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Other Subordinate Clauses

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Understanding the basic structure of sentences will help you write sentences that are clear and correct. It will also help you to avoid errors such as sentence fragments. Clauses are either independent or subordinate (sometimes called dependent). Clauses always contain both a subject and a verb; however, independent clauses can stand alone as complete sentences while subordinate clauses cannot. Adverbial subordinate clauses cause the most repeated sentence fragment errors in college writing. This handout focuses on other subordinate clauses: noun clauses and adjective (also called relative) clauses.

Noun Clauses

Noun clauses are subordinate clauses that function as nouns.


Whoever arrives first should reserve a table at the restaurant.

            I don’t know what I was thinking.

In the first example, whoever arrives first is a noun clause that is the subject of the sentence. In the second example, what I was thinking is a noun clause that is the object of the sentence.

Adjective Clauses

Adjective clauses are subordinate clauses that function as adjectives, so adjective clauses modify nouns and pronouns. This type of clause usually begins with a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, which, or that).


Casey chose the cupcake that had the chocolate frosting.

Nikol, who loves 80s music, enjoys Tuesday night karaoke.

In the first sentence, the absolute phrase modifies the entire independent clause Alex earned an A in the class. Likewise, the absolute phrase in the second example also modifies the entire independent clause rather than one single element of it.

For more information about when to use who versus when to use whom, go here.

Style Matters:

Now look at your own writing. Try to identify different types of clauses in your sentences. Remember that all sentences must have at least one independent clause. If you notice one of these subordinate clauses standing alone then you have created a sentence fragment. Try correcting the fragment by completing the sentence.

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This handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.

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