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The classification of subordinate clauses offers special difficulties and remains the area of syntax where we find different linguistic approaches with some important disputable points open to thought and discussion. Much still remains to be done in this field of grammar learning. This is one of many ranges of linguistic structure in which we find borderline cases where the lexico-grammatical organisation of complex syntactic units presents special difficulties.


Contexts are of extreme importance in understanding syntax.

Various kinds of contextual indication, linguistic or situational, and intonation in actual speech resolve structural ambiguity in homonymic patterns on the syntactic level.

As we shall further see, the significant order of sentence elements, as an important factor of syntax, will also merit due consideration in describing the distributional value of various kind of subordinate clauses.

It is to be noted that disagreement over the classification of sub-clauses is based not on conflicting observations in language learning but rather on different linguistic approaches to the study of syntax.

There are obvious reasons for describing sub-clauses proceeding from the similarity of their functions with those of parts of the sentence. Analysis of clause patterns from this angle of view seems most helpful and instructive.

The traditional distinction between the main and the subordinate clause is familiar in grammar learning, but students of language should be prepared to meet it under other names. Emphasising the structural position of sub-clauses, Ch. Fries, for instance, adopted the term included sentence as a compromise between Ch. Fries's included sentence and the term of traditional grammar, W. N. Francis offered the name included clause. Logically, the term clause itself would be a sufficiently distinct term, because it is not used here for any larger class of forms of which included clauses are a subclass.

To express subordination of one syntactic unit to another in a complex sentence English uses the following means: a) conjunctions; b) conjunctive words; c) asyndeton; d) sentence-order, i. e. the position of syntactic structures relative to one another; e) correlative words.

Subject and Predicate Clauses

There are two types of sub-clauses that function as one of the essential elements of a two-member sentence: subject clauses and predicate clauses.

A subject clause may contain either a statement or a question. In the former case it is preceded by that: in the latter it is introduced by the same words as interrogative object clauses.

(a) That he will help us leaves no doubt.

That he had not received your letter was true.

(b) What you say is true.

Whether he will stay here is another question.

Commoner that the patterns with the initial that are sentences introduced by it, with the that-clause in end-position. This type also occurs in interrogative composite sentences.

It seemed utterly grotesque to him that he should be standing there facing a charge of murder in a court where the register, the shorthand writer and other officials were all known personally to him. (Gordon)

It was true that he had assisted Dr. Munro at the operation. (Gordon)


And it suddenly sprang into James' mind that he ought to go and see for himself. (Galsworthy)

It is manifest to me that in his letter of May 20 he assented to a very clear proposition. (Galsworthy)

Subject sub-clauses at the given type are, in fact, used as delayed appositives to the initial it. Sentence patterning of this kind permits postponement of the subordinate clause while it represents them in the positions which would otherwise be normal for them.

Some grammarians prefer another angle of view, according to which the pronoun it at the beginning of the main clause is referred to as a "formal subject" (sometimes called a "sham subject"), and the sub-clause following the main clause — the real subject.

The choice of either alternative remains, in fact, a matter of subjective angle of view.

Note. It is to be noted, in passing, that it can represent not only this type of sub-clauses, but is similarly used with great frequency in other types of composite sentences.

Familiar examples are:

I'll leave it to you which route we take.

In main interrogatives this it is sometimes inserted directly in front of clausal appositives, as in Why is it that we can't get together?

Sometimes even in declaratives it precedes declarative-clause appositives directly, and acts as a kind of buffer for them — after predicators and prepositions that do not accept them as completers.

I resent it that such a thing is done.

I'll see to it that a good typewriter is available.

You can rely on it that he will do this work without delay.

It often represents subordinate clauses, or nucleuses of subordinate clauses, which are hardly in apposition with it.

He says he's been mistreated, but he shouldn't take it out on you.

It might help if we did it.

He can't help it if he likes company.

It makes him unhappy when people think he's unfriendly.

It is to be noted that the grammatical organisation of subject-clauses sometimes offers certain difficulties of analysis.

