# Difference between dependent and independent clauses

In the sentence "It's raining, but I'm happy," "but" is a coordinating conjunction. Both of the clauses are independent, right?

However, doesn't "I'm happy even though it's raining" mean the same thing? And yet, in this case, "even though it's raining" is a dependent clause, correct, because "even though" is a subordinating conjunction?

So I'm confused. What's the difference between dependent and independent clauses? I'm a secondary English teacher and I'm not sure how to explain this apparent double standard.

• I take "though" to be a preposition, with the declarative content clause "it's raining" as its complement. The clause has no internal marker of subordination: it is shown to be subordinate by virtue of its function in the larger construction Mar 17, 2019 at 17:09
• In general dependent clauses headed by subordinators such as because, though, since, before, etc. can precede or follow the independent clause without changing any words or the meaning (although fronting a dependent clause gives it slightly more prominence). So, "I'm happy even though it's raining" = "Even though it's raining, I'm happy". This does not work for successive independent clauses: "?But I'm happy, it's raining".
– Shoe
Mar 18, 2019 at 8:00
• @Shoe, how does that connect to the idea of a dependent clause as not representing a complete thought and not being able to form a complete sentence on its own? Or do linguists define dependent clause differently? Dec 31, 2019 at 18:16

## 4 Answers

Whether a clause is dependent or independent doesn't have to do with its meaning. That's where the confusion about but with even though came from. They do mean sort of the same thing.

But that fact doesn't have anything to do with whether they introduce dependent or independent clauses. Dependent means 'hanging from' in Latin, and the idea is that one clause is the main one,
while others hang from it, and are marked as 'subordinate' (another `UP/DOWN` metaphor) to it.

This is why syntax uses upside-down "tree" diagrams to illustrate sentence structure.
Just a bunch of phrases and clauses hanging around together, like aerialists on a break.

For instance, the subordinate clause can be like an adverb modifying a verb phrase,

• Because she had already started, she finished it.

or like a direct object of a verb

• I told him that she would finish it.

There are coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, and (rarely) for) that hook together two independent sentences, and they can go on forever:

• Bill saw Sue, and Mary told Joan, and Joan was mad, but Mary just laughed, or maybe not...

However, except for those, every other clause introducer -- every conjunction or adverb or phrase or marker or relative pronoun or preposition or complementizer -- and there are literally thousands of these in English -- introduces a subordinate, i.e, dependent, clause. They are overwhelmingly more common than independent clauses.

So the vast majority of sentences in English are the kind that are called "complex", because they contain at least one subordinate, i.e. dependent, clause in addition to a main, i.e. independent, clause.

• But what accounts for the special status enjoyed by "but", "or", and "for"? Certainly a declarative sentence with two clauses joined by "and" is asserting the truth of the proposition represented by each clause independently. But to my mind, every other conjunction, including e.g. "but", indicates a dependent relationship between the cause the conjunction begins and some other clause of the sentence. Mar 17, 2019 at 19:21
• +1. Indeed, excellent so! They do mean sort of the same thing, they are very much alike, but not identical. Mar 17, 2019 at 21:22
• But is the same as and, semantically; they both conjoin assertions and have the same truth table. But has an additional presupposition about surprise; but it's still just and with a pragmatic assist. As for what's special about them, they're the logician's favorite dyadic functors: ʌ 'and', v 'or'. With them and negation, no others are needed. See the Logic Guide for details. Mar 18, 2019 at 15:45

You can say independent clauses are the ones that have a meaning even though they are said alone. If I say “I am happy” you get that I am happy. Dependent clauses instead have no meaning if they are said alone. If I say “even though is raining” you get that it’s raining but the sentence has no meaning since there isn’t a main clause.

• But couldn't you say the same for "But I'm happy," an independent clause?
– Jay
Mar 17, 2019 at 17:59
• Of course, “but I’m happy” is a dependent clause. It means nothing used alone... you have to remove “but” or add a main clause Mar 17, 2019 at 18:02
• @Jay It's typically the syntax that determines how a sentence is analyzed. When everything is equal, and syntax isn't enough, I will look at the semantics. The difference between the two sentences you've given has to do with how they are constructed (which is different), not with what is trying to be expressed (which is the same). Mar 17, 2019 at 18:49
• @Marybnq Actually, the existence of a conjunction doesn't mean that what comes after isn't an independent clause. Typically, you join two independent clauses with a conjunction and a comma (otherwise it's a comma splice). In this case, I would say that the first version of the sentence does have two independent clauses, while the second version does not. Mar 17, 2019 at 18:53
• @JasonBassford of course, but if I add a conjunction to the beginning of an independent clause it becomes dependent one as you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction as it would need another clause to have a meaning. Of course I know that what comes after the conjunction can be an independent clause, I wasn’t saying that... Mar 17, 2019 at 18:57

In the simplest terms.

Two independent clauses:

He eats ham but I eat jam.

Two independent clauses joined by BUT: He eats ham. I eat jam. That is, each can stand alone if you remove the conjunction.

Compare that to:

Two clauses, one independent and one dependent.

He eats ham even though I eat jam.

even though is a dependent clause introducer (see John Lawler above).

Even though introduces the idea that "I eat jam". It is not a conjunction.

[May I say that even though I eat jam, I am not happy? joke]

• I think your previous comment should be part of the answer, it's a good one, anyway +1. Mar 17, 2019 at 21:31

I'm happy [even though it's raining].

Independent clauses and dependent ones are not distinguished by meaning. Usually, there is some grammatical marker such as a subordinator like "that", "whether" or "if".

But the bracketed clause has no internal marker of subordination ("even" is an adverb and "though" is a preposition. Nevertheless, the clause is shown to be subordinate by virtue of its function in the larger construction.