Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
No, we’re not shifting to talk about family and coworkers. This is an article on dependent, also known as subordinate, clauses. A reader had asked about commas in sentences with dependent clauses, so I thought some coverage of the topic would be useful.
A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a predicate (a verb and all its baggage, including helping verbs, objects, and complements, that serve to modify the subject). An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence, but a dependent clause cannot. The wording of a dependent clause implies that there is more to come; it is incomplete in terms of meaning. Dependent clauses are introduced by subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns.
Independent clause, complete on its own—
Sammy walked down the street.
Dependent clause (with subordinating conjunction), incomplete—
When Sammy walked down the street
When Sammy walked down the street, the runaway car almost hit him.
The runaway car almost hit him when Sammy walked down the street.
Dependent clause (with relative pronoun), incomplete—
Which I had already delivered
That I had already delivered
Leila asked about the shipment, which Bix had already delivered.
Leila asked about the shipment that Bix had already delivered.
These two sentences have different meanings. In the first, there is only one shipment—the shipment. In the second sentence, the focus is on the shipment that Bix had delivered. It’s likely that there were other shipments, but we are singling out this particular one. The use of which and the comma indicate the presence of a non-essential clause. This topic of non-essential clauses is covered in another article, Restrictive or Not—When Do Clauses Need Commas.
Dependent clauses are incomplete. When Sammy walks down the street, if we don’t add anything more, we’re left with questions. What happened? What did he do? That something happened is implied in the word when.
NOTE: In fiction, we can use dependent clauses as incomplete sentences and doing so would be perfectly acceptable under some circumstances. Sentence fragments are allowed in fiction. Not always, of course—you need to make sure the fragment makes sense. So although we wouldn’t write—
The sun glared obscenely that tragic morning. I remember cursing the heat. When a boy walked down the center of the otherwise deserted street. He was probably no more than ten.
We could easily say—
The sun glared obscenely that tragic morning, and I gave it more attention than it deserved. But my focus was dragged away when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. When a boy walked down the center of what should have been a deserted street.
Sentence fragments work very well to answer questions and to provide additional information, such as in this example. Repetition of the word when helps the sentence fragment stand alone by linking it back to the independent clause in the previous sentence.
Sentence fragments with no connection to what has come before are typically the ones that don’t work, not even for fiction.
Combining Independent and Dependent Clauses
A sentence containing an independent clause and at least one dependent clause—a sentence may have multiple independent and dependent clauses—is known as a complex sentence.
Dependent clauses that begin with subordinating conjunctions can come before or after the independent clause. When the dependent comes first, a comma separates it from the independent clause. When the independent clause is first, there is no comma except in cases of extreme contrast. When you use the subordinating conjunctions although, whereas, and even though, use a comma to separate independent and dependent clauses, even when the independent comes first.
Dependent clauses beginning with relative pronouns often come after the independent clause, but they don’t have to. Yet unlike clauses beginning with subordinating conjunctions, which can come before or after the independent clause, clauses beginning with relative pronouns might have to come after the independent clause. Some sentences with relative pronouns are nonsensical if the dependent clause comes first.
I understood the French, which was the language my grandparents spoke.
Which was the language my grandparents spoke, I understood the French. X This one makes no sense.
The judge frowned at the man whose antics were well known.
Whose antics were well known, the judge frowned at the man. X This one also makes no sense.
Yet in this next sentence, the relative pronoun can come first.
Whichever guy, Mack or Stan, stole the car, Candy intended to steal it back.
Combine dependent and independent clauses for variety. Or use subordinating conjunctions to affect the flow of a paragraph.
Rather than write one short sentence after another, combine sentences. Subordinate one thought to another. Use complex sentences with well thought out subordinating conjunctions to add just the right shading to your text, to show the relationship between the two clauses.
Subordinating conjunctions can indicate or introduce cause, time, place, or comparison.
What if we said—Eliot was lost. His wife left him. Does that tell us enough? Could we convey more?
Sometimes you might want the two sentences just as they are, because context and what came before are sufficient for meaning. But you could combine them. And here are a few options—
Eliot was lost after his wife left him.
Eliot was lost because his wife left him.
Eliot was lost before his wife left him.
Eliot was lost once his wife left him.
Eliot was lost whenever his wife left him.
Eliot was lost until his wife left him.
Be sure to include subordinating conjunctions so readers understand the links between sentences and thoughts. Do not assume readers will know which subordinating conjunction you might have used had you chosen one—pick one.
Need a list of subordinating conjunctions? (Keep in mind that these same words can serve other functions as well and may not always be subordinating conjunctions.)
as long as
as much as
as far as
as soon as
in order that
List of relative pronouns:
that, which, whichever, who, whom, whoever, whomever, whosoever, whosever (yes, it is a real word)
I’ve given you a lot of details in this article, but the information is pretty straightforward.
The Down and Dirty—
~ A dependent clause is a sentence fragment, not a complete sentence.
~ Fiction allows for use of sentence fragments when they’re used correctly.
~ Dependent clauses in complex sentences, when introduced by a subordinating conjunction, can come before or after the independent clause.
~ When the dependent clause comes first, separate the clauses with a comma.
~ When the independent clause comes first, do not use a comma for separation except in cases of extreme contrast.
~ When a dependent clause begins with a relative pronoun, separate it from the independent clause with a comma if it’s a non-essential clause.
Combine sentences using both dependent and independent clauses, but combine them in ways that work. And use commas when they’re called for. Help readers make sense of your sentences so they can lose themselves in the fiction.