If, for instance, the order of the two members of a composite sentence is inverted they do not only change places but functions as well. Compare the following:

  1. That he did not come to speak with you was what surprised me most. (a subject sub-clause)

  2. What surprised me most was that he did not come to speak with you. (a predicate sub-clause)

In other cases subject sub-clauses will hardly offer any difficulties of syntactic analysis, e. g.:

Not her fault that she had loved this boy, that she couldn't get him out of her head no more her fault that it had been his own for loving that boy's mother. (Galsworthy)

No satisfaction to Fleur now, that the young man and his wife, too, very likely, were suffering as well. (Galsworthy)

Predicate sub-clauses function as the nominal predicate of a composite sentence. They are introduced by the same words as subject


clauses; they may also be introduced by as. Variation in their grammatical organisation may be illustrated by the following examples:

This was what had happened to himself! (Galsworthy)

The chief hope was that the defence would not find it necessary to subpoena Jean. That would be too much. (Galsworthy).

The question for me to decide is whether or not the defendant is liable to refund to the plaintiff this sum. (Galsworthy).

The principle of this house", said the architect, „was that you should have room to breathe like a gentleman". (Galsworthy)

Some grammarians are inclined to include here patterns with it is... that of the following type:

It's because that he's busy that he can't help you.

There are such patterns of complex sentences as consist of a subject clause and a predicative, the only element outside these clauses being the link verb, e. g.:

What I prefer now is that you should not leave at all.

Predicative sub-clauses have sometimes a mixed or overlapping meaning. In some cases there is a clear suggestion of temporal relations, in others the meaning of comparison.

Relations of time, for instance, are generally observed in clauses introduced by when. This is often the case when the subject of the principal clause is expressed by nouns denoting time, e. g.:

Time had been when he had seen her wearing nothing. (Galsworthy)

Predicative sub-clauses introduced by as if and as are suggestive of , the secondary meaning of comparison, e. g.:

My horses are young, and when they get on the grass they are as if they were mad. (Thackeray)

Object Clauses

Object clauses present a great variety of patterns but less difficulty on the point of their grammatical analysis.

The simplest case of such clauses are patterns in which a sub-clause can be replaced by a noun which could be then an object in a simple sentence. Familiar examples are:

We could buy what she liked.

You may do whatever you choose.

Did the accused mention who this girl friend of his was... (Gordon)

He suggested that Bosnian seemed unduly zealous in calling for paper for the statement to be taken down. (Gordon)

He was anxious that they should realise he was an Englishman. (Gordon)

Antony wondered whether they would ever meet again. (Gordon)

He remembered that the waltz was in three-time, remembered the waltz of olden days too well That dance at Rodger's, and Irene, his own wife, waltzing in the arms of young Bosinney. (Galsworthy)

And later, on a sleepless pillow, she puzzled, as she had puzzled of late, as to how it was that she loved so strange a man, and loved him despite the disapproval of her people. (London)


Synonymic alternatives of object clauses are:

a) Gerundive nominals:

They all approved of his not being beaten by that cousin of his, (Galsworthy)

Soames had ever resented having had to sell the house at Robin Hill; never forgiven his uncle for having bought it, or his cousin for living in it. (Galsworthy)

He's going to begin farming, you know, he' ll make an excuse. Men hate being painted. (Galsworthy)

...he could not see Irene shivering, as though some garment had been torn from her, nor her eyes, black and mournful like the eyes of a beaten child. He could not hear Bosinney entreating, entreating, always entreating; could not hear her sudden, soft weeping, nor see that poor, hungry looking devil, awed and trembling, humbly touching her hand. (Galsworthy)

I looked in the door of the big room and saw the major sitting at the desk, and the window open and the sunlight coming into the room. (Hemingway)

b) Infinitival nominals:

He saw the squirrel's eyes, small and bright and watched his tail jerk in excitement. (Hemingway)

The Darties saw Bosinney spring out, and Irene follow, and hasten up the steps with bent head. (Galsworthy)

Instances are not few when infinitival and gerundive nominals go in one sentence in close proximity, e. g.:

Only vaguely did he see the judge shake his head in disagreement and hear Turner mumbling something. (Gordon)

Attributive Clauses

Like attributive adjuncts in a simple sentence, attributive clauses qualify the thing denoted by its head word through some actions, state or situation in which the thing is involved.

