Subordinating-Connective Clauses

To look again at something I pointed out on the previous page, where I introduced complex sentences: if you read the following pairs of clauses, you’ll feel a distinct difference in sentence rhythm between each pair (I’ve left out the punctuation):

The Amazing Armadillos have the best trapeze act east of Saskatoon
because the Amazing Armadillos have the best trapeze act east of Saskatoon.

Uncle Charlie has left off wearing his toupee
since Uncle Charlie has left off wearing his toupee

Ms. Beebs was creating the new migration ballet
while Ms. Beebs was creating the new migration ballet

Fang wants to star in every sentence
that Fang wants to star in every sentence

The first clause of each pair has the settled feel of a complete sentence, while the second has the “up-in-the-air” hovering, feeling that belongs to a dependent clause. This feeling obviously results from the words that introduce each clause: because, since, while, and that. These words are subordinating connectives, and the clauses they introduce are subordinating-connective clauses. Here they are again, this time functioning within a main clause:

Because The Amazing Armadillos have the best trapeze act east of Saskatoon, I have become their lifelong fan. [The “because” clause modifies have become, the finite verb in the main clause.]

Since Uncle Charlie has left off wearing his toupee, no bird will nest in our neighborhood. [The “since” clause modifies will nest.]

The world held its breath while Ms. Beebs was creating her new migration ballet. [The “while” clause modifies held.]

The problem is that Fang wants to star in every sentence. [The “that” clause is the completer of is: you ask, “the problem is what?”]

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Subordinating Connectives and Prepositions

Subordinating connectives and prepositions are the two types of non-coordinating connectives. Again, while coordinating connectives connect functionally identical sentence elements, non coordinating connectives connect different functions—they express a relationship between the two functions. Thus, a preposition connects its completer to the function that the prepositional phrase modifies. For instance, in “He should hiss in his own pit,” the preposition in connects his own pit to hiss; it tells where he should hiss. In “Jack is the boy with the plummy thumb,” the preposition with connects plummy thumb to boy. Subordinating connectives work in the same way: they connect the clauses that follow them with a function in the main clause and express a relationship between the two clauses.

The following list gives examples of subordinating connectives. As with prepositions, there’s no point in memorizing a list, since once you see how subordinating connectives work, you’ll recognize one in a sentence even if you don’t remember having seen that particular connective before:

because when since although
if after until as soon as
wherever as where that
so that as if in case than

Though prepositions and subordinating connectives are mostly different words, a few words can be either:

after as before since until (or till)

It may be too obvious to mention, but in case you have trouble deciding whether the connective is a preposition or a subordinating connective, the sentence rhythm will tell you. If you feel the phrase is finished before the noun joins up with a finite verb, the connective is a preposition:

(After the migration) everybody got new feathers.

(As a whimsy expert) I expect maximum silliness.

(Before the hibernation ceremony), the Bear family was in a terrible tizzy.

(Since Halloween) he’s acted really ghostly.

The hissing statistics won’t be available (until the end of Venom Week).

But if a clause follows—that is, if the noun phrase turns out to be the subject of a finite verb—then the connective is a subordinating connective. I’ll continue to enclose subordinating-connective clauses in curly brackets:

{After the migration gets started}, everyone will be in a flap.

{As a whimsy expert once told me}, cobras love example sentences.

{Before the new migration ceremony was developed}, the flock just ate everything and took off.

{Since Halloween has already passed}, you can take that pumpkin off your head.

{Until Venom Week is over}, we’d better stay out of the snake pit.

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The Functions of Subordinating Connective Clauses

Subordinating-connective clauses can function as modifiers of verbs or as subjects or completers. Subordinating-connective clauses that modify verbs are called adverb clauses. Those that function as subjects or completers are called noun clauses.

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Adverb Clauses

With adverb clauses, the action or situation in the subordinating-connective clause relates to, or has an effect on, the action or situation in the main clause. There are a number of different kinds of adverbial relationships, and I’ll be surveying the major ones: relationships of time, place, condition, concession, cause, purpose or result, and comparison. These are not terms to be memorized; the purpose of the survey is to help you to acquire a feel for these relationships.

NOTE: If you test for what an adverb clause modifies, quite often it feels as though it should modify the entire main clause. Take for example:

{When cobras smile}, they probably have a plan.

If you ask, “what when cobras smile?” (or “When cobras smile what?”), the complete answer would seem to be “they probably have a plan.” When this is the case, the adverb clause actually modifies the finite verb in the main clause, in this instance, have.

