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Consider the following sentence:

"My bother felt sick because he ate too many chocolates"

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but the word "because" is a conjunction.

I have read that the dependent clause is:

"because he ate too many chocolates."

Why is the dependent clause not:

"My bother felt sick because"?

A dependent clause is never a complete sentence. Neither of the two sub-strings I identified is a complete sentence.

  • "My bother felt sick" (INDEPENDENT CLAUSE)
  • "My brother felt sick because" (DEPENDENT CLAUSE)
  • "because he ate too many chocolates" (DEPENDENT CLAUSE)
  • "he ate too many chocolates" (INDEPENDENT CLAUSE)

There are two different ways to group sub-strings into clauses:

  • "(My bother felt sick because) (he ate too many chocolates)"
  • "(My bother felt sick) (because he ate too many chocolates)"

It seems like, if you have a sentence, and someone asks you what "the" dependent clause in that sentence is, then there are at least two choices. For any given sentence, a dependent clause is that sentence not unique.

How do you decide whether the leftmost-clause absorbs the operator or the right-most clause absorbs the operator? Additionally, why is it done that way and not the other way?

  • 1
    Let's switch the order of the clauses. Which is correct? Because he ate too my chocolates, my brother felt sick, or He ate too many chocolates, my brother felt sick because. – Peter Shor Jun 8 at 18:37
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    "My bother felt sick" is the main message of the sentence and it is the main clause. because he ate too many chocolates" is basically a clause that gives more information about his feeling sick - it adds information to the main clause. You can replace it with a phrase "... from eating too many chocolates" which is also adverbial. If you walk up to a stranger and say "My bother felt sick" he will understand you. If say to another stranger "Because he ate too many chocolates" He will think you are mad because it will make no sense to him. – Greybeard Jun 8 at 18:50
  • In your first example, the main clause is not "my brother felt sick", but the sentence as a whole. In modern grammar "because" is not a conjunction but a preposition, thus "because he ate too many chocolates" is a preposition phrase, not a clause. Nevertheless, the complement of "because", i.e. "he ate too many chocs" is a subordinate clause, and thus the sentence is a complex one. – BillJ Jun 8 at 19:33
  • My brother ate too many chocolates, so he felt sick. What is dependent now? – Xanne Jun 8 at 21:39
  • @Greybeard Suppose that A is an explanation for why P is true. For example, maybe A is "Ian Miller's 5th grade essay" and P is the position "cellphones should be allowed in school." Suppose also, that essay A contains the word X and contains the word Y. Suppose that B is a slightly modified copy of essay A In B such that words X and Y are swapped. B is the argument supporting the opposite of P If B exists, then A is an invalid explanation for why P is true. – Samuel Muldoon Jun 9 at 3:03
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My brother felt sick for some reason.

This sentence contains one independent clause. The simple subject is "brother", and the simple predicate is "felt". The prepositional phrase "for that reason" is one part of that one independent clause.

My brother felt sick because of the chocolates.

Even with the word "because", this sentence also contains only one independent clause. The phrase "because of the chocolates" does the same job in this sentence as "for that reason" does in the first example.

My brother felt sick because he ate too many chocolates.

In this sentence, we have two clauses. There is the clause with brother/sick as its subject/verb pairing, and another clause with the pairing he/ate. In spite of that, the entire structure "because he ate too many chocolates" still performs the same function. In all three of these examples, the italicized constituents act as modifiers of the adjective "sick".

 

Simple substring processing is not a good model for analyzing English. The substring "My brother felt sick" appears in all three example sentences, and yet the clause "my brother felt sick" does not appear in any. The independent clause in each example includes the entire contents of its sentence.

There's a better label than independent clause for the third example. It is a matrix clause -- a clause that contains another clause. The dependent clause is subordinate to its matrix clause.

 
If you need a computational model, don't look at operators. Look at factories. In the first example, the preposition "for" takes "some reason" as its argument and produces a general modifier, the prepositional phrase "for some reason". That produced constituent (an object, in the OOP sense) is then able to attach to a suitable modificand, such as the preceding adjective.

If we think of "because" as a preposition, as a modifier factory, then we see it has more than one signature. In the second example, its argument is a prepositional phrase. In the third, it's an entire independent clause. We can also see that what it generates not as general-purpose as the constituent produced by "for". It doesn't attach as readily to a nominative construction.

If we're too old-fashioned to think of "because" as a preposition, then we're left with treating "because of" as a compound preposition, taking a grammatical object as its argument. We're also left with labeling the third example's "because" as a subordinating conjunction.

Even under that old-fashioned labeling, this subordinating conjunction is a factory. It produces an adverbial subordinate clause.

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Two clauses can be recast as complete sentences by leaving out the conjunction.

My brother felt sick. He ate too many chocolates.

My brother felt sick because he ate too many chocolates.

In the second case, because he ate too many chocolates is a dependent clause. 'Because' is a subordinating conjunction; it introduces a cause which is less important (subordinate to) the first clause.

A basic definition is that, a dependent clause is vital to the sentence meaning; an independent clause is not.

My brother felt sick because he ate too many chocolates.

Compare that with this:

My brother felt sick, which was unusual for him, because he ate too many chocolates.

"which was unusual for him" is an independent clause. It provides additional information or comment, but can be left out without changing the fundamental meaning of the sentence.

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  • Consider the slightly different sentence "my brother felt sick because my brother ate too many chocolates." All I did was replace the string "he" with "my brother." Suppose someone says that "my brother felt sick" is vital information, and that "my brother ate too many chocolates" is non-vital (supporting) information. Someone can argue the opposite: "my brother ate too many chocolates" is vital and that "my brother felt sick" is non-vital. How do we know which clause is more vital than the other? – Samuel Muldoon Jun 9 at 3:24
  • A few days ago, I was turned down for a tutoring job because I failed to correctly identify "the dependent clause" in an example sentence. It is not okay to do that if the correct answer is entirely dependent on someone's personal preferences about what clause in the sentence was "vital" and which was not "vital." Of the two (1) "my brother ate too many chocolates" (2) "my brother felt sick" neither is more vital than the other, as far as I'm concerned. – Samuel Muldoon Jun 9 at 3:27
  • I am sorry that you were turned down for your tutoring job. I agree with this answer (and others) and disagree with your "vital" argument. Even though you don't feel it's more "vital," there is an underlying structure to the sentence that your potential employer saw (and you unfortunately disagreed with). – rajah9 Jun 9 at 12:57
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My bother felt sick [because he ate too many chocolates].

Traditional grammar treats "because" as a subordinator (or subordinating conjunction in trad terms), and hence the bracketed element is a subordinate clause, making this a so-called 'complex' sentence. Note that "because" functions as a 'marker' of subordination and hence is part of the subordinate clause.

By contrast, some modern grammars analyse "because" as a preposition, and in their terms the bracketed element is thus a preposition phrase. However, the expression "he ate too many chocolates" is a dependent in the PP, i.e. a subordinate clause serving as complement of "because".

"My brother felt sick because" cannot be called an independent clause, since it cannot stand alone as a sentence.

In other words, whichever way we choose to analyse "because", the sentence is still a complex one.

Further, some grammars (wrongly) analyse "my brother felt sick" as a main clause simply simply because it could stand alone as a sentence, but in fact it's just part of a larger clause: in this case the sentence as a whole is the main clause.

Incidentally, grammarians rarely use the terms 'simple', 'complex', 'compound' etc, since they are pretty meaningless when analysing the structure of sentences.

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  • I have not yet down-voted any answers to this question. This means, I did not down-vote your answer either. Someone else did that. I do not know why. – Samuel Muldoon Jun 10 at 22:05

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