Subordinate Clauses

Lesson Content

Inquire: Subordinate Clauses


Subordinate clauses are used across all levels of writing. In fact, you probably use them quite frequently without even realizing it. But, do you actually know that what you’re using is called a subordinate clause? Or does their use just come naturally?

Knowing the ins and outs of subordinate clauses can improve your writing. In this lesson, we’ll take a look at the various rules governing subordinate clauses and discuss how you can properly use them when you write.


Big Question

What are subordinate clauses, and how can I use them effectively?

Read: What is a Subordinate Clause?


DecorativeIn order to better understand what a subordinate clause is, we must first learn the definition of clause. A clause is a set of words that contains both a subject and a verb.

Lucy owns a coffee shop.
I want to see a movie.

These clauses are complete sentences. All the information we need to understand what the writer intends is present.

Subordinate Clauses

However, there is a type of clause that also contains a subject and a verb but doesn’t finish a complete thought. It leaves us wanting or needing more information to understand what the writer is intending. These clusters of words are subordinate clauses; they are a set of words with a subject and verb that cannot function on its own.

Because the traffic was terrible
After the rain had stopped

These subordinate clauses – sometimes referred to as dependent clauses – contain both subjects and verbs, but they don’t give us the full picture or a complete thought. They are sentence fragments.

What happened because of the terrible traffic? Were you, or someone else, late to a meeting? Did you miss the start of a baseball game? Did your wife end up delivering your first-born child in the taxi because you couldn’t get to the hospital?

And, what happened after the rain stopped? Did the sun come out? Did you regret washing your car the day before? Did you see a double rainbow?

These clauses simply leave too many unanswered questions, which is what makes them subordinate.

This begs the question, what do we do with these subordinate clauses in order to complete the thought? We need to attach them to a main clause or independent clause.

Because the traffic was terrible, Frank and Nancy barely made their flight.
After the rain had stopped, Tommy went for a run around the park.

How do we identify a subordinate clause? Other than the fact that it doesn’t present a complete thought, a subordinate clause will always begin with a subordinate conjunction. Examples of subordinate conjunctions include:

in order to

It is perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with a subordinate conjunction so long as that dependent clause is followed by a main clause. If you’re writing a sentence that begins with a subordinate clause, you will use a comma to separate it from the independent clause.

Unless you want to be cold, you should wear a coat.
Before Sam goes to sleep, he brushes his teeth.

If the subordinate clause comes at the end of the sentence, a comma is usually unnecessary.

You should wear a coat unless you want to be cold.
Sam brushes his teeth before he goes to sleep.

Compound Complex Sentences

If a sentence has two independent clauses and a subordinate clause, it is called a compound complex sentence. While that term may be somewhat of a mouthful, these sentences are quite common in the English language.

DecorativeAs above, if the subordinate clause is at the beginning, it’s followed by a comma. A comma is also used between the two main clauses.

Unless you want to be cold, you should wear a coat, but really you should stay inside by the fire.
Before Sam goes to sleep, he brushes his teeth, then he sets out his clothes for the morning.

If the subordinate clause comes after one of the main clauses, no comma is needed, but a comma is still required between the two main clauses.

You should wear a coat unless you want to be cold, but really you should stay inside by the fireplace.
Sam brushes his teeth before he goes to sleep, then he sets out his clothes for the morning.

Reflect: A Matter of Personal Preference


When you use subordinate clauses, do you prefer for the main clause or the subordinate clause to come first?

Expand: More Fun with Subordinate Clauses

Different Types of Subordinate Clauses

Another way you can spot a subordinate clause is if it begins with a relative pronoun. Relative pronouns are words that connect clauses and phrases. There are only a few relative pronouns in the English language, and they include words such as:


When a subordinate clause begins with a relative pronoun, it can also be referred to as an adjective clause, because it then acts as an adjective to the main clause. Due to its beginning with a relative pronoun, this type of subordinate clause is often referred to as a relative clause.

The stew that has jalapenos is on the counter.

In this sentence, the phrase that has jalapenos is a subordinate clause – it has a subject (that) and a verb (has) – and it acts as an adjective by modifying the word stew.

DecorativeWith relative clauses, punctuation will depend on whether the clause is essential. Namely, if the clause is essential, no commas are required. Conversely, if the information contained in the clause is nonessential, then you will use commas.

In the example above, stew is a general noun. Its modifier that has jalapenos gives it a certain level of specificity and, thus, is essential to the sentence and doesn’t require commas to set it apart.

However, if we make the noun a specific – or proper – noun, we will need commas.

Famous Charlie’s Stew, that has jalapenos, is on the counter.

Subordinate clauses can also act as adverb clauses, modifying the verb of a main clause.

I jump before I look.

In this sentence, the phrase before I look is the subordinate clause – it has the subject I and the verb look – and it acts as an adverb by modifying the verb jump.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Subordinate Clause

An overview on subordinate clauses

What is a Subordinate Clause?

A definition of subordinate clauses and good examples of how to use them effectively

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • compound complex sentence
    a sentence that has two independent clauses and a subordinate clause
  • subordinate clause
    a set of words that contains a noun and a verb, but does not present a complete idea

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Oliver Shelton for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA

Media Sources

DecorativeClose Up of Coffee CupChevanon PhotographyPexelsPublic Domain
DecorativeWoman Snowflakes Winter ClothingKristin VogtPexelsPublic Domain
DecorativeKorean Stew Tofu Spicyrm673PixabayPublic Domain
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