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Adverb Clauses of Time

Adverb clauses of time indicate the time when the action in the main clause takes place.

{When Fang adopts that virtuous look}, he must be planning something. [The “when” clause modifies must be planning.]

{Whenever you hear persistent hissing}, immediately release your cobra. [The “whenever” clause modifies the imperative verb release.]

Your tongue has become kind of forked {since you drank the snake oil}. [The “since” clause modifies has become.]

{As soon as he took a job as a volcano cleaner}, she enrolled in a refrigeration course. [The “as soon as” clause modifies enrolled.]

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Adverb Clauses of Place

Two subordinating connectives, where and wherever, indicate the place at which an action occurs:

Admirers gather {wherever Ms. Beebs goes}. [The “wherever” clause modifies gather.]

Look {where that stupid elephant tried to hide}. [The “where” clause modifies look.]

The monster lurks {where cookies are plentiful}. [The “where” clause modifies lurks.]

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Adverb Clauses of Condition

In what are called conditional sentences, the subordinating-connective clause expresses a condition that controls the situation in the main clause. In other words, what does or doesn’t happen in the main clause will be the result of what one does or doesn’t do in the dependent clause. The subordinating connectives that introduce conditional clauses are if, unless (a “negative” if), and provided or provided that (emphatic “ifs”: they mean “if and only if”):

{If you unscrew this one little screw}, the entire earth will zoom out of orbit. [The condition is the unscrewing; the result is the zooming away. The “if” clause modifies will zoom.]

He never falls off the tightrope {provided he wears his helium socks}. [The wearing of special socks is the condition; the result is his not falling. The “provided” clause modifies falls.]

{Unless you’re immune to venom}, you shouldn’t tease cobras. [The negative condition is lack of immunity to venom; the result will be a very short future. The “unless” clause modifies shouldn’t tease.]

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Adverb Clauses of Concession

A concession is an admission that something is true, as when an outvoted candidate concedes the victory to his opponent or when your aunt concedes that you’re no longer the nasty little brat you were at the age of seven. A concessive sentence expresses a contrast between two situations. In the subordinating-connective clause (which begins with although, though, even though or while), something is conceded. However, in spite of, or in contrast to, this admitted truth, the main clause states that something else is also true:

{Although the creature turned out to be just a muscular worm}, I usually can spot boa constrictors a mile away. [What is conceded in the “although” clause is that I was wrong in the present situation. What is declared to be also true in spite of my error is my skill at spotting certain snakes. The “although” clause modifies can spot.]

Cobras often put mayonnaise on their prey {even though they don’t really like salad}. [What is conceded is that cobras don’t like salad; what is asserted is that nevertheless they use salad dressing. The “even though” clause modifies put.]

{While Fang’s reputation keeps improving steadily}, many readers claim he ruins every example sentence he appears in. [The “while” clause, which modifies claim, concedes; the main clause expresses a contrary claim.]

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Adverb Clauses of Combined Condition and Concession

The ideas of condition and concession can be combined in the same adverb clause, introduced by the subordinating connective whether. There’s always the possibility of either a positive or negative outcome in a “whether” clause, so it always contains a not. The two possibilities are connected by or:

{Whether or not your feathers come back from the cleaners today}, we migrate tomorrow.

{Whether she loves me or not}, I’m tattooing her name on my forehead.

In these examples, both “if” and “although” are in force: If your feathers are ready, we migrate; although your feathers may not be ready, we will migrate anyway. If she loves me, I’m getting the tattoo; although she doesn’t love me, I’m still getting the tattoo.

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Adverb Clauses of Cause or Reason

Some dependent clauses express the cause of or the reason for the situation in the main clause. Subordinating connectives include because, as, since, or seeing that:

{Since today is Walt Disney’s birthday}, I’m writing in my Donald-Duck handwriting. [My reverence for Walt causes or is the reason for such conduct. The “since” clause modifies am writing.]

I’ve been feeling blue {because Sylvester hasn’t been getting along with Tweety}. [The “because” clause modifies have been feeling. It states the reason for the emotion expressed in the main clause.]

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Adverb Clauses of Purpose or Result

In the following examples, the dependent clause expresses the purpose for or the result of the action in the main clause. Subordinating connectives are so or so that, in order that, and in case:

You didn’t say, “May I?” {so you’re out}. [A reference to the game “Simple Simon.” The “so” clause, which modifies didn’t say, expresses the result of your error.]

