# How do you decide which clause is "independent" and which clause is "dependent"/"subordinate"?

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 following not the dependent clause?

"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?

• 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. Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 18:37
• "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. Commented Jun 8, 2020 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. Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 19:33
• @BillJ... Me? Pontificate? Who is the acolyte of P & H? - The New Fowler's Modern English Usage "because (orig. by cause that after OF par cause de). […] Because as a conjunction normally introduces a dependent clause expressing the cause, reason, or motive of the content of the main clause: She wept because she loved him. [...] because of, as a prepositional phrase followed by a noun or noun phrase is straightforwardly admissible in most of its uses: Three schools ... have been forced to close because of structural faults in their roofs. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 14:07
• Constituent tree: (S (NP she) / (VP wept) / (SBAR because / (S (NP she) / (VP loved / (NP him))))).**Constituent tree**: (S (NP She) / (VP wept / (ADVP because / (PP of (NP his cruelty))))) Constituent tree: (S (NP She) / (VP wept) / (SBAR though / (S (NP he) (VP was (ADJP kind))))). I note from your link that “Comments are close” – that usually happens when people start speaking frankly to the authors. ?She wept in of she loved him. 'Fowler' has been long proved wrong on many issues. and Anyone who is seriously interested in English grammar... are simply poisoning the well. Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 14:44

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.

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.

• 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? Commented Jun 9, 2020 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. Commented Jun 9, 2020 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). Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 12:57

We can agree that both

My brother felt sick.

And

He ate too many chocolates.

Are both independent clauses and that “because” “joins” them. So why is “because he ate too many chocolates” analysed as a clause and not “my brother felt sick because”?

Conjunctions and complementizers in English are typically analysed to attach in front of a clause, transforming an independent clause into a subordinate one, this is in reverse of, say, Japanese, where they tend to attach at the back of clauses — why is this analysis favored?

Firstly, the order can be reversed:

Because he ate too many chocolates, my brother felt sick.

This is already a strong argument that “because” attaches to “he ate too many chocolates” and the entire subordinate clause then joins with the independent clause.

Another is how that an inquiry in English can be answered simply with “Because he ate too many chocolates.”, this is also how sentences are typically broken up and feel natural to native speakers, if a sentence were spread out with a pause, this would feel unnatural:

He fell sick because

he ate too many chocolates.

“because” would almost always be moved over the pause, which is what feels more natural to English native speakers.

This is how conjunctions in English are generally analysed. “you and I” in English would similarly be broken down. That they attach to the front rather than the back can also be seen in such constructs as “either this or that” or “both you and I”.

Edit: After giving it some further thought, methinks English has two fundamentally different classes of conjunctions, one functioning as complementizers grammatically, and the other not. “and”, “or”, and “therefore” are grammatically fundamentally different from “because”, “since”, and “so that”.

Namely, sentences such as:

I, because I need to eat, sell my body for a living.

My dog, since he is hungry, is barking.

Are all possible, complementive clauses created by attaching the first group before a sentence can be inserted relatively freely inside of the matrix clause, as such one can far more easily argue that they are truly subordinate to said clause.

However with “or” or “therefore” it becomes more difficult:

*I, therefore I am, think.

*I, or took a bath, had something to eat.

Clearly “or”, “and”, and “therefore” do not create similar complementive subordinate clauses that can be inserted inside of their matrix clause, but only after it.

However, even with those the argument remains that “Or I had something to eat.” feels as a natural, complete utterance, whereas “I took a bath or.” feels as if it be wanting for a conclusion, an unfinished thought, therefore I would still argue that “or”, “therefore” and “and” attach to firstly to the second part of the conjunction, and the result of that then attaches behind the first independent clause to create a conjunction of two clauses.

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.

• 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. Commented Jun 10, 2020 at 22:05