It has been customary to make distinction between two types of attributive sub-clauses: restrictive and continuative or amplifying clauses1. This division is however too absolute to cover all patterns.

Restrictive clauses are subordinate in meaning to the clause containing the antecedent; continuative clauses are more independent: their contents might often be expressed by an independent statement giving some additional information about the antecedent that is already sufficiently defined. Continuative clauses may be omitted without affecting the precise understanding of the sentence as a whole. This is marked by a different intonation, and by a clear break preceding the continuative clause, no such break separating a restrictive clause from its antecedent. The presence or absence of such a pause is indicated in writing and in print by the presence or absence of a comma before as well as after the sub-clause.

It may also be pointed out that a sentence with a restrictive clause contains a single statement, and a sentence with a continuative clause contains two statements.

1 The two types of clauses are also known as "defining" and "non-defining".


Compare the following:

I. a) There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour. (Fitzgerald)

  1. The room was long with windows on the right-hand side and a door at the far end that went into the dressing-room. (Hemingway)

  2. He made frequent references to the plan that had already been put in. (Gordon)

  3. And to think of it, I dreamed in my innocence that the persons who sat in the high places, who lived in fine houses and had educations and bank accounts, were worth while! (London)

II. a) A sensation of comfort would pass through Winton, which would last quite twenty minutes after the crunching of the wheels and the mingled perfumes had died away. (Galsworthy)

  1. Soames, who had never studied the question and was hampered by not knowing whether he wanted an Englishman to do it, was hesitating. (Galsworthy)

  2. And he only stared at Michael, who was gazing out of the window. (Galsworthy)

  3. Up on the lawn above the fernery he could see his old dog Balthazar. The animal, whose dim eyes took his master for a stranger, was warning the world against him. (Galsworthy)

Continuative clauses may well illustrate the statement that it is impossible to draw a rigid line of demarcation between subordination and coordination. The relative which may refer to a preceding sentence or part of a sentence.

The conference was postponed, which was exactly what we wanted.

A word should be said about attributive clauses introduced by relative adverbs functioning as conjunctions: when, where, why. This is the case when the antecedent meaning time, place, reason.

We met where the roads crossed.

I remember the day when the war broke out.

We understand the reason why you did not want to come.

These clauses are commonly referred to as attributive qualifying a noun in the main clause.

We cannot fail to see, however, that the above sentences are suggestive of adverbial relations. This is especially prominent when the clause is -continuative:

In those days, when she lived with us...

Overlapping relations will be observed in clauses introduced by as, after an antecedent qualified by same or such:

We found such things as you never saw.

In literary English a noun in a negative sentence may be defined by a clause introduced by but: When a but-clause has a subject of its own, adverbial relations are quite prominent, e. g.:

Not a day went by but some news came from our correspondent.

Synonymic alternatives of attributive clauses are following.


a) Infinitival nominals:

Cowperwood was not the man to loose a chance of this kind. (Dreiser)

There is nothing to prevent you from making as great a success as Mr. Butler has made. (London)

But I had no thought. I didn't even have the words with which to think. (London)

Brian wished they could eat breakfast there, but saw nothing on the table except a, mug of tea to be drunk by his father. (Sillitoe)

b) Gerundive nominals:

The idea of its being barbarous to confine wild animals had probably never ever occurred to his father, for instance. (Galsworthy)

He doesn't know very much about Tom, though he says he's read a Chicago paper for years just on the chance of catching a glimpse of Daisy's name. (Fitzgerald)

c) Participial nominals:

A look of effort marked everyone: they came down with kukris no longer used, and loads bearing no resemblance to the neat shape of a pack. (Sillitoe)

It was warm, and frightening if he thought too much, but he went on a few feet until reaching drifts of hot dust piled almost to the top bricks. (Sillitoe)

Clauses of Cause

Introduced by the conjunction because sub-clauses of cause indicate purely causal relations.

