A dependent clause is less important, and does not make sense by itself.

One of the primary arguments of these essays is that what might be called the ‘return to grammar’ of recent years has led to a fixation on a number of the syntactic properties of English without either a clear sense of why these topics might be useful to students, or a deep understanding of the complexities and controversies lying behind them. Each of these omissions might on their own be understandable within the context of a crowded and pressured curriculum, but taken together they are leading to such an unforgivable mangling of the study of English that it really would have been better not to even bother.

The topic of sentence structure is perhaps the paradigmatic case of this: students are flogged to identify ‘simple’, ‘compound’ and ‘complex’ sentences without being given a clear sense of exactly what these structural formations are, with an assumption that the underlying concepts are clearly and obviously defined, and without any clear sense of why it might be helpful to know about them. 

The fallacies that form the title of this essay are usually illustrated in classrooms with examples like the following:

Because Mum packed the car, we remembered everything

It is easy enough to appeal to a student’s intuitive sense that the bolded words here do not make sense on their own – there is a real sense in which ‘because Mum packed the car’ feels somehow stranded. It is also easy to feel that Mum’s packing the car is ‘less important’ – the key point of the sentence being to get across the notion that nothing has been forgotten.

But these two claims – that dependent clauses are less important, and that they cannot stand as sentences on their own – are both deeply misleading, as can easily be demonstrated by the following example, in which the dependent clause has been bolded:

I think she’s left already, hasn’t she?

From the point of view of practical communication, She’s left already is surely the most important part of this message. This is shown pretty clearly by the choice of question tag at the end – hasn’t she – which refers back to the dependent clause, not the I think of the independent clause (it would be syntactically acceptable, though pragmatically less likely, to say I think she’s left already, don’t I?). The I think is only ‘more important’ from a strict syntactic point of view – but in my experience teachers, and even many grammar books, consistently fail to explain this pretty significant distinction.

Indeed, if, in analysing grammar, you find yourself unthinkingly using the words ‘important’ or ‘emphasis’, then you are almost certainly at risk of confusing someone – starting with yourself. Language operates at a number of layers simultaneously, so that what more important on one layer may be less on another – and even within one layer, there may be different kinds of importance. Thus, to return to our first example, it is relatively easy to adjust the felt ‘importance; of the parts of the message by making a small syntactic adjustment:

we remembered everything because Mum packed the car

Now the most ‘important’ idea that we’re trying to get across is more likely Mum’s skill at packing cars, and not the fact that we didn’t forget anything, which seems to be already ‘part of the story’. But this change, while it is achieved through syntactic reordering, has done nothing to alter the status of the ‘because’ clause as dependent on the ‘we remembered’ clause (in fact, the key notion of importance at work here that of the topic-comment structure explored elsewhere). 

The idea of a dependent clause ‘not standing on its own’ is equally confusing. In the second example above, it is pretty clear that ‘she’s left already’ could easily stand as a sentence, whereas ‘I think….hasn’t she?’ is just a confusing jumble. You might argue that the ‘main clause’ is, in fact, the whole of the sentence, including the dependent clause. While I think most linguists would agree with you, this key feature of grammar – that clauses can contain each other – is usually not taught properly to students. Indeed, the notion that clauses can always be simplistically separated out from each other is key to the fallacious notion that one can even assess if they ‘make sense on their own’.

You might also argue that the particular example I have offered is, perhaps, a little bit of a cheat, since in this more informal phrasing, the subordinating conjunction ‘that’ – which typically introduces subordinate clauses following the verb ‘think’ – has been omitted. With the ‘that’ added, the doesn’t-make-sense-on-its-own strategy seems to work, since ‘that she’s left already’ does indeed sound like it’s ‘missing something’. But the existence of this more formal, equivalent structure does not change the fact that we talk and write a huge amount while missing out this kind of ‘that’, and we do so using large range of verbs in the main clause. This can be seen in these very common examples (again, for clarity, the dependent clauses have been bolded):

I know you love me

I hope she is coming to the party

I fear they have misunderstood my instructions

I learnt the school was closing last week

I believe there is no milk

A murkier but similar type of example is the following, where subordinate clauses are used to modify a noun, and, again, the syntactic element of a ‘that’ or ‘which’ is wholly optional:

