Understand sentences and clauses in English and what you need to know to master them

Understand sentences and clauses in English and what you need to know to master them

Published: Nov 28, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver

Once you get past the problems of learning basic English grammar and you start to actually write in English on a daily basis, it won’t take long until you start to run into a whole new set of problems that frustrate you.

Before you were only focused on learning the words you didn’t know and how to conjugate verbs. But now you start to notice that, while you know the words to say, the way say things in sentences sounds choppy or a little hard to read. 

You see the writing from native English speakers and you’re impressed by its flow and how easy it is to read. 

If your writing doesn’t read as easily as this, you might have a problem with the way you’re structuring your sentences.

Whether you are writing an essay, article, story, or business report, constructing proper and well-crafted sentences is crucial to make sure people can actually read and understand your writing. 

Sentences are the building blocks of writing that allow you to clearly communicate ideas and information to your readers. 

Understanding the concepts of clauses and using a mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences will make your writing more engaging and have the flow that you need to get people to read longer texts without feeling exhausted.

But before you can start mastering and adaptign different English sentence structures to your needs, you’ll first need to master the use of clauses and making complete sentences.

Sentences and clauses: the foundation for effective English writing

Sentences and clauses are basic building blocks of language that allow us to express complete thoughts.

A sentence is a set of words with a subject and predicate that conveys a complete idea. 

A clause is a part of a sentence containing a subject and verb. Clauses can be sentences on their own or parts of longer sentences.

Understanding sentences and clauses is helpfull for language learners for several reasons:

  • It allows you to construct sentences properly so ideas are communicated clearly.

  • You can avoid common errors like fragments, run-ons, and comma splices.

  • Recognizing different types of clauses enables you to vary your sentence structure.

  • Combining clauses creates more complex sentences that improve flow and reduce repetition.

  • Proper punctuation use with clauses enhances readability and comprehension.

In short, sentences and clauses are the basis for communicating ideas in writing and speech and they lead to a strong grasp of sentence structure principles that will enable you to enjoy clear and effective communication.

what is the difference between a clause and a sentence in english

This quick overview just touches on the basics of understanding sentences and clauses, but there's so much more to learn about writing compelling sentences that clearly communicate your ideas.

In my online course, "Mastering English Writing Fluency", I dig deeper into sentence structure in English. You'll learn:

  • The anatomy of sentences and clauses covered comprehensively

  • Techniques for avoiding common grammatical errors

  • How to punctuate properly with commas and semicolons

  • Ways to combine clauses to add sentence variety

  • Fixing sentence fragments and run-on sentences

  • Practice activities to reinforce your sentence writing skills

And so much more. This course will take your sentence writing abilities to the next level. You'll gain confidence in constructing well-formed, articulate sentences that engage readers.

Join me in "Mastering English Writing Fluency" to become a confident and proficient writer. 

This quick overview is just a snippet of what you'll master. Register for the course today to start down your path towards English writing fluency.

Now, let’s dive into all the details you need to know about sentences and clauses.

The Anatomy of a Sentence

A sentence is a set of words that expresses a complete thought. Sentences are made up of a subject and predicate. The subject refers to the person, place, or thing the sentence is about. 

The predicate contains the verb and provides more information about the subject. Sentences end with punctuation like a period, question mark, or exclamation point.

Well-structured sentences make your writing clear and engaging. Let's break down the parts of a sentence in more detail.

The Purpose of a Sentence

Sentences serve an important purpose in writing - they communicate ideas clearly. Sentences express complete thoughts and provide information to readers. Using complete sentences prevents confusion and keeps your writing organized.

Each sentence should contain:

  • A subject - the noun performing the action

  • A verb - the action word

  • A complete thought - the entire idea you want to convey

Constructing proper sentences is crucial for getting your message across to readers. Sentences tie your writing together into a cohesive whole.

What is a Complete Sentence?

A complete sentence expresses a complete thought and contains a subject and verb. Here are some examples of complete sentences:

  • The dog barked at the mailman.

  • Jane went to the store.

  • The blue car sped down the street.

All of these sentences contain a clear subject (the dog, Jane, the blue car) and verb (barked, went, sped).

An easy trick to check if a sentence is complete is to see if it makes sense on its own. If you read a complete sentence alone, the idea should be clearly conveyed without needing additional context. Fragments and sentence stubs that lack a subject or verb will leave you hanging.

Some examples of incomplete sentences:

  • Went to the park.

  • The cute puppy.

  • Sped down.

