The easiest way to understand Clauses and their functions (with examples).

By | December 11, 2021



A Clause is a combination or a group of words containing a verb and a subject matching it. Simply put, it is a group of words with a finite verb or a complete verb (a finite verb always has a subject). This means that a single word cannot be a clause. According to this definition, a simple sentence is a clause. It contains a verb and its subject.


  • Bolt ran in the marathon.
  • Teachers pay tax.



Clauses differ from phrases; a clause has a subject and a verb but a phrase does not. Also, whereas clauses make some sense to us, phrases do not make sense at all. However, like a phrase, a clause is part of a sentence. Again, both are made up of groups of words, that is, more than one word.



Clauses may be classified into two main divisions or kinds namely: independent clauses and dependent clauses. Independent clauses are also known as main clauses. Dependent clauses are on the other hand known as subordinate clauses.

The notions of independence and dependence in relation to clauses stem from the fact that independent clauses can stand on their own and make complete meaning. On the other hand, dependent clauses, though they have finite or complete verbs, cannot, on their own, make complete sense. They need the support of other clauses to function.


  • I met John when I was in Paris.

Independent clause: I met John.

Dependent clausewhen I was in Paris.


  • The policeman who shot the robber is my friend.

Independent clause: The policeman… my friend.

Dependent clausewho shot the robber.


It can be realized clearly from the examples below that the dependent clauses  “when I was in Paris” and  “who shot the robber” that they do not make a complete thought or sense when written alone. They would therefore need the support of the independent clause to be whole.



Like phrases, clauses differ from one another depending on the grammatical elements they relate to. We can identify three main types of dependent clauses and their functions-noun clause, adjectival clause, and adverbial clause.



It is a combination of words with a complete or finite verb which functions as a noun. In other words, it refers to a subordinate clause which performs the work of a noun. Noun clauses answer the question what and they are usually introduced by the connectives: that (though can be left out), what, who, whoever, where, why etc.


  • Everybody knows that Abigail is pretty.

This is a noun clause because it is a group of words with a subject (Abigail) and a finite verb (is). Again it answers the question what does everybody know? or everybody knows what? And because the clause “Abigail is pretty” can answer the question perfectly, it is a noun clause. It has also been introduced by ‘that’.

  • That we need more teachers of English is obvious.

This is a clause because it has the subject ‘we’ and the verb ‘need’. The clause can answer the question what is obvious?



Like the noun and the noun phrase, the noun clause performs five main functions and these are discussed below:

  1. As subject of the verb: Here the clause usually begins the sentence and it is followed by the verb or verb phrase.




  • What James discussed with me is untrue.


This is a noun clause because it has a subject (James) and the verb (discussed). It answers the question what is untrue? It functions as the subject of the verb ‘is’. Remember to put the verb in quotation marks).

  • Whether the examination will come off or not remains uncertain.

It functions as subject of the verb ‘remains’.


  1. b) As object of the verb: This is where the noun clause appearing in the predicate position is preceded by a verb which is an action verb or a verb which makes sense or meaning to us.


  • “…then we’ll know we are safe.”

This is a noun clause because it has a subject (we) and the verb (are) and it answers the question we’ll know what? or what will we know?

  • Our lecturer has told us (that) he is leaving.

The noun clause is the direct object of the verb (told). It answers the question told us what? Even if the word ‘that’  is left out, “he is leaving” is still a subordinate noun clause, not a main clause.



  1. As complement of the verb: This is where the clause appearing in the predicate position is preceded by a verb, which is not an action verb or which does not make sense or meaning to us. complement means to complete so the clause merely completes the idea partially expressed by the verb. Some of the verbs which help us to identity that it is complement and not an object include: is, were, was, seems, appears, claims etc.



  • It seems (that) he will accept her.

The noun clause functions as complement of the verb ‘seems’ because the type of verb is not an action one and does not make sense or meaning to us.

  • What annoyed the chief was (that) they showed no remorse.

It functions as complement of the verb ‘was’.


NOTE: Do not get confused with the functions as object of the verb and as complement of the verb. Just distinguish between the two by looking at the kind of verb which comes before the underlined clause/phrase.

(d) As an apposition: A noun clause may also function as an apposition. This is where the noun clause is placed after another noun in order to tell us more about it. Here, the noun clause does not talk about a different noun apart from the one it follows; it just enlarges or tells us more about it. Note that, that-clauses often occur in apposition to nouns such as fact, rumour, idea, problem message, news, possibility, thought, view, opinion, information, statement, case, question, issue etc. E.g. The news that Jesus will come soon is a serious one.