And because they were all laughing it seemed to Leila that they were all lovely. (Mansfield)

... You remember the other time I was here I said I couldn't talk about books and things because I didn't know how? (London)

Clauses introduced by as and since have sometimes overlapping relationships of cause and time. The necessary meaning is signalled by the context.

Pouring out a pot he drank it neat and, as its warm glow spread through him, he felt he could face the evening more easily. (Gordon)

Later when they had managed to compose themselves they went to the theatre. Since he gave her free choice she selected "Saint Joan". (Cronin)

I could not stay as it was late.

Causal relations may find their expression in clauses introduced by the conjunction for. Patterns of this kind are on the borderline between co-ordination and subordination. Only in some contexts of their use for-clauses come to be synonymous and go quite parallel with causal clauses included by because.

He had to be cautious, for he was so rapidly coming to be influential and a distinguished man. (Dreiser)

Soames was alone again. How long, alone, he didn't know for he was tired, and in spite of his concern, he dozed. (Galsworthy)


In most cases clause-patterns with for differ essentially from clauses introduced by because. They generally give an additional thought to the completed part of sentence to extend the meaning of the utterance; they often come after a full stop and seem to function as separate sentences having much in common with clauses introduced by the conjunctions but and and.

Subordinate clauses of cause have their synonymic alternatives:

a) Infinitival nominals:

She was angry now to think her father would make a public spectacle of her. Cowperwood started to follow. (Dreiser)

He was proud to have been privileged to publish a poem which in psychological content, quality of workmanship, and direct human interest, was by far the most striking of this generation. (Galsworthy)

b) Gerundive nominals:

Cursed was the day he had met her, and his eyes for seeing in her anything but the cruel Venus she was. (Galsworthy)

c) Participial nominals:

The afternoon being grey and cold, we did not go anywhere. This being the case, they had to change their plan.

d) reduced sub-clauses of cause (verbless predicatives):

... The lines at the sides of the eyes were deepened. Naturally dark of skin, gloom made him look slightly sinister. (Dreiser)

Would they like him? They would not too unshackled, too fitful, and too bitter; all that was best in him he hid away, as if ashamed of it; and his yearning for beauty they would not understand! (Galsworthy)

Not much give and take about Desert restless, disharmonic, and a poet! And proud with that inner self-depreciative pride which never let upon a man! (Galsworthy)

Clauses of Place

Clauses of place do not offer any difficulties of grammatical analysis; they are generally introduced by the relative adverb where or by the phrase from where, to where, e. g.:

They passed alongside the Royal Enclosure where book-makers did not seem to be admitted. (Galsworthy)

The sun-blinds were down, for the sun was streaming on its front, past the old oak, where was now no swing. (Galsworthy)

Where there's a will, there's a way. (Proverb)

... „Show me", he said, and moved in the tail-light of the car to where the chauffeur stood pointing. (Galsworthy)

Like in other types of complex sentences, clauses introduced by the adverb where are sometimes on the borderline between subordination and co-ordination, meant to continue the narrative associated with the previous statement rather than indicate the place where action took place, e. g.:

... And a sob that shook him from head to foot burst from Soames' chest. Then all was still in the dark, where the houses seemed to stare at him, each to each with a master and mistress of its own, and a secret story of happiness or sorrow. (Galsworthy)


Temporal Clauses

Temporal clauses cover a wide and varied range of meanings.

Relations of time between the action of the main clause and that of the subordinate may differ: the two actions or states may be simultaneous, one may precede or follow the other, or, say, one may last until the other begins, etc.

