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Treating Dependents and Subordinates Properly

July 12, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 15, 2013

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

But consider—

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

But consider—

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 if

as long as

as much as

as far as

as soon as

as though



even if

even though

even when



in case

in order that

just as


no sooner

now that


provided that

rather than


so 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.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Essentials

12 Responses to “Treating Dependents and Subordinates Properly”

  1. Hi Beth,

    This is quickly become a regular online watering hole for me. I love reading insights into complex sentence structure. It helps me feel as if one day I might understand the English language I’ve been reading, writing and speaking all my life. Thank you for all your direct and indirect help.


  2. Music to my ears! I was one of those children who actually enjoyed parsing sentences and listing tenses (If only I’d stuck with Latin…). Very much enjoyed this.

  3. Patrick, drop by for a drink any time. I’m glad you’re finding the blog a good place to visit. As for understanding the language, I don’t know if we’ll ever catch up. Too many permutations and changes.

  4. Gabriel, I wish I’d taken more Latin too. But when so few were interested in it, it didn’t have much of an appeal. Glad you liked this one.

  5. Colin says:

    Hi again Beth,

    I wrote to you last month, and you were kind enough to promptly respond to my question. I had another if you don’t mind. It’s about using a comma before a dependent clause that comes after an independent clause. I know the standard rule is don’t use the comma, except in cases of extreme contrast. But can a writer choose to add a comma in order to provide emphasis or a desired pause in the sentence? For example:

    They provide more information about the girl, but they don’t serve to identify the girl, since there’s apparently only one girl. (, since)

    Or these, from fiction writers:

    I think he knew we were horsing around, because old Phoebe always starts giggling. (, because)

    I don’t have any plans for my future, after I graduate. (, after)

    Life is easy, full of choices and quick remedies, if only you look. (, if)

    I took these examples from relatively recently published books. I’m pretty sure you’re going to say omit these commas. However, you did also write in another post that a writer can choose to break the rules of comma usage if doing so serves the sentence, scene, or story. In fiction writing, the emphasis or pause in a sentence is sometimes crucial to the voice of the narrator, the tone, etc. In more formal writing I can see where you would say always omit these commas before dependent clauses that come after independent clauses, but fiction writing is afforded leeway, is it not?

    I did have one other little question about the conjunction “so.” I’ve noticed there’s often not a comma before “so” when joining two independent clauses when the second independent clause uses “can” or “could.” For example:

    Help readers make sense of your sentences so they can lose themselves in the fiction. (no comma before “so” here?)

    I’m glad I found your site because it’s very informative, and you’re incredibly knowledgeable about grammar and punctuation. My only worry is that the interest becomes more in the mechanics of the story than the story itself, which is a problem. Thanks again.

  6. Hi, Colin. Nice to have you back again. We’ll take your questions one at a time.

    #1 But can a writer choose to add a comma in order to provide emphasis or a desired pause in the sentence?

    Yes, a writer can use discretion for many writing elements, including commas. Be consistent with your choices, follow some logic, and don’t overburden the reader. Readers want to flow with the story—don’t give them reasons to have to slow down.


    #2 I see no reason for the comma between girl and since, except for emphasis. They provide more information about the girl, but they don’t serve to identify the girl since there’s apparently only one girl.


    #3 I think he knew we were horsing around, because old Phoebe always starts giggling.

    The comma is here to head off confusion. Without it, this could read he knew we were horsing around on account of old Phoebe.

    Readers would eventually understand that wasn’t the meaning, but they’d already be confused by that point.


    #4 I don’t have any plans for my future, after I graduate.

    This is a bit messy. Is graduating one of the future plans he doesn’t have? I wouldn’t use a comma here because that leaves after I graduate hanging awkwardly. I’d consider rewriting it. I think it means Beyond graduating, I have no plans for my future. But you could also say I don’t have any plans for my future. Beyond graduating, that is.

    #5 Life is easy, full of choices and quick remedies, if only you look.

    I wouldn’t change the comma in this one. The parenthetical—full of choices and quick remedies—needs commas on both sides. I’d consider rewriting the last part of the sentence, but that’s another issue.
    While you can add commas to create pauses, remember that a pause or the lack of one doesn’t dictate comma use. We need commas where there are no pauses, and sometimes a pause needs more than a comma. What I’m saying is that a pause is not what tells us we need a comma.

    Also, keep in mind that some readers read punctuation just as easily as they do words. If you keep slapping at them with odd punctuation, that’s just as bad as if you used the wrong words again and again. Write to create an effect and a desired flow, but don’t forget your readers.

    . . . but fiction writing is afforded leeway, is it not? It is indeed. But the rules exist because they work. If you step outside the norm, you’ve got to know both what you gain and what you lose. And then you need to decide if the gain is worth the loss.


    As for so, it’s not the can or could that dictates the comma use, it’s the role of so in the sentence.

    When so is a coordinating conjunction meaning for that reason or therefore, use a comma. When so is a subordinating conjunction meaning so that or in order that, you wouldn’t need the comma (if the subordinate clause comes second, that is).

    Help readers make sense of your sentences so they can lose themselves in the fiction.

    . . . so they’ll love your stories.
    . . . so they’ll think you’re wonderful.
    . . . so they won’t get lost.

    There are lots of ways to continue such sentences without using can or could.

    I hope all this came out in a way that makes sense. I’ll check it tomorrow to make sure I wasn’t writing gibberish.

    Good questions.

  7. Colin says:

    Hey, thanks for your time, Beth. I asked an English professor about this, but your responses were more informative. The one example that you said was messy was actually my own writing, from my own book. I still have things to edit in it. I didn’t realize you don’t need the comma for “so” when it means “so that” or “in order that” instead of “for that reason” or “therefore.” I saw on your website that you were a writer. I’d like to read some of your writing sometime. I think you have my email.

    All the best,

  8. Steve says:

    I see this type of sentence often in novels. “Larry remained standing, his anxiety palpable.” The dependent clause follows the independent. Why is this correct? Or is it?

    • Steve, the second part of the sentence is an absolute phrase (they modify whole sentences, not nouns). And yes, it can go after the independent clause. It can also go before or in the middle of it. One option may be a better fit for a particular sentence. Here’s an article on absolute phrases.

      Larry, his anxiety palpable, remained standing.

      His anxiety palpable, Larry remained standing.


      Like absolute phrases, dependent clauses can come before, after, or in the middle of independent clauses. Although this article focuses on comma use with dependent clauses, it provides examples that show the positioning of clauses.

      Because Tommy was hungry, he stole a candy bar.

      Tommy, because he was hungry, stole a candy bar.

      Tommy stole a candy bar because he was hungry.

      Does that get at your question?

  9. Danyss says:

    What are the absolute phrases?