Jack has been doing nimbleness exercises {in case he enters another candlestick jump}. [The “in-case” clause, which modifies has been doing, expresses the purpose of his practice.]

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Adverb Clauses of Comparison

There is one kind of subordinating-connective clause with an exceptional structure: clauses that state comparisons. The usual subordinating connectives are as or than:

We were snug {as bugs in a rug}. [The “as” clause modifies snug.]

It’s bigger {than both of us}. [The “than” clause modifies bigger.]

He has as many twists {as a barrel of boas}. [The “as” clause modifies twists.]

Fang can sometimes be more playful {than Miss Hiss}. [The “than” clause modifies playful.]

Toads are less aggressive in traffic nowadays.

Note that in each example:

An item in the main clause is being compared to an item in the dependent clause, according to the same criterion (standard of measure). In the first example, we and bugs are being compared according to the criterion of snugness. In the second, it and both of us are compared according to size. In the third, he and a large quantity of boas are compared as to “twistiness.” In the fourth, Fang and Miss Hiss are compared according to the standard of playfulness. In the last example, the present aggressiveness of toads in traffic is being compared with the in-traffic aggressiveness of toads in the past.

As noted, the comparison clause modifies the main word of the phrase that refers to the standard of comparison (smugness, size, and so on).

Some words in the subordinate clauses are ellipted (left out), because they can be understood from the context. In the last example above, about toads, the entire adverb clause has been ellipted. I’ll print the examples again and add the ellipted words in square brackets.

We were snug as bugs in a rug [are snug].

It’s bigger than both of us [are big].

He has as many twists as a barrel of boas [has twists].

Fang is more playful than Miss Hiss [is playful].

Toads are less aggressive in traffic nowadays [than toads were aggressive in traffic in the past].

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Noun Clauses

Noun clauses take their name from the fact that they function in places where noun phrases can go. The subordinating connective that introduces such clauses is that. That is a very “pure” connective: it has virtually no meaning other than “noun clause follows.”

{That a crocodile would hold a grudge} comes as no surprise. [The “that” clause is the subject of the finite verb comes.]

But {that a duck could be so small-minded} breaks my heart. [The “that” clause is the subject of the finite verb breaks.]

He had never dreamed {that flying in formation would be such a strain on his arms}. [The “that” clause is the completer of the finite verb had dreamed.]

The truth was, however, {that constant honking was a worse strain on his voice}. [The “that” clause is the completer of the finite verb was.]

Noun clauses introduced by that often stand in apposition to noun phrases:

Her newest idea, {that cobras can be taught to migrate}, seems a bit whimsical. [The “that” clause stands in apposition to idea, the subject of seems.]

The judge was not impressed (by our vow {that we’d never again slip a drunken octopus into a professor’s lecture} ). [The “that” clause stands in apposition to vow, which is the completer of the preposition by. The entire prepositional phrase modifies impressed.]

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Making Noun Clauses Less Formal

A noun clause beginning with that can feel very formal when it comes at the beginning of a sentence. This formality can be “lightened” in two ways. We can substitute the fact that for plain that, thereby creating a pair of appositives:

The fact {that the lovers on the Grecian urn are forever panting and forever young} has nothing to do with Grecian Formula. [The “that” clause stands in apposition to fact. Both appositives are the subjects of the finite verb has.]

The fact {that you’re able to hiss at all} has astounded medical science. [Fact and the “that” clause are the apposed subjects of has astounded.]

Another way to lighten sentences when a “that” clause is a subject is to move the clause to the end of the main clause, and replace it with the pronoun it:

It comes as no surprise {that a crocodile would hold a grudge}.

But it freaks me out {that a duck could be so small-minded}.

The it in sentences like these is a “dummy” (or “anticipated”) subject, like it in “It’s raining” or there in “There’s a flea in his ear.” The dummy It makes the information in the “that” clause easier to grasp since you already know what the finite verb is.

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Ellipting That

When a “that” clause is a completer or is in apposition with a completer, that is often ellipted—left out (the connective can’t be ellipted if the “that” clause is a subject):

I believe {his blogs are inspired by leftover pizza}.

I heard {she was as angry as a dry octopus}.

You mean {you lost your mittens}?

I didn’t think {you’d care about one lousy gold bar}.

Download practice sentences for Subordinating Connective Clauses.

–> Continue on to WH-Word Clauses.

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