When she moved to put a chair for him, she swayed in a curious, subtle way, as if she had been, put together by some one with a special secret skill. (Galsworthy)

As he passed through the stray groups of couples, he was conscious of a pair of pale grey eyes peering at him through a cloud of blue tobacco smoke. (Gordon)

Sit down, when I've taken off my things we shall go into the next room and have tea and be cosy. (Mansfield)

When he had finished his tea Andrew withdrew. (Cronin)

Reduced sub-clauses of time will be illustrated by such patterns as:

When at Rome, do as the Romans do. (Proverb)

When angry count a hundred. (Proverb)

Back in his study, he sat in thought. (Galsworthy)

Back with her accounts, she could not settle to them, and pushing them into a drawer, went to find her husband. (Galsworthy)

Synsemantic in their character, temporal clauses have often a mixed meaning. In some patterns there is only a suggestion of the secondary meaning, in others it is fairly prominent.

In different contexts of their use sub-clauses of time may change their primary meaning. In some patterns there is a suggestion of conditional relations, as in:

Women did strange things when they were driven into corners. (Galsworthy)

When the pinch comes, you remember the old shoe. (Proverb)

Instances are not few when temporal clauses are suggestive of causal relations, e. g.:

She made a little curtsy as he bowed. (Mitchell)

It is to be noted that secondary meanings are generally signalled not so much by the grammatical organisation of the sentence as by the lexical context which is the first to be considered relevant.

Studying syntax in relation to vocabulary presents here its own point of interest.

Not less characteristic are the secondary meanings implied in a sub-clause of time in such contexts when it comes to indicate an action or state as contrasted to that of the main clause.

Examples of such sentences may be found in numbers.

She neared her father's house, driven this way and that, while all the time the Forsyte undertow was drawing her to deep conclusion that after all he was her property. (Galsworthy)

"So you came, didn't you?" he went on, looking at her steadily, while she fronted his gaze boldly for a moment; only to look evasively down. (Dreiser)


While Mackenty meditated as to how in two years he should be able to undo this temporary victory, and Cowperwood was deciding that conciliation was the best policy for him, Schryhart, Hand and Arneel, joining hands with young Macdonald, were wondering how they could make sure that this party victory would cripple Cowperwood and permanently prevent him from returning to power. (Dreiser)

Why should he be put to the shifts and the sordid disgraces and the lurking defeats of the Divorce Court, when there was she like an empty house only waiting to be retaken into use and possession by him who legally owned her. (Galsworthy)

He turned about again, and there stood with his back against the door, as hers was against the wall opposite, quite unconscious of anything ridiculous in this separation by the whole width of the room.

The implication of contrast is often clear in reduced clauses of time, e. g.:

His manner, while warmly generous at times, was also easily distant except when he wished it to be otherwise. (Dreiser)

Synonymic alternatives of sub-clauses of time:

a) Gerundive Nominals:

Dartie, on being told, was pleased enough. (Galsworthy)

The crime seems to have been committed late in the evening, and the

body was found by a gamekeeper about eleven o'clock, when it was examined

by the police and by a doctor before being carried up to the house.


Then after having Kathleen tighten her corsets a little more,

she gathered the train over her arm by its train-band and looked again.


b) Infinitival Nominals:

The door was not fastened within, and yielded smoothly to her hesitating hand. She was surprised to find a bright light burning; still more surprised, on looking in, to see that her Mama, but partially undressed was sitting near... (Dickens)

His head, now grey, was encircled by her arm, and he frowned to think that never, never had it rested so before. (Dickens)

c) Participial Nominals:

Arrived, however, at this other white house, also desirable, situated on the slope above the river, he almost had a fit while waiting for them in the car. (Galsworthy)

Being released, his face discovered to be very hot, and red, and damp; and Miss Tox took him on her lap, much exhausted. (Galsworthy)

Clauses of Condition

Conditional sentences can express either a real condition ("open condition") or an unreal condition:

If you ask him he will stay here, (real condition)

If you asked him, he would stay here, (unreal condition)


In real condition, both the main clause and the dependent clause are truth-neutral; in If you ask him, he will stay here, we cannot judge whether either the request or his staying here will take place.

Although the most common type of real condition refers to the future, there are no special restrictions on the time reference of conditions or on the tense forms used to express them. The following examples may illustrate the variety of time relations and tense forms expressing them:

If you re happy, you make others happy.

