What Is a Dependent Clause?

D. Coodin

A dependent clause is a part of a grammatical sentence that contains both a verb and a subject, but does not convey a complete thought. While an independent clause is sufficient to make a sentence on its own, dependent clauses need to be connected to independent clauses to form sentences. Also called subordinate clauses, they often begin with words such as prepositions that indicate their dependence on other elements in a sentence. When used properly, dependent clauses are helpful for varying sentence length and writing style.

A dependent clause is a part of a grammatical sentence that contains both a verb and a subject, but does not convey a complete thought.
A dependent clause is a part of a grammatical sentence that contains both a verb and a subject, but does not convey a complete thought.

Often, this type of clause contains a marker word at the beginning, such as "after," "although," "before," "unless" and "until." These marker words are often prepositions, but not always, and make the clause dependent on another thought to complete it. For example, the clause "When the sun sets over the city in the evening" requires more information to answer what occurs when this event takes place. An independent clause can usually be turned into a dependent clause by adding one of these marker words to its beginning.

As a rule, dependent clauses need to be connected to independent clauses to be made into a complete sentences, which can be accomplished in a variety of ways. A writer can use a comma to do this, for example, "When the sun sets over the city in the evening, shadows appear on the sidewalk." Also, writers can use a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction, such as, "and," "but," "for," "or," "nor," "so" or "yet." An example of this type of connection would be, "He wanted to go outside, but it was too cold," where the second clause is a dependent clause. A dependent clause can also be connected using a semicolon and an independent marker word, such as, "also," "furthermore," "however" and "moreover."

There are many mistakes that writers often make when relating to dependent clauses in a sentence. One of the most common is the sentence fragment, in which this clause is erroneously written as a complete sentence, as in, "Because it was too cold outside." Another common mistake is the comma splice, in which two independent clauses are separated by a comma when a dependent clause is necessary. For example, the sentence "He wanted to go outside, it was too cold" contains two independent clauses. The insertion of "but" after the comma makes the second into a dependent clause and completes the thought in a way that is grammatically correct.

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Discussion Comments


In fiction novels, sometimes authors start sentences with “but.” Is this grammatically acceptable, or does it always make the words following it a dependent clause?

For example, one author wrote a really long descriptive sentence about the scary, dark night out in the forest. She followed that up with this short sentence: “But the little boy was not afraid.”

I'm unsure whether or not this would qualify as a dependent clause. On one hand, if it were taken out of the paragraph, away from the preceding sentence, it would not make any sense, so it is dependent on that sentence. On the other hand, it could have been the second half of a compound sentence.


@giddion – I think you're right. The fact that the clauses have subjects and verbs confuses some people who don't have a good grasp on grammar.

I'm pretty good at it, but still, I remember being confused from time to time by multiple choice questions on achievement tests. We would have these tests at the end of every school year, and the reading and writing section would often have questions that made us choose which example was a complete sentence.

We would have four answers to choose from, and at least one of the answers thrown in to confuse us would be a dependent clause. At first glance, it might sound like a sentence, but our teacher taught us to always ask ourselves if we could understand the sentence without further information. That helped me identify dependent clauses and distinguish them from sentences.


This article made me think of the sentence fragment that my mother used to always say to me. I heard, “Because I said so,” so many times throughout my youth!

At the time, I never considered that this was a dependent clause, but I did notice that it left me wanting more of an explanation. I wanted to ask her why she said so, but all she would reply with was, “Because.”

I do realize that in order to make this a full sentence, she would have had to reiterate what I already knew. She would have had to say, “You can't spend the night with your friend, because I said so.” So, it really wasn't necessary for her to be grammatically correct.


I hate it when people use dependent clauses alone and think that they are complete sentences. I don't see how they cannot tell that the clauses cannot stand alone without further explanation.

My only guess is that because a dependent clause has both a subject and a verb, some people are confused. Maybe the rule that in order to be a sentence, a clause must have both of these is the only thing that these people remember from grammar instruction in school.

Even if I see this in a casual email or a quick text, it bothers me. I don't point it out at the time, because that would make me seem like a jerk, but I do cringe.

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