These fragments don't express a full thought. A complete sentence is needed to clarify who went to the park, what the puppy did, and what sped down.

What is a Run-on Sentence?

In contrast to complete sentences that express a single complete thought, run-on sentences improperly join multiple ideas together.

A run-on sentence fails to use appropriate punctuation or conjunctions to separate disparate ideas. This makes the sentence awkward and difficult to understand.

Here are some examples of run-on sentences:

  • Jane went to the store she purchased milk and eggs at the grocery store.

  • The dog ran through the yard he was chasing a squirrel.

  • Tyler took out the trash he forgot to put on shoes.

These run-ons cram together multiple events or ideas that should be broken into separate sentences using punctuation or conjunctions like "and" or "but."

Some ways to fix run-on sentences:

  • Use a period to separate the ideas into two sentences

  • Add a comma plus a conjunction to create a compound sentence

  • Use a semi-colon between independent clauses

Let's avoid run-on sentences in our writing by remembering to break sentences in two when switching between ideas or events. This creates clearer, more readable content.

how to learn sentences and clauses

Understanding Clauses

Clauses are important structural elements that make up sentences. Understanding different types of clauses and how they function can improve your sentence writing.

What is a Clause?

A clause contains a subject and verb but may not express a complete thought. Here are some examples of clauses:

  • After it rained

  • The dog that was barking loudly

  • Who were yelling

Clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction like “after,” “when,” or “because,” or a relative pronoun like “who” or “which.” They depend on context from an independent clause to form a full sentence.

The Different Types of Clauses in English

Several types of clauses serve different roles within a sentence. The main types are independent clauses, dependent clauses, adjective clauses, and adverb clauses.

Independent clauses can stand alone as complete sentences because they express a complete thought. Dependent clauses cannot stand alone and need to be connected to an independent clause.

Adjective clauses modify a noun in the sentence to describe it in more detail. Adverb clauses provide context like time, place, manner, or reason.

Understanding how different clauses function allows you to vary your sentence structure, reduce repetition, and improve the flow of your writing. 

Use a mix of independent and dependent clauses, and adjective and adverb clauses, to add complexity to your sentences.

Independent Clauses

Independent clauses are complete sentences that express a complete thought and can stand alone. They are one of the most important sentence elements to understand.

An independent clause contains the main subject and verb of a sentence. It conveys a complete idea without needing any additional context. For example:

  • The dog barked loudly at the passerby.

This independent clause clearly expresses the idea that the dog barked. We know the full context without needing any more information.

Independent clauses contrast with dependent clauses, which cannot stand alone as sentences. Independent clauses can be combined with dependent clauses to form complex sentences with additional descriptive details.

Here are some more examples of independent clauses:

  • Jane prepared intensively for the big presentation.

  • The brand new blue sports car sped recklessly through the busy intersection.

Take note that each of these clauses contains a clear subject performing an action. The clauses make complete sense when read on their own without additional context.

When writing and speaking, be sure to construct complete independent clauses to express your ideas fully. Avoid sentence fragments by including a subject and verb in an independent clause. Use independent clauses on their own or in combination with other clauses to vary sentence structure.

clauses and sentences guide

Dependent Clauses

Dependent clauses are important elements that add additional details to independent clauses. However, dependent clauses cannot stand alone as complete sentences.

A dependent clause contains a subject and verb but does not express a full thought. It requires connection to an independent clause to be meaningful.

For example:

  • After the rainstorm ended

This dependent clause leaves us wondering - what happened after the rainstorm ended? We need more information to understand the full context.

Here are some more examples of dependent clauses:

  • Because the weather was gloomy and rainy

  • The cute puppy who was following behind me

  • Although the kids were disappointed

Notice how each of these dependent clauses starts with a subordinating word like "because", "who", or "although" without expressing a complete idea.

To make a dependent clause into a full sentence, connect it to an independent clause that conveys the complete thought:

  • After the rainstorm ended, we went outside to play.

  • Because the weather was gloomy and rainy, we stayed inside and watched movies.

In these sentences, the independent clauses clarify what happened after the rainstorm and why we stayed inside.

Use dependent clauses wisely to add interesting descriptive details to your writing without making sentences too lengthy or confusing.

Identifying Independent and Dependent Clauses

Knowing how to identify independent and dependent clauses is an important skill for understanding sentence structure. Here are some tips for distinguishing between the two:

To identify an independent clause:

  • Read the clause by itself and check if it expresses a complete thought. If the idea seems finished, it is likely an independent clause.

  • Look for a subject and verb that completes the thought. The presence of a clear actor and action indicates an independent clause.

