts as a relative pronoun, such as 'where' or 'when'. Here are three examples:
- 1 The man who broke the bank was a crook.
- Here is the book which you lent me.
- I have seen the house where he was born.
The main clauses are respectively 'The man was a crook', 'Here is the book', and 'I have seen the house'. The adjective clauses are:
- I 'who broke the bank', qualifying the noun 'man'.
- 2 'which you lent me', qualifying the noun 'book'.
- 3 'where he was born', qualifying the noun 'house'.
An adverb clause is the equivalent of a simple adverb: it modifies a verb, an adverb or an adjective (usually a verb) in another clause. It is introduced by such words as 'if,' because', 'unless',' than',' after',' while',' although',' when', 'where' and 'as'. Here are three examples:
- I I will go when I am ready.
- 2 She will succeed because she works hard.
- 3 The match will be cancelled if it rains.
The main clauses are respectively 'I will go', 'She will succeed' and 'The match will be cancelled'. The adverb clauses are:
- 1 'when I am ready', modifying the verb 'will go'.
- 2 'because she works hard', modifying the verb 'will succeed'.
- 3 'if it rains', modifying the verb 'will be cancelled'.
A noun clause is the equivalent of a simple noun, and is usually introduced by such words as 'how', 'what', 'that', 'where', 'when', 'whether', 'who' and 'why'. The noun clause may be (a) the subject or object of a verb (b) in 'apposition' to a simple noun (c) the object of a preposition. Here are four examples:
- How he did it is not known.
- I asked him why he could not repair the puncture.
- The rumour that he has left is not true.
- I will sell it for what it is worth.
The noun clauses are:
- 'How he did it', as subject of the verb 'is'.
- 'why he could not repair the puncture', as object of the verb 'asked'.
- 'that he has left', in apposition to the noun 'rumour'.
- 'what it is worth', as object of the preposition 'for.
It was mentioned above that a main clause may stand on its own as a complete sentence. Main clauses may also be joined together by what are known as coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or etc.):
The man was injured and he was taken to hospital. I phoned him but there was no reply.
Each of the four clauses (joined here by 'and' in the first example, and 'but' in the second) could stand on its own as a separate sentence.
It is important to note that some words can be used to introduce more than one type of clause. For example, the word 'when' can introduce an adjective clause (The day when he arrived), an adverb clause (They were pleased when he arrived), and a noun clause (When he arrived is not certain). It is the function of the clause in the sentence (not necessarily its initial appearance) that determines its type.
Many sentences are of course more involved than the examples we have looked at so far, but the principles of clause analysis outlined above will apply equally to every sentence, however long or complicated it might be. Here are three examples:
- 1 Her son went to London after he had completed his studies because it was easier to find a job there.
- 2 As the rain had stopped, we decided to go for a walk in the park, which was only a short distance away.
- When he was asked how he had received his injury, he said that he had fallen over.
In the first sentence, the main clause is 'Her son went to London'. The other clauses are 'after he had completed his studies' and 'because it was easier to find a job there', both adverb clauses modifying the verb 'went in the main clause.
In the second sentence, the main clause is 'We decided to go for a walk in the park'. The other clauses are 'as the rain had stopped', an adverb clause modifying the verb 'decided' in the main clause, and 'which was only a short distance away', an adjective clause qualifying the noun 'park' in the main clause.
In the third sentence, the main clause is 'He said'. The other clauses are (a) 'when he was asked', an adverb clause modifying the verb 'said' in the main clause (b) 'how he had received his injury', a noun clause object of 'asked' in the adverb clause had fallen over a noun clause object of 'said' in the main clause.
I hope that these notes and examples will be of some use to you. However, I have to say that in reality clause analysis is no more than a mechanical exercise that helps, but only helps, to show us how the English sentence works. Studying how established writers fashion their own sentences will be much more useful than breaking down each sentence into clauses. Indeed, in your reading you will almost certainly come across sentences that seem to defy analysis.
No doubt there will be errors or omissions in this article. If so I won't let it bother me. As long as we don't take clause analysis too seriously we should find that it is both interesting and instructive.
It can also be fun at times, you know.