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Relative pronouns like who, that and which introduce a relative clause. Since these relative clauses can’t stand by themselves, they are subordinate clauses. Moreover, these relative clause function in three ways: as noun clauses, adjectival clauses or adverbial clauses. You can embed a subordinate clause within a noun clause. However, how will the rules of comma usage function then?

Is it:

The boy knows that if he kills the woman, he will be sent to prison.

Or:

The boy knows that if he kills the woman he will be sent to prison.

Why I’m asking this question is that this isn’t your normal subordinate clause that begins with subordinate conjunction. A subordinate clause that begins with a subordinate conjunction doesn’t come after a verb, but this does; so how will the rules function in this case.

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    You've got a few things wrong. First, "that" is a subordinator, not a relative pronoun. Second, relative clauses function as modifiers, not "noun / adjective / adverb clauses": in any case such clauses don't exist. Third, "that if he kills the woman he will be sent to prison" is a declarative content clause functioning as complement of "knows". "If" is a preposition, so "if he kills the woman" is a preposition phrase functioning as a conditional adjunct, and "that he will go to prison" is the matrix clause minus the conditional adjunct.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 12:54
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    Incidentally, the comma after "woman" is optional.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 13:06

2 Answers 2

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The boy knows [that if he kills the woman he will be sent to prison].

The subordinate clause in brackets is a declarative content clause introduced by the clause subordinator "that", and functioning as complement of the verb "know".

Within that clause is a conditional construction, where the protasis consists of the preposition phrase "if he kills the woman", in which the subordinate clause "he kills that woman" is complement of "if". The apodosis consists of "he will be sent to prison", i.e. the matrix clause minus the protasis.

A comma between the apodosis and the protasis is optional.

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  • I braodly agree and I see that if he kills the woman, he will be sent to prison as a content clause. It tells you what he knows, and can be substituted by “this”, which demonstrates that it is a noun clause. It can also be used as the subject of a sentence. It is the complement of “know”. It is not, as such, “subordinate”.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 14:03
  • Of course it's subordinate; it's marked as such by the subordinator "that"; in fact content clauses are the default kind of finite subordinate clause. I very much dislike the term 'noun clause', since the classification of finite subordinate clauses should be based on their internal form rather than on spurious analogies with the parts of speech. Thus its category is 'declarative content clause', and its function is 'complement'. No other label needs to be assigned.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 14:22
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From BillJ's answer

A comma between the apodosis and the protasis is optional.

Agreed. I'd like to add that here I would choose the comma option. I had an editor once who told me commas can also indicate a breath or a pause for the reader. In this case, I'm reading the actual content of the sentence. The final portion of the sentence indicates a consequence. I'd be sure to pause before stating it so that the reader gets the full impact. FWIW

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