  • Watch for clue words at the start like "because," "when," or "although." These signal a dependent clause is coming.

To identify a dependent clause:

  • Check if the clause leaves you wanting more information to understand the idea fully. If it raises questions, it’s likely a dependent clause.

  • Look for subordinating conjunctions like “while,” “because,” “if,” or relative pronouns like “who,” “which,” or “that.” These signal a dependent clause.

  • Determine if the clause can stand alone as a sentence. If not, it is a dependent clause requiring an independent clause.

definition of sentences and clauses

Introductory Clauses

On top of dependent and independent clauses, you also have introductory clauses.

Introductory clauses are a type of dependent clause that provides background context at the beginning of a sentence.

What is an Introductory Clause?

An introductory clause comes before an independent clause and ends with a comma. It provides context by answering questions like where, when, why, or under what conditions.

Here are some examples of introductory clauses:

  • After the rainstorm passed, the sky became bright and sunny.

  • Because he was feeling ill, John decided to leave work early.

  • While on vacation in Mexico, Jeff tried snorkeling for the first time.

These introductory clauses set the scene by describing when or why an event happened, but cannot stand on their own as sentences. The comma signals the separation between the introductory clause and main independent clause.

Introductory clauses add important context and variety at the beginning of sentences. However, use them in moderation to avoid making your sentences too long or difficult to read.

A mix of simple and complex sentences keeps your writing engaging.

Relative Clauses

Relative clauses are a type of dependent clause that modify a noun. Getting familiar with relative clauses can improve your sentence structure skills.

What is a Relative Clause?

A relative clause starts with a relative pronoun like who, whom, whose, which, or that. It modifies a noun by providing descriptive details about it.

Here are some examples of relative clauses:

  • The cake that was on the counter looked delicious.

  • The man who was wearing a red shirt helped me.

  • The house whose roof was blue was on the corner.

In these sentences, the relative clauses provide more detail about "the cake", "the man", and "the house".

Relative clauses allow you to condense two sentences into one, reducing repetition. For example:

  • The cake looked delicious. The cake was on the counter.

Becomes:

  • The cake that was on the counter looked delicious.

Why Learn About Relative Clauses?

Understanding how to use relative clauses allows you to:

  • Condense sentences by combining information

  • Avoid repetition

  • Add descriptive details to nouns

  • Create complex and varied sentence structures

Incorporating relative clauses helps make your writing more engaging and advanced. They allow you to pack more information into fewer sentences.

what are sentences and clauses

Sentences and clauses don’t have to be complicated

To recap, sentences and clauses are the building blocks of writing in English. As you learned, a complete sentence expresses a full thought with a subject and verb. 

Clauses also have a subject and verb but may not convey a complete idea.

We covered the various types of clauses that serve different roles, including independent, dependent, adjective, and adverb clauses. 

Understanding these core sentence structure concepts allows you to articulate ideas clearly and make your writing more engaging.

With the knowledge from this post, you can punctuate properly, avoid fragments and run-ons, and combine clauses to vary your sentences. Implementing good sentence construction will make your essays, articles, stories, and other writing much stronger.

I hope you've gained a foundation on sentences and clauses in English from this post. 

Use this as a reference as you seek to improve your sentence writing skills.

While this post has a ton of information, remember there’s a difference between consuming information and processing it. 

To really master English sentences so you can write in English in a persuasive and engaging way that impresses even native speakers, be sure to check out my online course "Mastering English Writing Fluency".

It’s packed with simple and easy-to-understand explanations for all these topics, and it comes with online exercises that make sure you actually process the information so you can use it later when you need it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What's the difference between a sentence and a clause?

A: A sentence expresses a complete thought and can stand alone, while a clause contains a subject and verb but may not express a full idea.

Q: What makes a sentence complete?

A: A complete sentence needs to have a subject, verb, and fully expressed thought. It should be able to stand alone and make sense without additional context.

Q: How can I fix sentence fragments?

A: Turn fragments into complete sentences by adding a subject, verb, or missing context needed to express the full thought.

Q: What causes a run-on sentence?

A: Run-ons improperly join multiple ideas together without proper punctuation or conjunctions. Separate run-on sentences into shorter sentences.

Q: What are the types of clauses?

A: The main clause types are independent, dependent, relative, adjective, and adverb clauses.

Q: How do I improve my sentence-writing skills?

A: Read high-quality writing, learn grammar rules, practice varying structures, get feedback, and take my “Mastering English Writing Fluency” course!

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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