  • Samuel is determined to go, despite the fact that his parents want him to stop.

Here the noun clause re-expresses the noun ‘fact’; it tells us what the fact was. So we can say that it functions in apposition to the noun ‘fact’. (Do not forget to bring the quotation marks)

  • The rumour that the notorious robber had been captured was untrue.

The noun clause functions in apposition to the noun ‘rumour’.

  • Jane, the renowned journalist who won the award, led the campaign.


 NOTE:  Do not confuse this function with those of adjectives. Adjectival clauses are usually introduced by relative pronouns such as that, who, whom, whose, which etc. and they answer the question which one? (among the lot), what kind?, or how many/how much ? They give additional information about a noun or a pronoun.

The noun clause/phrase on the other hand answers the question who or what?


(e) As object of the preposition: A noun clause also functions as object of the preposition. This is where the noun clause appearing in the predicate position is preceded by a preposition-such as to, for, on, with, from, about etc.


  • The minister saw to what the workers needed.

The clause modifies the preposition ‘to’.

  • The doctor agreed with the pharmacist for the drugs he prescribed.
  • Reasonable people do not mock at those who are poor.

It functions as object of the preposition ‘at’.



An adjectival clause refers to a subordinate clause used to give additional information about a noun or pronoun. Thus, it is a group of words with a finite verb which does the work of an adjective. An adjectival clause is usually introduced by the relative pronouns that, who, whom, whose, which, and they always come after the noun they describe or define. Such nouns are called the antecedents of the relative clause because they relate to the pronouns.

  • Example: Ships which seem so familiar to us now, were not invented till the present decade.

(‘Ships’ is the antecedent of the relative clause)

Note that sometimes the relative pronoun ‘that’ may be omitted.

  • Example: The lady we assisted is a Christian.

Note also that in some cases involving prepositions (such as ‘of’), the relative pronoun may slightly be delayed.

  • Example: The clothes most of which we had to sell, were not attractive.
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(This is still a relative clause describing the noun ‘clothes’)

Adjectival clauses are also called relative clauses. Adjectival/relative clauses answer the question which one? (among the lot), what kind?, how many/how much? (in some cases).



Two main types are identified and these are: Defining (Restrictive) clause and Non-Defining (Non-Restrictive) clause.


Defining (Restrictive) clauses are important parts of the main issue being put forward in the sentence; they define the pronouns or nouns being talked about in the sentence – thus making them more meaningful. The nouns in such sentences are not definite so without such clauses, the sentences do not make complete meaning.

NOTE: No commas (,) are placed after the nouns in this category.


  • Students who are disciplined always excel in class.

The defining relative/adjectival clause gives additional information about the noun ‘students’-(always remember to put the noun in quotation marks).

  • This is the lady who attracted everyone’s attention.

The defining relative/adjectival clause gives additional information about the noun’ lady’.



This type of clause does not form an important part of the main issue being put across, hence, it can be left out and the sentence will still be meaningful. Unlike the restrictive clause, this does not define the noun but merely adds details to the noun. Without it, the sentence can still make sense.

Non-defining (non-restrictive) clauses are placed after nouns that are definite (known) already.

NOTE: Commas (,) are placed after the nouns in this category.


  • Raymond, who has been eating all day has had stomach upset.

NOTE:  Since ‘Raymond’ is a definite noun, the sentence will still make complete sense even without the clause, thus “Amadu has had stomach upset”. We are not restricted to use the clause.

  • Gonorrhoea, that we have been discussing always is a dangerous disease.

 Here, without the clause, “Gonorrhoea is a dangerous disease” is still correct.




  • To state the function of an adjective or relative clause, indicate whether is defining (i.e. restrictive) clause or non-defining (i.e. non-restrictive) clause.
  • Do not just state “it is an adjectival clause” for the grammatical name without indicating the specific type.
  • Also, state the function thus: “it gives additional information about a noun (or sometimes a pronoun).”
  • Do not state “it modifies the noun or pronoun…”
  • Do not forget to put the noun (or the pronoun) on which additional information is being given in inverted commas(“ ”)



An adverbial clause is a subordinate clause which does the work of an adverb. Even though adverbs generally modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs, an adverbial clause particularly modifies the verb in the independent clause.