(Simple Present + Simple Present)

If he told you that yesterday, he was lying.

(Simple Past + Simple Past)

If she left so early, she will certainly be here tonight.

(Simple Past + will "future").

The truth-neutrality of an if-clause is reflected in the possibility of using such constructions as:

If you should hear news of them, please let me know.

(Should + Infinitive in place of the Simple Present)

The effect of predication with "should" is to make the condition slightly more tentative and "academic" than it would be with the ordinary Present Tense.

A more formal expression of a tentative real condition is achieved by omitting if and inverting the subject and the auxiliary "should":

Should you remain I'll help you with pleasure.

Unreal conditions are normally formed by the use of the Past Tense (Indicative or Subjunctive) in the conditional clause, and would + Vinf in the principal clause, e. g.:

If you left in the morning, you would be at home at night.

If you had come, he would have changed his mind.

The precise grammatical and semantic nature of the switch from real to unreal conditions is obviously relevant to overlapping relations in such types of sentence-patterning

Clauses of this type are generally introduced by such connectives as: if, unless, provided, on condition that, in case, suppose (supposing), but that, once.

What has immediate relevance here is the grammatical organisation of the conditional sentence, the verb-forms of its predicate, in particular.

If it hadn't been for his blunders, he would have finished the article in three days. (London)

If he doesn't comply we can't bring proceedings for six months. I want to get on with the matter, Bellby. (Galsworthy)

And if Holly had not insisted on following her example, and being trained too, she must inevitably have cried off.

Suppose he talked to Michael? No! Worse than useless. Besides, he couldn't talk about Fleur and that boy to anyone thereby hung too long a tale. (Galsworthy)

Mr. Pinch stood rooted to the spot on hearing this, and might have stood there until dark, but that the old cathedral bell began to ring for vesper service, on which he tore himself away. (Dickens)


Synonymic alternatives of conditional clauses:

a) Infinitival Nominals:

To have followed their meal in detail would have given him some indication of their states of mind. (Galsworthy)

(Syn. If she had followed their meal... it would have given him...).

To record of Mr. Dombey that he was not in his way affected by this intelligence, would be to do him an injustice. (Dickens) (Syn. If we record of Mr. Dombey that...)

No one would believe, to look at her, that she was over thirty. (Huxley)

(Syn. if one looked at her...)

b) Gerundial Nominals:

But for his having helped us we should not have been successful in this work.

c) Participial Nominals:

Living in London you know what fogs mean.

Weather permitting, we shall start tomorrow.

Consider also reduced sub-clauses of condition. Examples are commonplace.

What would one of her own people do if called a coward and a cad her father, her brother, uncle Adrian? What could they do? (Galsworthy)

It was clear to him that she could not take her Dartie seriously, and would go back on the whole thing if given half a chance. (Galsworthy)

And, if true, what was the director's responsibility? (Galsworthy)

She was seldom or never at a loss; or if at a loss, was always able to convert it into again. (Galsworthy)

Once in, you couldn't get out. (Galsworthy)

A word must be said about stylistic transposition of imperatives co-ordinated with following declaratives to which they have the meaning relationship that clauses of condition or cause would have.

Scarcity of linguistic units with inherent expressivity is often counterbalanced by effective stylistic transpositions of the Imperative Mood.

In terms of stylistic value and purpose, it is most essential to observe how different patterns of grammatical organisation come to correlate as identical in denotative value but different in expressive connotation. Contextual nuances are sometimes very elusive.

Here are a few examples of the Imperative Mood in transposition:

a) Tell him of a quality innate in some women a seductive power beyond their own control! He would but answer: Humbug!

She was dangerous, and there was an end of it. (Galsworthy) (Syn. If you told him of a quality innate in some women...)

b) He would have fought for this man as determinedly as for himself, and yet only so far as commanded. Strip him of his uniform, and he would have soon picked his side. (Dreiser)

(Syn. If you stripped him of his uniform...)

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