Clauses – how to understand them

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Clauses – definition

clauses Clauses are parts of a sentence which make sense independently because they contain a finite verb.

redbtn There are main clauses and subordinate clauses.


redbtn There are two clauses in this sentence:

Come in, put your coat on that chair, and sit down.

redbtn The main clause is ‘Come in … and sit down.’

redbtn The subordinate clause is ‘put your coat on that chair’.


redbtn It is natural for language to structure itself into manageable parts which make complete sense in themselves.

redbtn As speakers we create comprehensible clauses spontaneously and automatically.

redbtn Written language can have a greater complexity of clauses than speech within sentences.

redbtn This is because writing can be reconsidered by the reader at any time and at any speed.

redbtn Speech on the other hand must be taken in immediately by the listener.

redbtn NB! The difference between a clause and a phrase is that a phrase does not contain a finite verb.

redbtn The term ‘clause’ belongs to the discipline of descriptive grammar. This approach is very traditional and has been taught in grammar schools for the past few hundred years. It is still considered useful as a term by which to identify the components of a sentence.

redbtn Descriptive grammar sets out with a preconceived blueprint of sentence structure and attempts to force all utterances into it.

redbtn Recently, the term was introduced into the National Curriculum for the teaching of English in schools. This states:

‘pupils should be given opportunities to develop their understanding of the grammar of complex sentences, including clauses and phrases’

redbtn This development illustrates a return to old conventions which has been brought about by conservative values. It is also based on the belief that standards of literacy have been falling due to the lack of basic grammar teaching.

redbtn ‘Transformational Grammar’, pioneered by the American linguist Noam Chomsky, is an alternative and more functional approach to understanding grammar. This discipline focuses on the relationship and function of parts in an utterance and seeks to accommodate an infinite variety of expression and usage.

redbtn For instance, the sentence John is easy to please is identical in structure to the sentence John is eager to please. In terms of meaning however, the two utterances are quite different. This example demonstrates that there is more to understanding grammar than being able to spot clauses.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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