Since there are about eight kinds of adverbial clauses, it is important to know the question each of them asks and particular words which introduce them. Note that this is for the purpose of identifying the clause; you are not to state the type of adverbial clause in examination situations. This is because getting the type wrong gives you zero – just state ‘adverbial clause’.




(A) ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF PLACE: It answers the question where? and the key word is where but it may also be introduced by ‘wherever’.


  • Zachaeus stood where Jesus could see him.

This is an adverbial clause modifying the verb ‘stood’.

  • The students jubilate wherever there is food.

It modifies the verb ‘jubilate’.


NOTE: In some circumstances in which the word ‘where’ follows a noun, the clause may be an adjectival or relative.

  • Example: We are visiting a place where nobody can see us.

This is an adjectival/relative clause which modifies the noun ‘place’.


(B) ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF TIME: This clause answers the question when? Note also the key words and the expressions which introduce the clause: till, until, once, twice, before, last year, now, tomorrow etc.


  • Once they begin, they never know when to end.
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This is an adverbial clause because there is a subject (they) and a verb (begin); which a phrase can never have, which modifies the verb phrase ‘never know’. The question that it answers is when will they never know when to end?

  • The students entered just as the headmaster was about to leave for a meeting.

It modifies the verb ‘entered’.


(C) ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF REASON: It answers the question why?. It is introduced by the key words as, since, because. It is also called adverbial clause of cause.


  • As you are such an intelligent child, I expect you to take your studies seriously.

This is an adverbial clause which modifies the verb phrase ‘to take’.

  • The robber was jailed because his defense was rejected.

The subordinate clause modifies the verb phrase ‘was jailed’.


  1. D) ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF PURPOSE: The key words and expressions which introduce it include: in order that, so, in case. This clause answers questions such as and so what? , and to do what?.


  • Things shall be clearly explained in order that all students should understand.

It modifies the verb phrase ‘shall be clearly explained’.

  • I arrived at the station early so l could catch the bus.

It modifies the verb ‘arrived’.


E). ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF RESULT: This clause states the consequence or the outcome of an action or inaction. And so it answers the question what occurred? or happened? It is introduced by that, so, that”.

  • He missed several lectures that he failed the course.

It modifies the verb ‘missed’.

  • He lost all his belongings so that the community had to come to his rescue.

It modifies the verb ‘lost’.


F). ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF CONCESSION:  This is where something happens contrary to expectation. It answers questions such as despite what?, in spite of what? It is introduced by though, although.


NOTE: Words/expressions such as no matter, even if, whether (…or not), however, whatever; may also introduce such clauses, but as they are partly conditional, they are more accurately referred to as conditional concessive clauses.


  • Although he was sick, he completed the work. OR  Sick as he was, he completed the work.

 Both clauses modify the verb ‘completed’.


  • However drunk the man was, he found his way home.

                It modifies the verb ‘found’.


G). ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF CONDITION: It states the condition on which something occurs. It answers the question unless or what if? It is introduced by if, unless, provided that.


  • If he had eaten, the doctor would have injected him.

NOTE:If’ is sometimes replaced by inversion, such as had he eaten, the doctor would have injected him.

       It modifies the verb phrase ‘would have injected’.

  • There will be chaos unless something is done quickly for the students.

It modifies the verb ‘will’.


(H) ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF COMPARISON/DEGREE: It brings out the differences and similarities between persons or things and shows to what extent or how far something is. The key words which introduce such clauses include: as, than, that.


  • She is as pretty a lady as I have ever seen.

    It modifies the adjectival phrase ‘as pretty’.

  • Daniel wrote better than the teacher expected.

    It modifies the verb ’wrote’.

  • The germ was so small that I could hardly see it.

It modifies the adjectival phrase ‘so small’.


(I) ADVERBIAL CLAUSE OF MANNER: It answers the question how (an action occurs)? It is introduced by ‘as if’.


  • They entered as if something had happened.

It modifies the verb ‘entered’.

NOTE: ‘As’ alone is also used in this sense.

  • She screamed as a baby screams on receiving breast milk from the mother.

It modifies the verb ‘scream’.

NOTE: Do not use ‘like’ to introduce a full clause in this way, except in popular speech.

  • I instructed him to copy exactly as I wrote.

It modifies the verb phrase ‘to copy’.


NOTE: If you are asked to state the function of a grammatical construction in examination, it should be in a sentence form.

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