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Independent & Dependent Clauses: Subordination & Coordination

This lesson is about independent and dependent clauses, and how they make up a sentence. Dependent clauses, like the name suggests, rely on other elements in a sentence. Independent clauses, on the other hand, can stand alone. Learn more in this lesson.

Independent Clauses

An independent clause is the simplest sentence you can write.

I love you.

My uncle is in jail.

Don't eat that pinecone.

At minimum, an independent clause consists of a subject and a verb that can stand alone as a sentence. Quick refresher: A subject is the person, place, idea, or thing that is either doing something or being something in the sentence. Find it by finding the verb (that's the part of the sentence that creates the action) and then seeing what is the thing that is doing the action of the verb. If that makes no sense, hang in there: In the first sentence, the verb is 'love' and the thing that is loving is 'I,' so I is the subject.

However, just because two independent clauses can stand alone as their own sentence, that doesn't mean they have to. If you want to suggest that independent events are closely related to each other, you can join two independent clauses by a comma and a coordinating conjunction or with a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb. (Stick with me here.) The coordinating conjunctions are easily remembered by the acronym FANBOYS, or for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

For example:

I am at the front door, but I am not with the police.

'I am at the front door' and 'I am not with the police' are two independent clauses joined by the coordinating conjunction 'but.'

You can also join two independent clauses with a semicolon and conjunctive adverb - which is just an adverb that's able to connect two thoughts. For instance:

I am at the front door; incidentally, I've swallowed my key.

Or leave the adverb out:

I am at the front door; I am the pizza deliveryman.

Both of these joined independent clauses could function fine as separate sentences, but the semicolon connects the action to suggest a more intimate relationship. If you don't have anything to connect the two - a conjunction or a semicolon - you end up with a run-on sentence. Like so:

I am at the front door I am the pizza deliveryman.

Dependent Clauses

A dependent clause, on the other hand, isn't a complete sentence on its own. It has to be added to an independent clause, which is what gives it its other name - the subordinate clause - because it's subordinate to the independent (or main) clause. It, too, has a subject and a verb. Take this example:

I love you because I am blind.

The dependent clause here is 'because I am blind.' The verb is 'am' and the subject is 'I,' but 'because I am blind' cannot function as an independent sentence. Thus, it is subordinate to our independent clause, 'I love you.' 'Because' connects the dependent clause to the independent clause and is called a subordinating conjunction. (Subordinating conjunctions can also connect to independent clauses, but we'll get to that later.)

Here are a couple of other examples of sentences comprised of an independent and dependent clause linked by a subordinate conjunction. (A full list of all the subordinate conjunctions is at the end of the text of this lesson.)

I survived the shipwreck, although I lost all my luggage.

I survived the shipwreck, as I am Aqua man.

You can see how 'I survived the shipwreck' is the most important idea in the sentence, and yet they each change the meaning of the sentence in slightly different ways. Neither dependent clause - 'as I am Aqua man' or 'although I lost all my luggage' can stand on its own (even if he is Aqua man).

One important thing to note here is that the dependent clause doesn't always have to follow the independent clause - it can precede it too. For instance:

As I am Aqua man, I survived the shipwreck.

That's still a valid sentence, but the dependent clause comes first. But again, crucially, it couldn't be there by itself. Like Jerry Maguire, it still needs the independent clause to complete it.

Dependent clauses can also be connected by relative pronouns. Your relative pronouns are who, whom, whoever, whomever, whose, that, which, whichever, and whosever. For instance:

The man who was in jail confessed.

In this case, 'who was in jail' is the dependent clause - a kind called an adjective clause because it functions like an adjective. 'The man confessed' would be the independent clause here, while 'who was in jail' adds describing detail. Adding describing detail is what adjectives do, after all. So, that's to say: What kind of man is this? It's the man who was in jail.

The other types of clauses are noun clauses and adverb clauses, which do the same things that nouns and adverbs do but in full clause form. In the sentence 'I drink soda when I'm sad,' for example, 'when I'm sad' is a dependent adverb clause, as the whole clause describes the verb 'drink,' with 'I' as the subject.

These distinctions are less immediately important than understanding what independent and dependent clauses are, however, so we're going to gloss over them. But know that they exist, in case you want to learn more.


Proper grammar aside (and we try to avoid using the word, since everyone hates it), the reason you need to know your clauses and how they work is so you can write with style, since how you connect clauses together changes the way a sentence feels to the reader. For instance, I mentioned earlier that you can use a subordinating conjunction to connect two independent clauses, not just independent and dependent clauses, but it might not be clear why. Well, here's why.

Jason raised his machete. Suzy Rae screamed.

That works fine, but it's a little disjointed. Add a subordinating conjunction like 'as' or 'while,' however, and suddenly, the scene works.

Jason raised his machete while Suzy Rae screamed.

See? Much better!

Lesson Review

  1. Remember that both independent and dependent clauses have a subject and a verb.
  2. Only an independent clause can function on its own as a sentence.
  3. Dependent clauses by themselves are sentence fragments; they need an independent clause to make them whole.
  4. Independent clauses are connected by coordinating or subordinating conjunctions.
  5. Remember FANBOYS to memorize your coordinating conjunctions.
  6. Because they can function as independent sentences, two independent clauses can also be connected by a semicolon, followed by a conjunctive adverb - or just a semicolon by itself.
  7. Generally, dependent clauses are connected to main clauses by subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns.
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