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Concourse 2



Before you follow this guide, you should be confident that you understand the material covered in the guide to phrase analysis.
That guide covered the structure of Noun, Verb, Adverb, Prepositional and Adjective phrases and they were all exemplified by reference to clauses in which they occur or to whole sentences.  Here, we take the next step up and consider clauses.



Traditionally, a clause is defined as a unit of language consisting of a subject and its predicate.  So, for example:
    Mary likes tea
is a clause because it contains a subject (Mary) and the predicate (likes tea).  A clause may be a complete sentence as in this case or it may be dependent on another clause as in, e.g.:
    I boiled the kettle because Mary likes tea
in which the clause is still identifiable as having a subject and predicate but it is dependent on the first clause for its full meaning.
As a working definition, we can say that a clause as a series of words which contains at least one verb phrase.
For example, the bits on the right here are clauses; those on the left are phrases:

Phrases Clauses
in the huge garden he arrived
very, very slowly playing the piano
an old dog to help with the cooking
the woman on the corner she obviously left early
the engineer's wife going slowly under the bridge

All the chunks on the right here contain a verb of some sort but none on the left does.
However, if you have spotted that only he arrived and she obviously left early can stand alone as pieces of intelligible language, you have noticed something rather important.  Three of those so-called clauses (the second, third and fifth) do not have a subject so, in the traditional definition, they do not constitute proper clauses.
In this guide, we will be using the term clause for any group of words containing a verb phrase but will distinguish between finite and non-finite clauses.
There is more to follow but the distinction between finite and non-finite forms (verbs or clauses) is important to understand if you want to analyse clauses well.  The difference is that:

  1. Finite clauses contain a verb or verb phrase which is marked for tense, person or number.  So, for example, all the following are finite clauses and verb forms:
        John has been to London
        I saw Mary
        Harry will get the money

    and so on.
    Unfortunately, English is defective insofar as some verbs which are marked for tense, person or number take a zero marking so, although the verb form in:
        They swim
    does not alter in English to show person, number or tense, it is still a finite form because it is actually marked for present time, plural subject and third person but none of these characteristics is obvious from the verb form.  What we have is called a zero marking, often represented as Ø.
    The verb in:
        You drink
        They drink
    is identical but both are finite forms.
    In other languages, such as Spanish, French or German, the form of the verb will be marked to show the relationships so it is somewhat easier in those languages to identify finite forms.
    If we translate the last two clauses into those languages, we get:
    1. Spanish:
          tĂș bebes
          ellos beben
    2. French:
          tu bois
          ils boivent
    3. German:
          du trinkst
          sie trinken
    and you can see instantly that the verb form has changes to show the characteristics of the subject.  Hosts of other languages will display the same phenomenon.
  2. Non finite clauses are not so marked so there is no way of knowing the tense or the number or person of the subject.  The following all contain non-finite forms (in bold):
        staying out late
        broken promises
        to get the money
        beautifully done
        to help do the work

There is a separate guide to finite and non-finite verbs on this site, linked below in the list of related guides, and the considerations there apply to clauses just as they do to individual verbs.


Matrix and Subordinate clauses

In geology, a matrix is a fine-grained rock in which other minerals are embedded and the definition will hold quite well for our purposes.
Consider these two sentences:

  1. She saw the dog wanted food
  2. She saw the dog wanted to eat something
In sentence 1., we have two clauses:
The Matrix clause: She saw the dog wanted food
The Subordinate clause embedded in the matrix: the dog wanted food
Both of these clauses are finite because the verb is marked for tense (and in many languages would also be marked for aspect and person).  The marking concerns the past form of see, which happens to be irregular, and the past form of want which is regular.  Even if we have no marking at all superficially in a clause such as:
    I put it in the post
we can still recognise that the verb is finite but in this case there is what is known as zero marking of the tense.  That's still marking of a sort and this is still a finite clause.
In sentence 2., we actually have three clauses:
The Matrix clause: She saw the dog wanted to eat something
Subordinate clause A embedded in the matrix clause: the dog wanted to eat something
Subordinate clause B embedded in Subordinate clause A: to eat something
Both the Matrix clause and Subordinate clause A are finite clauses with the verb marked for tense (saw and wanted respectively).
Subordinate clause A is embedded in the Matrix clause.
Subordinate clause B is embedded in Subordinate clause A and is non-finite (the verb, to eat, is unmarked for person or tense).
Subordinate clause A, therefore, is the Matrix clause for Subordinate B.

This means, if you are following, that the terms Matrix and Subordinate are relative.  A subordinate clause can be the matrix clause for its own subordinate clause.
In many cases (as in these examples) the Matrix clause and the sentence are the same.  That needn't be the case because we can have, e.g.,
    Mary came home when she finished work and John left as soon as he saw her.
In which we have two Matrix clauses both with an embedded Subordinate clause (of time) but only one sentence.

