Subordination in English: Adverbial (Adverb) Clauses
In English, every sentence must have at least one independent (main) clause. By definition, an independent (main) clause has a subject and a verb (or a predicate if the verb is transitive and takes an object) to make sense. As such, an independent clause/ sentence can stand alone:
Subject + Predicate = INDEPENDENT CLAUSE
Two independent clauses form a compound sentence. One independent and at least one dependent clause form a complex sentence. Two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause form a compound-complex sentence.
Roughly speaking, the clause-linking strategies in English are classified according to whether the clauses are parallel and equal (independent), nonparallel and unequal (subordinate), or parallel, unequal, and/or parenthetical (appositive), and whether they are linked with a conjunction(s) (as coordinated or subordinate clauses) or without any conjunction (as juxtaposed clauses).
As an overview, the table below summarizes the common patterns of linking constituents (words, phrases, or clauses) within a sentence:
(Makes Parallel & Equal)
I love you; you love me.
The practice has a long, controversial history.
I love you, and you love me.
The practice has a long and controversial history.
I’ll take either a bus or a taxi.
I’ll either call out or bang on the door or blow my whistle.
(Makes Nonparallel & Unequal)
I am here should you need me.
I am here for the routine physical checkup.
She is expected later today.
If you're clever, you can do anything.
I knew that running meant dying.
Mary, who lives in New York, is coming to visit.
(Makes Parallel, Unequal & Parenthetical)
The more, the merrier.
Close the door, will you?
Gary Jones, then a student, wrote several bestsellers.
Menlo Park, CA
the number five
John the Hairy
The United States of America, or America for short, is an empire in decline.
His explanation, that he couldn't see the car, is unsatisfactory.
The practice has a long, and controversial, history.
Juxtaposed, conjunction-less clause-linking of equal elements is rhetorically known as asyndetic parataxis, and it’s less common in English than syndetic parataxis—the style of linking clauses using coordinating conjunctions. English has a strong preference for the latter style.
Furthermore, asyndetic hypotaxis (connecting unequal elements through juxtaposition) describes the style of linking of hierarchically ordered, subordinate elements without any conjunction. Like in many other languages, English has a limited use of such constructions, which are typically used in formal context.
Finally, syndetic hypotaxis means using conjunctions for clause-linking characterized by subordination—by far the most common way of connecting clauses to produce complex sentences or compound-complex sentences.
Dependent clauses in English are structurally either finite (i.e., identical in form to main clauses) or reduced finite, i.e., nonfinite (or verbless). Dependent finite clauses are typically structured as nominal, relative, or adverbial clauses. In their reduced nonfinite forms, English dependent clauses are used as verbal clauses, with or without conjunctions, including gerunds, to-infinitives, past -ed and present -ing participial clauses, absolute, small, and verbless clauses. Although rarely used in speech, verbals are a staple of formal English writing.
Finite Clauses vs. Reduced Finite Clauses
All clauses are either finite or nonfinite. While only finite clauses can be main, both finite and nonfinite clauses can be dependent. Moreover, nonfinite clauses can only be dependent.
Finite clauses are those that have finite verbs: e.g., takes, took, can work, has worked, is writing, was written:
We can move in together if you are being transferred here.
Nonfinite clauses have verbs that are nonfinite: e.g., to work, having worked, taken, knowing.
Deciding on the tasks is to solve half of the problems. [= If you decide on the tasks, you can solve half of the problems.]
There are also verbless clauses, which are also nonfinite or reduced finite clauses with predicatives instead of verbs:
Although always helpful, he was not much liked. [= Although he was always helpful, he was not much liked.]
Clause Structures in English
English clauses can be classified by their structure:
Subject + Verb (intransitive) Subject + Verb (transitive) + Object
The kids | are swimming. The students | are swimming | the long distance.
Subject + Verb (linking) + Subject Complement Subject + Verb (transitive) + Indirect Object
The kids | are | happy. Laura | called | me.
The students | feel | happy.
