Difference between independent and dependent clauses

Last week’s column that discussed the use of comas, semi and full colons, and mentioned dependent and independent clauses in passing, elicited an email response from a reader who sought to know what distinguishes the latter.

The writer was of the opinion that a number of readers may not know the difference between independent and dependent clauses, hence, discussing it here would be of immense help to many. Further, he posed; “Is any group of wordings that come before a period (full stop) a sentence?

The dictionary defines a sentence as ‘a unit of language which expresses a complete thought’. Simply put, a sentence is a group of words that convey a full meaning. The format of sentences, known as syntax, varies depending on the writer; some with a proclivity for the active voice while others for the passive voice. Where one person would write; “Our DPP is indefatigable”, another is likely to write; “Indefatigable, is our DPP” or “Indefatigable is what our DPP is”. In both cases, the message remains the same.

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Just like in the construction industry where blocks or bricks are used to construct buildings, the building blocks for sentences are clauses. Clauses are word groups that contain a subject and a predicate (something that shows what a subject is doing, thus, must contain a verb).

Let us use a simple sentence to explain this; “Jesus wept”. Jesus is the subject, ‘wept’ is the predicate. Besides simple sentences, there are compound sentences that contain two clauses connected by a conjunction, for example; “Kibra parliamentary seat aspirant MacDonald Mariga is under siege, but he has demonstrated resilience in soaking bile on social media”. Finally, there are complex sentences. Ideally, a sentence must begin with a capital letter and end with a period.

In the example above, ‘Jesus wept’ is an independent clause in the sense that it does not need additional wordings to make it understood. Independent clauses are word groups that can stand on their own and be understood. Note, however, that we can add other clauses to them to make complex sentences. For example, “Jesus wept, he couldn’t help himself after learning that Lazarus, his friend, had died”.

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Dependent clauses, on the other hand, are groups of words that contain subjects and verbs but do not express complete thoughts, hence cannot stand on their own. In the sentence; ‘Kibra parliamentary seat aspirant MacDonald Mariga is under siege, but he has demonstrated resilience in soaking bile on social media’, the first clause (Kibra parliamentary seat aspirant MacDonald Mariga is under siege) is independent.

It does not need the second part to be understood. Conversely, on its own, the second part (But he has demonstrated resilience in soaking bile...) is meaningless. It evokes the questions; who? What did he do? What bile?

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Dependent clauses are broken into three; adjective (also known as relative), adverb and noun clauses. Adjectival clauses, which contain subject and verb; begin with relative adverbs or pronouns ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘whose’ ‘that’ ‘which’. They normally describe the noun in the sentence.

Relative clauses must contain either a pronoun, subject and a verb or relative pronoun and a verb. Examples of relative clauses include; “When he appeared before the parliamentary committee” (‘when’ is the pronoun, ‘he’ the subject ‘appeared’ the verb). “Who left the office” (‘who’ is the subject while ‘walked’ is the verb). Relative clauses do not make sense on their own and therefore need independent clauses to form sentences.

Noun clauses are basically dependent clauses that function like nouns in sentences. Nouns are used to name things, people or places. Nouns serve either as direct or indirect objects, subjects, prepositional objects or predicates. Noun clauses normally begin with relative pronouns like ‘what’, ‘which’, ‘who’, ‘whoever’, ‘whose’ etcetera. Examples include; “Whoever fixed it is an expert”, “what was left of it”.

Adverbial clauses are subordinate clauses that function as adverbs in sentences. Normally, adverbial clauses describe adjectives and verbs and must contain a subject and a verb. Adverbial clauses are identifiable because they begin with subordinating conjunctions, namely, ‘unless’ ‘after’, ‘if’, ‘because’ and ‘although’ etcetera.

For example; “Unless one has the stubbornness of a donkey, politics is not for him/her”, “The Nairobi County Governor is so worried of stalkers that he is unable to occupy his magnificent office at City Hall” or “Nairobi County stands to be dissolved if the governor is kicked out of office after ongoing investigations on shady tendering deals, yet there is no substantive deputy governor to take over from him”.

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Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard. [email protected]

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