“Discourse consists of multiple independent clauses, and the good writer marks the junctures between them according to an intended meaning and emphasis.”

~John Dawkins, “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool”

“It takes two to make a thing go right.” It also takes two things to make a sentence: a subject and a predicate. The subject is the main noun and the predicate is the main verb that goes with it. I run. She laughed. That’s all it takes! 

This combo is called a clause, and a sentence can have as many of them as you like. Some clauses are independent, which means they’re adult enough to live alone if they want. Dependent clauses, however, are like kids who need to be attached to a grown-up independent clause like a guardian. Either way, they can keep it simple with just the subject and predicate in each clause or they can fill the rest of the clause with all kinds of extras if they want.

Professional Examples

independent clauses 

  • She had never lost that childhood pleasure in seeing pages covered in her own handwriting.

~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement

  • Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • Today is evaluation day in my Freud class, and everything has changed.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterward would not let him go.

~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement

  • The authors also share an attitudethey do not hide the passion and relish that drive them to tell us about their subjects.

~from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

  • Empathy is connection; its a ladder out of the shame hole.

~from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

  • He drove a snowplow and did carpentry all his life,” Arthur said. Miranda wasn’t sure what to say to thisshe’d known what Arthur’s father’s occupations were—but Arthur didn’t seem to require a response.

~from Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

  • Nothing about the harsh landscape differed from other winters.

~from David McCullough’s John Adams

  • The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. We have so much we want to say and figure out.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • Practice courage and reach out!

~from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

dependent clauses (joined to independent clauses)

  • How does a writer manage to turn out such tortuous syntax? It happens WHEN he shovels phrase after phrase onto the page in the order in which each one occurs to him.

~from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

  • WHEN I talk with one of his other teachers, we run on about the general splendors of his work and presence.
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
  • WHILE the traditional grammar of style is okay for some topics and essays, Weathers feels that students should be told about alternate grammars of style to give them more options when writing.
~from Wendy Bishop’s Elements of Alternate Style

How Clauses Work

Independent clauses can be as short as two words:

Subject + predicate.

Sometimes they can even be less than two words if the subject is implied, such as in command form (Go! Drive! Stop!) where the subject (you) isn’t stated:

[You] + Predicate.

They can also have multiple words for each of those functions:

Complex subject + complex predicate.

They can also have extra information that is necessary to complete the clause:

Subject + predicate + necessary extra information.

These parts of a clause should not be separated by punctuation* because they need to stay together to form a complete thought, so it’s important to be conscious of your subject and predicate and necessary extras.

*There are a few exceptions, such as when you insert an interruption, series, or quote. See em dashes, parentheses, commas with interruptions, commas with series, and commas with quotations.

Our main punctuation marks belong between independent clauses:

independent clause [PUNCTUATION] independent clause

Independent clauses function independently, so we mark the boundaries between them to keep them separate. There are several options, depending on the effect you want:

  • a full stop (period, question mark, or exclamation point)—completes a sentence to give the reader time to stop and absorb that independent clause before moving on to the next
  • a semicolon—tells the reader that there’s an implied connection, such as compare/contrast or reiteration, between these independent clauses
  • a colon—acts like a drum roll showing that you’re about to explain the first independent clause a little more
  • an em dash—suggests a tangent or twist or important emphasis in the subsequent independent clause
  • a comma + conjunction (and, but, yet, for, or, nor, so, then)—creates a smooth transition between clauses that spells out the direct connection between them
  • a conjunction alone—unites the independent clauses by erasing all separation, breaks conventional rules in order to achieve this effect, usually with short clauses

Dependent clauses are dependent on independent clauses to become a complete sentence. They have a subject and a predicate, but they start with an extra word like when, while, because, if, etc, that makes it so they can’t stand alone. They can come before or after an independent clause. Usually there is no comma between the clauses when the dependent comes after, and usually there is a comma when the dependent clause comes before, but the comma is optional in both cases.

Independent clause because dependent clause.

When dependent clause, independent clause.

On this website I treat them as an interruption, since they are removable, so you can learn more about them on the “commas with interruptions” page.


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