Subject + Verb (trans.) + Indir. Object + Dir. Object Subject + Verb (intr.) + Object + Preposit. Complement
The kids | made | me | a cake. He | informed | us | of the robbery.
Subject + Verb (trans.) + Object + Object Complement
This | made | us | happy.
Sentence Structures in English
English differentiates between four types of sentences:
Simple sentences = one independent clauses
Compound sentences = two independent clauses
Complex sentences = one independent clause + one dependent clause
Compound-complex sentences = two independent clauses + one dependent clause + ...
⦁ Nominal clauses ⦁ Verbal clauses
⦁ Adjectival clauses ⦁ Small clauses (reduced that-clause)
The kids like trains. For he is a jolly good fellow.
verbal sentence nominal sentence
He is neither sane nor brilliant. His hobby is collecting old photographs.
adjectival sentence gerund sentence
They made the professor forget his notes. You must book early to secure a seat.
with bare infinitive with to-infinitive
What made me happy was seeing you. Susan found the job very difficult.
nominal sentence with a wh-clause and a gerund predicative small sentence
In the lumen of the large intestine, inulin becomes a source of nutrition for saprophytes and beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, and also retains fluid in the lumen of the intestine.
The comma before the second verb, although grammatically incorrect, is used to make it easier to read.
There are no rattlesnakes in this canyon, or so our guide tells us.
John plays basketball well, yet his favorite sport is badminton.
The tourists huddled in the shade, for it had been a long, hot day.
They lost the war; consequently, their whole country was occupied.
The law has at last passed: nest year, all cars will be tested for environmental compliance.
⦁ Nominal clauses ⦁ Adverbial clauses
⦁ Relative clauses ⦁ Comparative clauses
⦁ to-Infinitive clause ⦁ Bare infinitive clause
⦁ Past participle -ed clause ⦁ Absolute clause
⦁ Present participle -ing clause ⦁ Verbless clause
I'll ring you again before I leave. He bought me a lovely gift, which he couldn't really afford.
When you leave, please close the door. Paul was an hour late because he missed the train.
I'll be there at nine if I can catch the early train. This is a lot more difficult than I expected.
The old lady driving the horse was dressed in black. Much discouraged, I moved on to Philadelphia.
He didn’t recognize her at first, not having seen her for years. Left to himself, he usually gets the job done quickly.
Compound-Complex (Complex-Compound) Sentences
Embedded Relative Clause:
[Natalya’s sister, [who is younger], graduated from Lincoln High School], and [Natalya graduated from Oxford University].
Embedded Adverbial Clause:
[Laura forgot her friend's birthday], [but, [when she finally remembered], she sent her a card].
Embedded Nonfinite Clause:
[Laura doesn’t know [how to bake bread]], so [she buys it already made].
Multiple Embedded Clauses:
He said [that, [if, [when you’ve finished], you’d close the door], he’d be very grateful].
Ads & Marketing Exclamations Spoken Language
What a pity! You and your headaches! You fool.
No taxation without representation. Nice try, Eddy! Got it.
Open Monday through Friday. No way! For example, this one.
20% off any item! Why not? Because I said so.
Clause-Linking Strategies in English
As I showed above, the major clause-linking strategies in English are based on:
1. Parataxis (Coordination or Juxtaposition):
Linking clauses of parallel and equal status ⟶ compound sentence
Coordination (with conjunctions) (syndetic parataxis) (+ punctuation)
Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asyndetic parataxis) (+ punctuation)
2. Hypotaxis (Subordination or Juxtaposition):
Linking clauses of nonparallel and unequal status ⟶ complex sentence
Subordination (with conjunctions) (syndetic hypotaxis) (+ punctuation)
Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asyndetic hypotaxis) (+ punctuation)
3. Apposition (Quasi-Coordination or Juxtaposition):
Adding a parallel, unequal, and parenthetical, supplemental structure ⟶ complex sentence
Quasi-coordination (with conjunctions) through interruption (asides, afterthoughts) (+ punctuation)
Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asides, afterthoughts) (+ punctuation)
Finite Subordination in English: Four Main Types of Dependent Clauses in English
The table below provides an overview of the typical dependent clauses constructed with FINITE verbs and related subordinators used in English (with the multiple-use subordinators marked with asterisk*):
Here is the more detailed account of the use of relative clauses in English. Check my other post on the remaining causes-linking strategies in the English language.
