This is my third week in a row writing about clauses. This is the last week. I promise. As I said last week, one secret of clear writing is to express action in clauses. But in our campaign for clarity, some clauses are more useful than others. Independent clauses and adverb clauses express action directly, whereas adjective and noun clauses are more likely to tuck action away.
I’m going to try to make this discussion as un-technical as I can. Wish me luck.
There are four kinds of clauses:
- independent clauses
- adverb clauses
- adjective clauses
- noun clauses
An independent clause, or main clause, can stand alone as a sentence. Here are two independent clauses:
- The squirrel raids my bird feeder.
- I am sad.
When you join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), you have a compound sentence:
- The squirrel raids my bird feeder, and I am sad.
- The squirrel raids my bird feeder, so I am sad.
An adverb clause looks exactly like a main clause, but it starts with a subordinating conjunction. Here’s a partial list of the subordinating conjunctions:
- as if
- as long as
- as much as
- as soon as
- as though
- even if
- even though
- if only
- if when
- if then
- in order that
- just as
- now that
- provided that
- so that
- where if
There’s no need to try to memorize that list. Without getting too technical, a subordinating conjunction, like a coordinating conjunction is a word (sometimes a phrase) that allows you to join a clause to another clause in a sentence. However, when you attach a subordinating conjunction to the front of an independent clause, suddenly that clause can no longer stand alone as a sentence.
So let’s go back to our two independent clauses above, and combine them using a couple of different subordinating conjunctions:
- When the squirrel raids my bird feeder, I am sad.
- I am sad because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
Those subordinating conjunctions when and because turn the independent clause “The squirrel raids my bird feeder” into a dependent clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. These are now sentence fragments:
- When the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
- Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
But for our purposes, I’m not interested in the differences between independent clauses and adverb clauses. I’m much more interested in the similarities. An adverb clause is simply an independent clause with a subordinating conjunction in front of it. When it comes to writing clear sentences, an adverb clause is as good as an independent clause, and often better, since those subordinating conjunctions offer so many nuances of meaning.
That leaves adjective clauses and noun clauses. Even though they have a subject-verb nexus, these clause types do not add clarity as readily as independent and adverb clauses do.
Here’s where I’m really in danger of getting overly technical, so I’m going to err on the side of oversimplifying. Adjective and noun clauses start with relative pronouns. Here are the seven most common relative pronouns:
There are other relative pronouns, but these seven signal the overwhelming majority of adjective and noun clauses. So whenever you see a clause that begins with a w-word or “that,” you probably have an adjective or noun clause. (The w-words “when” and “whenever” are exceptions: they often signal adverb clauses, as in this previous sentence.) An adjective clause acts as an adjective modifying the noun immediately before it, whereas a noun clause acts like a noun, which means it can be a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, an object of a preposition, a complement, or an appositive.
Consider this sentence:
- The squirrel that raids my bird feeder makes me sad.
The clause “that raids my bird feeder” is an adjective clause modifying “squirrel.” It specifies which squirrel we’re talking about.
Now consider this sentence:
- I am angry at whoever has been raiding my bird feeder.
The clause “whoever has been raiding my bird feeder” is a noun clause serving as the object of the preposition “at.”
Neither the above adjective clause nor the above noun clause is especially egregious. But I do want to show you a couple of sentences that illustrate how adjective and noun clauses can add unnecessary complexity, and how changing those clauses to main clauses and/or adverb clauses can smooth that complexity back out.
Here’s a sentence from a recent fiction workshop:
- Millie Watson has stacks of ancient photos that she’s eagerly passing around, cautioning us not to touch them with our “sticky fingers.”
There’s nothing disastrous about that sentence. But it could be a little tighter. As we’ve discussed the last couple of weeks, it helps to ask where the real action in a sentence is, and to express that action as a main clause or an adverb clause. In this case, there are two main actions: 1) Millie is passing around photos, and 2) Millie is cautioning people not to touch them with their sticky fingers. But Action 1 is tucked away in an adjective clause (“that she’s eagerly passing around”) and Action 2 is expressed as a participial phrase. The only verb is “has,” which is not an especially interesting verb, given everything else that’s going on here.
Look how much tighter this sentence is when we move one of the main actions into a main clause:
- Millie Watson eagerly passes a stack of ancient photos around the room, cautioning us not to touch them with our “sticky fingers.”
Here’s another sentence that a recent fiction workshopper worked through:
- Only the priests cared that Nurbal had been escaping these vigils as long as he’d been a captive of the nomads.
The point of this sentence is especially hard to discern out of context (though this grammar was pretty hard to parse even incontext). But here’s what is going on in this sentence: Nurbal has been skipping out on the religious rituals of his captors (who happen to be nomad-priests of a goddess), but the only result of his truancy has been that the priests have gotten mad; the goddess has never stricken him, though the priests always threaten that she will.
The most interesting action in this sentence–Nurbal ducking out of the vigils–is tucked away in the “that” clause. Let’s bring it out into the light of a main clause:
- Nurbal had been escaping these vigils for as long as the nomads had held him captive. But the goddess never seemed to care. Only the priests cared.
Greater clarity doesn’t necessarily mean fewer words, as this revision demonstrates. At 27 words, the revision is six words (29%) longer than the 21-word original.
The act of clarifying and simplifying, almost by definition, is the act of translating actions of a sentence into main clauses and/or adverb clauses. This is a skill that will transform your writing.