logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2


Before you follow this guide, you should be confident that you understand the material covered in the guide to phrase analysis.
That guide covered the structure of Noun, Verb, Adverb, Prepositional and Adjective phrases and they were all exemplified by reference to clauses in which they occur or to whole sentences.  Here, we take the next step up and consider clauses.



As a working definition, we can say that a clause as a series of words which contains at least one verb phrase.

For example, the bits on the right here 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.
In this guide, 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.
There is a separate guide to finite and non-finite verbs on this site and the considerations there apply to clauses just as they do to individual verbs.


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 actually 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:

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.

In some analyses, the matrix clause is referred to as the superordinate clause.  That will do just as well if it's easier to understand.

If you want more about types of subordinate clauses, go to the guide to conjunction.


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.


The functions of dependent clauses

Here we are speaking of grammatical function rather then communicative function.
Matrix or superordinate clauses need no such analysis because their function (to represent an entire thought) is clear.
Subordinate or dependent clauses are another matter because they can perform a number of grammatical functions in English which are not necessarily paralleled in other languages.
The variety of functions can confuse learners who may be unable to comprehend what they see or hear and unable to deploy clauses for communicative effect.
Here's a run-down of the main functions of dependent or subordinate clauses:

  1. as noun phrases (nominalised clauses):
    • subject:
          What he said was appalling
    • direct object:
          I don't know what to do about this
    • indirect object:
          I bought whoever asked a drink
    • subject complement of a copular verb:
          The hope is that she won't be late
    • object complement of a copular verb
          She hated him lying to her
  2. as adverbials:
    • adjunct:
          I waited on the platform until she arrived
    • disjunct:
          Speaking honestly, I don't think he's up to the job
    • conjunct:
          To add to the confusion, he forgot to hand out the instructions
  3. in other roles:
    • post-modifying a noun phrase:
          The woman who bought my house
      See the guide to relative pronoun clauses for more linked in the list of related guides at the end.
    • complement of a preposition:
          He was unhappy with what we decided
    • complement of an adjective:
          Are you happy to go?

For more on nominalised clauses and adverbials see the guides (links below).

Try a short test.

Related guides
conjunction for more on how clauses are connected and links to other guides to subordination and coordination
finite and non-finite verbs for more on the differences
verb and clause types for a guide to the six main sentence structures in English
phrases for a general guide to phrase structures
nominalised clauses for an analysis of the ways clauses can act as noun phrases
adverbials for more on adjuncts, conjuncts and disjuncts
relative pronoun clauses for the guide dedicated to this complex area