If you prefer a graphical representation:

clause embedding



Another way to represent this structuring is:

structure 2
structure structure

in which the subordinate clauses are shown in a kind of hierarchy.  Here, both clauses are finite and you can see that the verbs are marked for tense.
That need not be the case and we do not need to confine ourselves to just two clauses, of course, so we can have:

Mary came home when she finished work feeling ready for an argument and John left as soon as he saw her because he wanted to avoid any trouble.

Here, we have seven clauses:

  1. Mary came home
    the first main finite clause
  2. when she finished work
    the first subordinate finite clause
  3. feeling ready for an argument
    a second embedded non-finite clause
  4. John left
    the second main finite clause
  5. as soon as he saw her
    a third embedded subordinate finite clause
  6. because he wanted
    a fourth embedded subordinate finite clause
  7. to avoid any trouble
    a fifth embedded subordinate non-finite clause

The overall structure can be visualised like this, with finite clause highlighted in green and non-finite clauses in light blue:

There are two important points:

  1. All matrix clauses must be finite clauses
  2. Subordinate clauses can be finite or non-finite

This leads to the identification of four different kinds of sentences which can be classified according to the ways in which the clauses are structured:

  1. Simple sentences have just one clause and, of course, it needs to be finite so
        Mary came home
        John left
    are both simple sentences.
    It is not possible in English to construct a simple sentence with a non-finite clause unless the finite form is understood.  So, for example:
    is a simple sentence but the finite verb form (Are you) is understood.
  2. Compound sentences which have two coordinated finite clauses of equal weight so
        Mary came home and John left
    is a compound sentence.
  3. Complex sentences which have a main clause and a subordinate clause so
        Mary came home when she finished work
        John left as soon as he saw her
        John left to avoid an argument
        The dog wanted to eat

    are all complex sentences.  The subordinate clause may be finite (the first two) or non-finite (the second two).
  4. Compound-complex sentences in which there is a combination of coordination and subordination so
        Mary came home when she finished work  and John left as soon as he saw her
    is a compound-complex sentence.

Non-finite clauses contain one of the following verb forms:

Finite verb forms will always be marked for tense (even if as in, e.g., They come late, the marking for tense is the absence of a change to the verb or an ending) and often for person, too, as in e.g., He comes late.

In some analyses, the matrix clause is referred to as the superordinate clause.  That will do just as well if it's easier to understand.

If you want more about types of subordinate clauses, go to the guide to conjunction, linked below.


Verbless clauses

This sounds like a contradiction in terms because we have just defined a clause as a unit containing a verb phrase.  At times, however, we can leave out the verb because it will be easily understood.  We also, incidentally, often have to leave out the verb's subject as well.
Here are some examples:

Leaving out the finite verb phrase
If possible, come before six (= If it is possible, come before six)
Whether now or later, we'll get it done (= Whether we do it now or later, we'll get it done)
These clauses often contain conjunctions such as whether, whenever, where etc.
Leaving out a non-finite verb phrase
Too tired to cook, I went straight to bed (= Being too tired to cook, I went straight to bed)
There are lots of interesting jobs in the sector, many highly paid (= There are lots of interesting jobs in the sector, many being highly paid)

Verbless clauses are sometimes called defective clauses or even simply small clauses.


The functions of clauses

Here we are speaking of grammatical function rather than communicative function.
Matrix or superordinate clauses need little such analysis because their function (to represent an entire thought) is clear.
Subordinate or dependent clauses in particular can perform a number of grammatical functions in English which are not necessarily parallelled in other languages.
The variety of functions can confuse learners who may be unable to comprehend what they see or hear and unable to deploy clauses for communicative effect.
Here's a run-down of the main functions of clauses:

  1. as nouns (nominalised clauses):
    • subject:
          What he said was appalling
    • direct object:
          I don't know what to do about this
    • indirect object:
          I bought whoever asked a drink
    • subject complement of a copular verb:
          The hope is that she won't be late
    • object complement of a pseudo-copular verb
          She made him be the captain
  2. as adverbials:
    • adjunct:
          I waited on the platform until she arrived
    • disjunct:
          Speaking honestly, I don't think he's up to the job
    • conjunct:
          To add to the confusion, he forgot to hand out the instructions
  3. in other roles:
    • post-modifying a noun phrase:
          The woman who bought my house
      See the guide to relative pronoun clauses for more, linked in the list of related guides at the end.  Because they modify noun phrases, relative pronoun clauses are also sometimes referred to as adjectival clauses.
    • complement (or object) of a preposition:
          He was unhappy with what we decided
    • complement of an adjective:
          Are you happy to go?

For more on nominalised clauses and adverbials see the guides (links below).

Try a short test.

Related guides
conjunction for more on how clauses are connected and links to other guides to subordination and coordination
finite and non-finite verbs for more on the differences
verb types and clause structures for a guide to the six main clause structures in English
syntax for the general guide to the constituents of clauses
phrases for a general guide to phrase structures
nominalised clauses for an analysis of the ways clauses can act as noun phrases
adverbials for more on adjuncts, conjuncts and disjuncts
relative pronoun clauses for the guide dedicated to this complex area