English sentences are composed of clauses and phrases. Understanding how these two units of information work and how to differentiate between them is really important because they’re each essential elements of clear, comprehensible sentences.
A phrase is a small series of words that conveys some meaning, and phrases make up one small part of a sentence. Phrases don’t have to have subjects and verbs, and they don’t need to express a full thought.
Instead, a phrase is just a little chunk of meaning. The most common kind of phrase is a prepositional phrase.
EXAMPLE"In the morning," and "Without knowing why" are both prepositional phrases.
See how each of those phrases is just one little piece of information, and sets up more information that’s going to come in the rest of the sentence? Prepositional phrases are just one of the many types of phrases you can use.
Often, phrases act like parts of speech and can offer additional information to a complete sentence.
EXAMPLEIn the sentence "For as long as I can remember, I've wanted a Great Dane, one of the largest dog breeds," notice how the phrases (in bold) add in details that help explain more about the subject and the verb.
Clauses, on the other hand, contain more information. A clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a verb.
There are two kinds of clauses:
2a. Independent Clauses
An independent clause is a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence, although it does not have to.
You might remember that a sentence is a subject plus a verb plus a full thought; an independent clause is going to contain all of those elements and be able to stand on its own as a sentence, if it wants to.
EXAMPLE"The dog sat in the doghouse" is an independent clause because it contains a subject, a verb, and a complete thought.
This kind of sentence is called a simple sentence. A simple sentence has one independent clause.
2b. Dependent Clauses
A dependent clause is a clause that cannot stand on its own as a sentence. It still has a subject and a verb, but it’s missing that fully expressed thought that lets an independent clause stand alone.
Therefore, a dependent clause is dependent upon connecting to an independent clause in order to become a full sentence.
EXAMPLE"While he was tired" is a dependent clause.
If you wrote this clause as a full sentence, would that be correct? No, because although the dependent clause has a subject and a verb, it’s missing a complete thought. You need to know what comes before “while” in order to understand this thought.
There are two ways to make a dependent clause such as "while he was tired" into a complete sentence. First, you could turn this into an independent clause and full sentence by completing the thought.
EXAMPLEThe dog was tired.
Or you could use a type of conjunction called a coordinating conjunction to combine it with an independent clause, like this:
EXAMPLEThe dog sat in the doghouse, for he was tired.
See how now you have a full thought being expressed? A conjunction is a word or phrase that connects parts of a sentence, and a coordinating conjunction connects two independent clauses into a compound sentence, which is a sentence that contains two or more independent clauses.
Most of the time, a compound sentence will take two clauses that are somehow connected in their content and that are just about equally important to understanding the full thought.
EXAMPLEI want to pet that dog. That dog has fleas.
These are two good pieces of information, and each tells the reader something important about the situation.
The clauses can be separate, but if joined together, they provide a better understanding of what’s going on.
EXAMPLEI want to pet that dog, but he has fleas.
Notice that these two clauses are now connected with a comma and the word "but," which is a coordinating conjunction.
Using the acronym FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So) is a good way to remember all of these coordinating conjunctions. All of these words are common in English, even for connecting other words and phrases that aren’t clauses, and each means something really different, changing the implication of a sentence. When you’re using a coordinating conjunction to make a compound sentence, you’ll need to select the correct one.
Take a closer look at each:
- For essentially means "because," which points to a cause-and-effect relationship between the two clauses that it connects.
- And tells us that whatever comes after it is going to add in more information that’s relevant to the first clause.
- Nor is a negating word; it explains that the two clauses are not, or introduces a clause that will be in the negative.
- But connects two clauses by pointing out that the second clause contradicts the first one in some way.
- Or offers options; it indicates that the reader can choose between the two ideas that the two clauses present.
- Yet works much like "but," but note that it means something very different when you see it outside of a compound sentence.
- So also describes cause-and-effect, but specifically indicates that the second clause will describe something that is the result of whatever the first clause says.
In the following sentences, notice that the coordinating conjunction changes when you want the meaning of the whole sentence to change. In each sentence, there is a clause, then a comma and a coordinating conjunction, and then the next clause:
Sometimes, a coordinating conjunction might be used to connect two words as opposed to connecting two independent clauses; therefore, this would not create a compound sentence.
EXAMPLEThe sentence "I could pet a dog or cat" uses a coordinating conjunction to connect two words.
A sentence that is composed of independent and dependent clauses is going to work a little differently than this. This type of sentence is called a complex sentence, in which one of the clauses is more important than the other.
EXAMPLEI will buy presents for my friends because the holidays are soon.
This sentence starts with an independent clause with "I" as the subject and "will buy" as the verb. Then there is a dependent clause with its own subject and its own verb. The two clauses are connected with the subordinating conjunction "because."
A subordinating conjunction is a word or phrase that connects an independent and dependent clause. You’ve seen coordinating conjunctions, and now you have subordinating conjunctions.
Subordinating conjunctions are used in complex sentences because they indicate that the clause they precede is going to add in the necessary information to complete whatever thought the other clause has started. Some common subordinating conjunctions are "after," "although," "when," "while," and "until."
In some sentences, the subordinating conjunction is the first word, thus meaning the dependent clause comes first.
EXAMPLESince I brought my presents, I am ready for the holidays.
Also note that when the dependent clause is first, it’s always followed by a comma before the independent clause. When the independent clause is first, there will not be a comma between clauses.