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Concourse 2

Clause structures

they met outside

Clauses are independent units of meaning.  They are, grammatically, phrases which contain at least one verb phrase.  Compare, for example the items here.  The bits on the right are clauses; those on the left are phrases:

Phrases Clauses
in the huge garden he arrived
very, very slowly playing the piano
an old dog to help with the cooking
the woman on the corner she obviously left early
the engineer's wife going slowly under the bridge

All the chunks on the right here contain a verb of some sort but none on the left does.
However, if you have spotted that only he arrived and she left early can stand alone as pieces of intelligible language, you have noticed something rather important.  A definition of a clause used in many traditional grammars is that it is a unit containing a subject and its predicate.

  • The subject is the thing or person that does whatever the verb suggests.
  • The predicate can be many things.
    • In the example above, they met outside, it is the adverb: outside
    • It can be a prepositional phrase: They met outside the pub
    • It can be a noun phrase (as an object): They met me
    • It can be another clause: They met because they needed to talk


Finite and Non-finite clauses

In this analysis, we will be using the term 'clause' for any group of words containing a verb phrase but will distinguish between finite and non-finite clauses.

  • A finite verb, as in the sentences above, is a form that is marked in some way for tense (the past of meet, in this case) or for person (such as adding -s to the verb to make He meets).  In English, many verbs which are finite (i.e., carrying tense and person) do not have an obvious marker in the morphology.  They are still finite forms because having no obvious mark is called a zero marker.
    All of these are clauses with finite verbs (i.e., they are finite clauses):
    • He arrived at 6 (marked for tense with -d on the verb)
    • We start at 7 (no marking for tense or person but zero marked and finite)
    • We are starting at 8 (marked for tense [current arrangement to talk about the future] and person [plural are])
  • A non-finite verb form is not marked for tense or person, even by zero, and we do not, by looking at it, know when it happens or who does it.  All these are non-finite clauses:
    • opening the letter ...
    • ... to see clearly
    • having seen it ...
    • to speak honestly ...


Matrix and Subordinate clauses

In geology, a matrix is a fine-grained rock in which other minerals are embedded and the definition will hold quite well for our purposes.
Consider these two sentences:

  1. She saw the dog wanted food
  2. She saw the dog wanted to eat something
In sentence 1., we have two clauses:
The Matrix clause: She saw the dog wanted food
The Subordinate clause embedded in the matrix: the dog wanted food
Both of these clauses are finite because the verb is marked for tense (and in many languages would also be marked for aspect and person).
In sentence 2., we have three clauses:
The Matrix clause: She saw the dog wanted to eat something
Subordinate clause A: the dog wanted to eat something
Subordinate clause B: to eat something
Both the Matrix clause and Subordinate clause A are finite clauses with the verb marked for tense (saw and wanted respectively).
Subordinate clause A is embedded in the Matrix clause.
Subordinate clause B is embedded in Subordinate clause A and is non-finite (the verb, to eat, is unmarked for person or tense).
Subordinate clause A, therefore, is the Matrix clause for Subordinate B.

This means, if you are following, that the terms Matrix and Subordinate are relative.  A subordinate clause can be the matrix clause for its own subordinate clause.
In many cases (as in these examples) the Matrix clause and the sentence are the same.  That needn't be the case because we can have, e.g.,
Mary came home when she finished work and John left as soon as he saw her.
In which we have two Matrix clauses both with an embedded Subordinate clause (of time) but only one sentence.

If you prefer a graphical representation:

clause embedding



There are two important points:

  1. All matrix clauses must be finite clauses
  2. Subordinate clauses can be finite or non-finite

Non-finite clauses contain one of the following verb forms:

  • the bare infinitive: She let me leave early
  • a to-infinitive: I want to leave early
  • a past participle form: Left on the table were the remains of dinner
  • an -ing form: Leaving early was a real bonus.

Finite verb forms will always be marked for tense (even if as in, e.g., They come late, the marking for tense is the absence of a change to the verb or an ending) and often for person, too, as in e.g., He comes late.

There will be more about types of subordinate clauses later in the course.


Verbless clauses

This sounds like a contradiction in terms because we have just defined a clause as a unit containing a verb phrase.  At times, however, we can leave out the verb because it will be easily understood.  We also, incidentally, often have to leave out the verb's subject as well.
Here are some examples:

Leaving out the finite verb phrase
If possible, come before six (= If it is possible, come before six)
Whether now or later, we'll get it done (= Whether we do it now or later, we'll get it done)
These clauses often contain conjunctions such as whether, whenever, where etc.
Leaving out a non-finite verb phrase
Too tired to cook, I went straight to bed (= Being too tired to cook, I went straight to bed)
There are lots of interesting jobs in the sector, many highly paid (= There are lots of interesting jobs in the sector, many being highly paid)

Verbless clauses are sometimes called defective clauses or even simply small clauses.


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a very short test of your knowledge of clauses.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.

If you got that all right, it is safe to move on.

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