Common Writing Problems: Dependent Clauses

Good morning, Squiders! I think this will be the last of the bad grammar sections we do before we move onto different storytelling elements.

To start off with, let’s review what a dependent clause is. A clause, according to Google’s dictionary, is “a unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.” Clauses come in independent and dependent types. An independent clause expresses a complete thought. A dependent clause does not.

Examples of dependent clauses:

  • during the summer
  • after class
  • in case of emergency
  • when I said that
  • because she said so
  • when I was young

As you can see, these are not complete thoughts and require more information to make sense.

NOTE: Dependent clauses can further be broken down into adverbial, adjectival, and nominal types, but they all function more or less the same way, so we won’t be going into that level of detail here.

Dependent clauses can go at the beginning of a sentence:

When I said that, I didn’t mean it.

The middle:

My brother, who is younger than me, studies finance.

Or the end:

I didn’t mean it when I said that.

Dependent clauses can be delineated with commas, but whether or not they should be involves the meaning of the sentence. Let’s look at an example.

I ran away after the dog chased me.

I ran away, after the dog chased me.

Do you see how the meaning is slightly different? Adding a comma loses the sense of immediacy, making it seem like the dog chasing wasn’t the cause of you running away. Whether or not commas are included depends on whether the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

But the biggest issue I’ve seen with dependent clauses as an editor is a problem with subject/verb/object agreement between the dependent and independent clauses of a sentence.

Look at this sentence:

Dancing away, my eyes lit up.

Let’s parse this out. Dancing away is the dependent clause. It can’t stand on its own. The independent clause is my eyes lit up. The subject of the sentence/independent clause is “my eyes.”

Which means the subject of the dependent clause is also “my eyes.” My eyes are dancing away?

Here’s another one:

Hanging in the lobby, I noticed the new pictures.

The subject of the independent clause is I. I noticed the new pictures. When you apply that to the dependent clause, I am hanging in the lobby, not the pictures.

This is a tricky thing to notice. We’re taught as writers to make sure we’re varying our sentence beginnings, lengths, etc. to make sure our writing doesn’t sound or feel repetitive. Adding a dependent clause to the beginning of a sentence–and this issue is almost always only found on beginning sentence clauses–is an easy way to do this.

It’s easier to see with shorter clauses like these, but occasionally you’ll have a longer dependent clause at the beginning, practically sentence length, that is so far separated from the main body of the sentence that it’s easy to miss that the subject of the clause is different than the subject of the main part of the sentence.

They’re hard to catch as well. A lot of times they’ll sound okay when read out loud, or they’ll sound slightly wrong but it won’t be immediately obvious what the issue is. If something seems wrong, look at your clauses and check what subjects they’re pointing to.

Well, squiders, thoughts on dependent clauses? Subject agreement? Ways to teach yourself not to do this?

Dress rehearsal tonight, then practice for the other concert. Wish me luck!

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Another thing to add, or even for a new post, is recognizing the difference between dependent and independent clauses so you know when to use a semi-colon over a comma. Or, knowing when to use a semi-colon over just making a second sentence. The latter is probably more of a learned art rather than a strict rule. When I started writing, I used a lot of semi-colons. I have slowly moved away from that style. Thanks for the discussion here; writers can never talk too much about grammar! 😀

    Reply

    • That’s not a bad idea! Maybe include a basic punctuation section in the book. Semi-colons seem to be the worst offenders, certainly, but going over quotation marks (and where to put commas/periods in relation to them) and dashes would also probably be helpful.

      Thanks!

      Reply

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