Finite Subordination (Hypotaxis)
Adverbial Clauses with Conjunction↡
Like adverbs, adverbial clauses can indicate such concepts as time, place, manner, purpose, cause, result, condition, contrast, concession, etc., using the subordinating conjunctions after, although, as, because, before, if, since, unless, when, while, etc.
The canonical (neutral, default, unmarked) order of an English sentence must start with the subject followed by the verb. If the verb is transitive, then it takes an object:
Canonical Simple Sentence = SUBJECT + VERB + OBJECT
I finished my popcorn.
Subject Verb Object
These three elements constitute the core of any English sentence, which must remain undisrupted (not broken) with any unrelated words or punctuation, so that the sentence makes sense. The core should also preferably remain at the beginning of the sentence with any additional and supplemental details added after the core.
Finally-Positioned Adverbial Clause (Canonical)
In English complex sentences, finite subordinate clauses have their own subjects, just like main clauses. In a canonical complex sentence, to preserve the initial position of the main clause’s subject, the subordinate clause is placed after the main clause. In other words, in complex sentences with the canonical (neutral) word order, the subordinate clause is positioned finally:
MAIN CLAUSE + before SUBORDINATE CLAUSE
[I had finished my popcorn] [before the movie started].
Main Clause Subordinate Clause
When reading such a sentence, the subordinating conjunction (when, before, if, where, as soon as, while, since, etc.) tells us that there is a dependent clause added to the main clause, while signalling where the main clause ends and the dependent clause starts.
🚩 In English, canonical structures should remain unmarked, so no punctuation should interrupt the core of a canonical sentence with an adverbial clause. The subordinating conjunction is sufficient to signal the boundary between the clauses.
Initially-Positioned (Fronted) Adverbial Clause (Noncanonical)
Canonically, the finally-positioned adverbial clause receives the neutral focus-stress, typically providing new information. However, if we want to shift the emphasis by topicalizing the adverbial clause—to connect it with the previous sentence or to contrast it in the discourse—we place the adverbial subordinate clause before the main clause as part of the process called fronting:
Before SUBORDINATE CLAUSE ❟ + MAIN CLAUSE
[Before the movie started], [I had finished my popcorn].
Subordinate Clause Main Clause
In English, fronting tends to trigger the use of an introductory comma, which also functions as a subject-marking comma, signalling that there is an element(s) preceding the subject of the sentence (main clause) and marking where such an element ends and the subject starts.
In this case, the subject-marking introductory comma the marks the boundary between the subordinate and the main clauses. Placed right before the subject of the main clause, the comma signals the disruption of the canonical order of the sentence and guides us towards the core of the sentence.
In English, fronting triggers the use of a subject-marking introductory comma, which signals that the order of the sentence is irregular and helps us locate the main subject of the sentence.
So, when reading such a sentence, the initial subordinating conjunction immediately tells us that we are dealing with an adverbial clause in a complex sentence and should be looking for a comma that marks the boundary between the clauses as well as the position of the subject of the main clause.
Medially-Positioned (Interrupting) Adverbial Clause (Noncanonical)
An adverbial clause can also be positioned medially, which means that it interrupts the main clause. Any element that interrupts the linear flow of a clause should be isolated (set off, enclosed) with a pair of punctuation marks—commas, dashes, or parentheses—as a parenthetical element:
MAIN ... + ❟ before SUBORDINATE CLAUSE ❟ + ... CLAUSE
[I got my popcorn and, [before the movie started], devoured it all].
Main Clause Subordinate Clause Main Clause
I got my popcorn and (before the movie started) devoured it all.
