Once you learn the basic rules for having a complete sentence, you will want to learn the bits and pieces that go into making more complicated sentences. When you master these concepts, you will learn how to make your sentences sound mature and how to create a greater variety in your writing. Also by learning these things, you will eventually learn the rules for commas and semicolons, instead of just having to guess where they go. You should have demonstrated an understanding of subject, conjugated verbs, and complete sentences before working on this lesson.


A phrase is one of those smaller bits of a sentence that you will need to be able to identify. Our definition of a phrase is:

A group of words that is missing either a subject or missing the matching verb or both.

Because it is missing one of these two requirements, it does not meet our definition for a complete sentence. Therefore, a phrase by itself is considered a fragment, or an incomplete sentence.


Ø the ancient oak tree (missing a verb)
Ø hitting the window (missing a subject and verb)
Ø on a jet plane (missing a subject and verb)

There are several types of phrases that you may encounter. Learning the different types of phrases is not essential, but it could be helpful. In general, phrases are named for the part of speech that they begin with. Here are some examples:

Types of Phrases…

Prepositional phrases:

On the playing field, Ralph was considered to be unstoppable.

Adjective Phrases:

Alert and focused, Ralph anticipated the next play.

Adverb phrases:

Quickly and efficiently, Ralph sprang across the line of scrimmage.

“-ing” Phrases (Participial phrases):

Springing into action, Ralph blocked his opponent.

Note: Sentences can have more than one phrase or use different phrases in combination and they can occur in different parts of the sentence.

Ex: Springing into action with the strength of a lion, Ralph blocked his opponent on the playing field.



Clauses are different part of sentences than phrases, but they are equally important. Our definition of a clause is:

Ø A group of related words that has both a subject and a verb that matches it. (Notice how this is similar to our definition of a sentence.)

Before going on, you might want to complete Phrase and Clauses Skill Check 1, to make sure you are understanding the difference between phrases and clauses.

v Independent clauses present complete ideas and can stand by themselves as sentences because they contain a subject and a verb that matches it.

v Dependent clauses cannot stand by themselves as sentences. Even though they contain a subject and a verb that matches it, they also have an additional word at the beginning of the clause that makes you need more information to complete the meaning.

These words at the beginning of dependent clauses are called subordinating conjunctions, and they require another independent clause in the sentence to help answer the question that they set up.

Example: After Stan went to the movies

Notice how you went to the movies is a complete sentence, because it contains a subject, you, and a verb, went, that matches it. However, the word “after” makes you need more information to complete the thought, as you wonder, “What did happen after Stan went to the movies?” Therefore, the word “after” added to the complete sentence, makes this a dependent clause.

Memory Aide: a Dependent Clause depends on another clause to make its meaning complete.

Some Common Subordinating Conjunctions

(Remember, these words when added to a complete sentence, make a dependent clause)

after, although, as, as if, as long as, as though, because, before, even though, if, in order that, once, provided that, since, so, so that, that, though, till, unless, until, when, where, whereas, while

Notice how each of these words leaves you wanting more information:

Since you’ve been so good… (What? Will I get a present?)
Before you can go to the movies… (What do I need to do?)
Even though you washed the dishes… (What did I forget to do?)

All of these examples are dependent clauses because they all have a subject, a conjugated verb, and contain a subordinating conjunction that makes you want more information.

An independent clause has a subject and a matching (conjugated verb) but it expresses a complete thought because it doesn’t have a subordinating conjunction at the beginning.

I went to the movies last Saturday.
You washed the dishes.
He has eaten a hamburger.

All of these examples are independent clauses because they have a subject, a verb that matches it, and express a complete thought. They will also work as a complete sentence, as you will see.

A Complete Sentence:

It’s time for a new definition of a complete sentence:

Ø A complete sentence must have a subject, a matching (conjugated verb) and must express a complete thought.

*****Punctuation Note*****

When a Dependent Clause comes first in a sentence, there must be a comma after it!!

When my dad comes home, my dog runs around the kitchen table.

My dog runs around the kitchen table when my dad comes home.

Notice the comma in the first sentence because the dependent clause (“when my dad comes home”) comes first in the sentence. The second sentence presents the clauses in a different order, and therefore doesn’t need a comma.

You should now try out your skills on Phrases, Independent Clauses and Dependent Clauses Skill Check to test your skills.

To achieve mastery of this lesson, you should be able to:

Ø Explain the definitions of phrases, independent clauses, and dependent clauses
Ø Provide examples of subordinating conjunctions
Ø Identify phrases, dependent clauses, and independent clauses
Ø Punctuate sentences correctly that begin with a dependent clause or a phrase

© kmcelliott 2008

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