Look at the following example

'But she was so tired, she did not finish painting.'

Is the first clause an independent or dependent clause?

If it is an independent clause, should I remove the comma to prevent a comma splice?

fyi, 'So' is used as an adverb of degree, so the latter clause is a result of the former.

  • 2
    It's a stylised cut-down version of She was so tired that she did not finish painting, where the two statements could be seen as "interdependent" components semantically linked by an implied conjunction such as therefore. But your version starts with but, which must somehow refer to something mentioned earlier, so it's not really even an "independent sentence". Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 16:47
  • Let's say there was an independent clause prior to this. 'She fell behind on her work.' Considering that I am able to start sentences with conjunctions, would the clause 'But she was so tired,' be an independent one? Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 16:55
  • I think designations such as "independent or dependent clause" are only really useful in the context of understanding straightforward examples. Once you start including clauses containing "conjunctive" elements such as but and so that, I don't really see how such simplified categories would help anyone learn how to use English like a native speaker. Perhaps I'm wrong, and you really would be able to gain a better understanding of English by having a definitive answer to your question - if there is one, but I don't and have never needed to know anything like that myself. Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 17:10
  • I would call it an independent clause since it could be written as two separate sentences. (Assuming that a prior sentence allows it.) The use of the comma seems entirely wrong to me—it looks like a comma splice. If it's meant to be a dependant clause, then but should be replaced (or enhanced) with because, since, or something equivalent in meaning. Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 20:12
  • The but refers to a previous idea we do not know.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 15:06

4 Answers 4


First, but goes between conjuncts. The but doesn't go with either clause in this sentence;
rather, it connects the whole sentence with whatever came before it. So I will ignore it here.

Second, the rest of the sentence is an example of the so X/such a(n) X that S construction, which links together an independent clause:

  • she was so tired

and a dependent that-clause that identifies her degree of tiredness, referenced to so

  • (that) she did not finish painting.

The that complementizer, of course, is optionally deletable.

The entire sentence (without the but) is an answer to

  • How tired was she?

Since how is the general wh-word for measuring adjectives and adverbs.

  • Good answer. You could add that the first clause “She was so tired...” is not dependent, and hence, in the binary dichotomy put in the question, independent. That would be fully explicit.
    – Richard Z
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 15:09
  • Sentence-initial buts are acceptable: journals.linguisticsociety.org/elanguage/pragmatics/article/… And who says the presupposition was a question?
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 17:43
  • @Richard Z: I'd delete if I were you: 'which links together an independent clause: she was so tired'... Have you upvoted? Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:27
  • 1
    @Lambie Professor Lawler doesn't say they're not; he says that here 'But' is best not considered, as is not involved in the construction/s asked about. Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:31
  • @EdwinAshworth I deal with what what I'm given; not with what's best as I am not editing. Each to his own, professing-wise....
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:36

It's a dependent adverb clause, with the whole clause modifying 'finish'. Personally, I'd throw a 'that' in place of the comma.

  • 'But she was so tired that she did not finish painting.' Is this a complex clause or an independent clause (with the comma gone)? Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 17:06
  • That is being used as a conjunction to join the adverb clause to the independent clause, making it a complex sentence.
    – Carduus
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 17:37
  • 2
    -1 This is completely wrong. You can't have a dependent clause that starts with but in this way. For it to make sense, it would need to be something like but because or but she was tired and. Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 20:14
  • I agree with Jason. You've got the grammar all wrong.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 10:12
  • You're acting as though the 'but' is referencing the painting and not the sentence that came before it. It's obviously a stylistic choice to break a sentence apart at the conjunction. Something like: 'She told him she'd have it done by midnight. But she was so tired that she did not finish painting.'
    – Carduus
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 12:54

[But she was so tired] [(that) she did not finish painting].

There are two clauses here, as shown in square brackets. The first is an independent clause, the second a dependent one where the subordinator “that” can be inserted as shown. The second clause is a declarative content clause functioning as complement of the adjective "tired". Although the clause follows the adjective it complements, it is licensed by the adverb "so" that modifies "tired", and is thus referred to as an indirect complement. A comma is not required.

Note that the coordinator “but” belongs with the first clause. Evidence for this is that the clause can occur on its own. The two clauses might even be spoken by two different people, one responding to what the other said. And when we separate the two clauses like this, the coordinator goes with the second: “I really expected Kim to attend. B: “But she was too tired, wasn't she?”.


Pinker of Harvard says this about starting a sentence with a conjunction:

“You can’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.” Teachers instruct young students that it is incorrect to begin a sentence with a conjunction (and, because, but, or, so, also) because it helps keep them from writing in fragments, Pinker writes, but it’s a lie that adults don’t need to follow.

Avoid writing an ugly “megasentence” full of connected independent clauses, and feel free to start a sentence with a conjunction.

starting a sentence with a conjunction

What the good professor does not say, and I will, is that in an utterance such as 'But she was so tired, she did not finish painting.', the but is presuppositional.

For example:

1) She painted like a fiend all day. **But she was so tired, she did not finish painting.** [see refining below. The but clause refines the idea of why she did not finish.]

Compared to:

2) She painted like a fiend all day but she was so tired she did not finish painting.**

3) She painted all day like a fiend. But she was so tired [that] she didn't finish the painting. without a comma.

The but in 1) can be called a "presupposition trigger".

A presupposition trigger is a construction or item that signals the existence of a presupposition in an utterance. (I say: also in a previous utterance)

In the OP's example the presupposition precedes the utterance. And as a coordinating conjunction what it coordinates is not given in the sentence, it precedes it.

So, I think I would argue here that 1) is really a variation of 2), and I'd call 1) a defective independent clause in its materialisation in 1) and a normal independent clause in 2) and 3).

  • But she was so tired she didn't finish the painting. without a comma.

It is "defective" because most initial-position buts are not dependent clause-clause like. They are fully independent clauses. If you look at the paper I quote below, I think that is a fair statement.

presupposition trigger

Putting but in the initial position is called initial-position but (SIB). And one linguist calls this cancellation or refining (depending on the clause). The quote below is from an academic paper about academic writing but its descriptions of SIBs can be applied to non-academic contexts such as this one.

[...] then SIB facilitates argument development by its canceling or refining the previous argument. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore the many ways in which cancellation operates in terms of argument development, but I give examples of some of the main ways [it does].

  1. After a few days Mary regains her ability to talk. But her speech has lost the usual inflection and tone, making a machine-like and dead impression. (Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy) [...]

cancellation and refining

(Please note: all bolding is mine)

  • I'm not sure about the relevance; J Lawler's and BillJ's answers seem on-topic and thorough. Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:07
  • The relevance is about how but can start a sentence with but and be a normal independent clause, as opposed to a defective one. Initial-sentence buts are usually found in more regular independent clauses. This one is defective. But maybe you are just out to rout for the home team.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:39
  • 1
    In all cases, SIBs demand previous context. Agreed; JL stated this concisely. But a 'dependent clause' is defined grammatically, not with regard to necessary contextualisation. // I think you've got a good question here, but this isn't the thread for it. Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:49
  • I gave three different variations on the same theme. Basically, without deleting anything. All three would technically be independent but the OP's is off-kilter.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 18:53

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