Embedded and Matrix Clauses
The interrupting subordinate clause has a special name, embedded, to differentiate it from a regular subordinate clause. The clause that has another clause embedded within it is called matrix (to differentiate it from the main clause).
The main and matrix clauses may or may not coincide because subordination is recursive, which means that subordinate clauses can have their own subordinate clauses. So, if in a sentence a subordinate clause is embedded within another subordinate clause, such sentence would have a main clause and a matrix clause.
Integral, Peripheral & Parenthetical Clauses
Canonical adverbial clauses are essential and integral to the meaning of the main clause, and their canonical position is after the main clause. Therefore, integral adverbial clauses in the sentence-final position should not be marked by any punctuation:
[I will call you] [when I am in the city].
Noncanonical adverbial clauses are typically marked with punctuation to signal the disruption of the canonical word order and to guide us toward the subject of the main clause:
[When I am in the city], [I will call you].
The boundaries of the English noncanonical adverbial clauses are marked with a subordinating conjunction on one end and a comma on the other end.
Adverbial clauses can also be semantically peripheral or pragmatically parenthetical, which should be accordingly marked with punctuation.
Integral, peripheral, and parenthetical adverbial clauses tend to differ semantically and/or pragmatically:
Integral Clauses & Primary Uses: Integral clauses are semantically closely related to the event described in the main clause, expressing the agent’s point of view (POV).
Peripheral Clauses & Secondary Uses: Peripheral clauses are semantically less closely related to the main clause’s event, often used as a reminder of the previous discourse, as a backgrounded topic, or as a supplemental afterthought. Other peripheral uses of adverbial clauses include those marking contrast or concession.
Parenthetical (Comment) Clauses: Pragmatically parenthetical comment clauses comment on what is said in the main clause from the speaker’s point of view (POV).
Primary (Integral) Clauses vs. Secondary (Peripheral) Uses
In historical literature, it is commonly assumed that subordinate clauses are derived from paratactic (juxtaposed) sentences, which narrated the events as they linearly developed in time. Therefore, linguists believe the initial (primary) uses of subordinating conjunctions were temporal.
Some temporal and other subordinating conjunctions (since, as, so that, when, while) eventually acquired secondary (and even tertiary) uses, which are peripherally (semantically less closely) related to the main clause’s event. To distinguish their primary and secondary uses, grammarians instruct that the non-primary uses be marked with punctuation (comma, dash), whether they are sentence-initial or sentence-final.
The use of punctuation is additionally warranted by the semantic and intonational difference.
Focusing Test: Integral vs. Peripheral Uses
Only integral clauses can be focused, i.e., provide new information, which cannot be peripheral or parenthetical. To verify this focusing property, we can use focusing devices, including the it-cleft focusing test.
The focusing ability of it-clefts is a useful tool for distinguishing integral (essential) adverbial clauses from peripheral (loosely related) ones. To distinguish them from the primary uses in semantically integral clauses, grammarians instruct that the non-primary uses be marked with commas, whether they are in the beginning or at the end of the sentence.
Integral vs. Peripheral Clauses:
Because vs. Since Reason-Clauses
For example, the because-clause below informs us for the first time of the reason for the main action:
He called you [because he was worried].
With since instead of because, the adverbial clause loses its emphasis and reads as a reminder of the reason for the main action (i.e., as a backgrounded topic):
He called you, [since he was worried].
focus backgrounded topic
We can verify this backgrounding aspect of the since-clause by using the it-cleft focusing test:
It is because he was worried that he called you.
*It is since he was worried that he called you.
The primary use of since is temporal, which means that it should be focalized when used to express the time passed since a certain point of time:
He has not called us [since his wife left him]. [= He has not called us since the time when his wife left him.]
It is [since his wife left him] that he has not called us.
Primary (Integral) Uses of Adverbial Clauses
Time/ Place/ Cause/ Reason/ Purpose/ Manner/ Purpose of Avoidance/ Result/ Condition/ Subjunctive Condition / Degree
Primary Integral Uses
after because as if before
before if so that lest
once in case