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English Grammar  

CLAUSES and PHRASES in sentences

The difference between clauses and phrases explained.

Sentences in English contain clauses and phrases.
The difference between clauses and phrases, as well as how to use them, is not always clear for learners of English.


A clause is a part of a sentence with a subject-verb unit that can function as a complete sentence on its own.

A clause creates a complete thought and can contain one or more phrases.
There are different types of clauses:

  • Main (or independent) clauses
  • Subordinate (or dependent) clauses
  • Relative clauses: definng and non-defining

MAIN (or independent) CLAUSE:
A main clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb that can form a complete sentence on its own.

  • I will save my work before I turn off the computer.
  • You can decorate the room however you like.
  • Don’t hesitate to contact me if you need more information.

SUBORDINATE (or dependent) CLAUSE :
A clause that adds more information to complete the main clause.
A subordinate clause cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. It is linked to the main clause by a subordinating conjunction.

  • I know how to swim because my dad taught me.
  • I can't buy a car until I have enough money.
  • Since it's a sunny day today, we will go to the beach.

Relative clauses give us information about the person or thing mentioned. There are two kinds of relative clauses : defining and non-defining.

1) Defining relative clause:
A defining relative clause adds essentiel information to define or identify the person or thing we are talking about.
To start a defining relative clause, we use a relative pronoun or adverb : who, whom, whose, that, which, when, where, that or why.
No commas are used around defining relative clauses.

  • The red car belongs to the man who lives next door.
  • She will confide in someone whom she can trust.
  • Here is my friend whose mother is a doctor.
  • The house that my parents bought is quite small.
  • They visited a church which was built in the 14th century.
  • There’s the hotel where we stayed last year.
  • We eat outside on the patio when it's sunny.
  • The reason why I came here today is not important.

2) Non-defining relative clause:
A non-defining relative clause gives extra non-essentiel information about who or what we are speaking about.
We use a relative pronoun or adverb (who, whose, whom, which, where (but not ‘that’) with a non-defining relative clause.
Commas are placed around a non-defining relative clause to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

  • My grandmother, who is dead now, came from Ireland.
  • My younger sister, whose husband works in Boston, is a nurse.
  • Sarah, with whom I work, is expecting a baby.
  • Spiders, which are a type of insect, can be venomous.

A phrase is a group of words, without a subject-verb unit, that provides extra information.
Phrases do not function on their own.
They act as nouns, adjectives, adverbs and so on. Here are some examples:

  • Noun phrase: "A smart young lady arrived."
  • Verb phrase: "The man was running quickly."
  • Adverbial phrase: "He spoke loudly and rudely."
  • Prepositional phrase: "The file was on top of the desk."
  • Time phrase: "Once a month I go to the hairdresser's."

Sentences in English can be brief or more complex.
They can contain any number of clauses and phrases combined together.

    Sentences with clauses:
  • She arrived. (one clause)
  • She arrived and he greeted her. (2 clauses)
  • She arrived, he opened the door and he greeted her. (3 clauses)
  • She arrived, he opened the door, he greeted her and he invited her in. (4 clauses)
    Sentences with phrases:
  • A group of four people entered the room. (noun phrase)
  • Children are usually full of life. (adjectival phrase)
  • He arrived 30 minutes ago. (time phrase)
  • She acted with determination. (adverbial phrase)
  • I’d like to travel around the world (prepositional phrase)
    Example sentence with 3 clauses and 4 phrases:
  • Cakes and pastries (noun phrase) were put on the table (prepositional phrase), and the children ate them quickly and noisily (adverbial phrase) until there were only a few crumbs (noun phrase) left.

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