That was the time John ate 4 hamburgers in one go

I love the fact you always wait for me before getting on the bus

Not only does the ‘make-sense’ advice risk students missing many dependent clauses, but it may also inspire them to identify clauses as being dependent when they are not. In typical instruction, a sentence with a dependent clause is contrasted with one with two independent clauses, said to form a compound sentence. Students are thus told to ‘see’ that the following two bolded clauses DO make sense ‘on their own’

We ate the sandwiches and Mum packed the car

But what about the ‘and’? Doesn’t it ‘belong’ with the second clause?  In which case, doesn’t ‘and Mum packed the car’ sound just as ‘stranded’ as ‘because Mum packed the car’? Sometimes teachers will say that the ‘and’ doesn’t ‘belong’ to either clause, but this claim is at least controversial. In the written language, our punctuation suggests otherwise, as evidenced by the contrasting acceptability of the following sets of options:

I like you and. You know that.

I like you. And you know that.

She left early or. He did!

She left early. Or he did!

Thus, while most dependent clauses therefore tend to be introduced by a conjunction which makes them, on their own, sound ‘incomplete’, they don’t have to be. What is more, the apparently diametrically opposite category – the independent clause – can be misidentified as a dependent clause using this very same ‘doesn’t-make-sense’ test.  Whatever a dependent clause is, it clearly has something only tangentially to do with either ‘importance’ or the notion of ‘not making sense on its own’.

The idea of grammatical dependency, and its distinction from the idea of coordination, is, like so many grammatical distinctions, really somewhat fuzzy: it is rooted in some genuine and clearly distinct logical differences, but real language in practice drifts away from these, so that many words and structures exhibit features from each side of the boundary.

In so far as a dependent clause has a clear, logical definition, it is that it must always be playing a role with respect to some other clause – it’s doing a job, if you like, for another clause. Thus, the term is strictly one of relation, not classification. Misunderstanding this is a common teaching problem: many teachers persist in introducing this task as if it were comparable to animal classification – ‘is this creature a mammal or a reptile?’ But the far better analogous question is ‘is this creature predator or prey?’ This type of question only becomes truly meaningful when one also asks, in relation to what? The following sentence illustrates this point:

The really disappointing thing is that when she came we weren’t ready!

The bolded clause is effectively both dependent and independent. It is an independent clause with respect to ‘when she came’, but it is part of a dependent clause with respect to ‘the disappointing thing is…’  A ladybird is both prey and predator – the answer depends on whether you’re talking to a swallow or an aphid.

The dependency relation of ‘doing a job with respect to something else’ is one of, if not the, fundamental concept in syntax: it applies not just to the way that clauses fit together, but the way that all bits of language fit together. We can see this, as well as how the same confusion could emerge at another level, if we try to ask of the word ‘red’ whether it was dependent or not in the following phrase:

a really red bus

Again, the answer is both. ‘Red’ is dependent with respect to ‘bus’ (since it serves a function of modification with regard to this noun) but it is not dependent with respect to ‘really’, since this adverb is functioning to modify ‘red’.

In theory, dependency can always be, as it were, ‘chased to the top’. We can always find something at the top of the tree – the top predator that nobody eats. Independent clauses are sometimes thought of as being just this, and I guess thinking in this way might seem a helpful way of keeping things simple. But this approach risks doing real harm to the core concept of dependency. It is rather as if we tried to keep things simple by telling students that a predator is the type of animal than nothing ate, and a prey is everything else.

Just as clarity demands that we talk of a dependency relation, rather than fixating on the robotic categorising of clauses, so it is that the ‘compound sentences’ of so many half-baked grammar exercises ought to be thought of more in terms of a relation – in this case, the coordination relation. As we have said, the distinction between these two types of relationship – dependency and coordination – is complex and fuzzy. While strict, logical relationships may form the basis of the difference we are interested in, actual usage tends to add in additional implications which muddy the waters.

At the logical level, dependency relations, such as that expressed by the word ‘if’, or created by a relative pronoun like ‘that’ in the cars that I like, are typically asymmetric. In ordinary English, we could put this another way by saying that order matters. To say if you move I’ll shoot is quite clearly not the same as to say if I shoot you’ll move; when I fall I bleed does not imply when I bleed I fall. An important consequence of this asymmetry is that dependency in natural languages is typically expressed as a relation between just two items. In theory, more are possible, but words which worked in this way would be potentially quite confusing – it would be difficult to know which ‘way’ the relation went between each of the three or more members.

Co-ordination, on the other hand, is typically two-way: she eats cake and he eats bread is essentially the same as he eats bread and she eats cake. This simplicity means that a series of co-ordination relations can be bundled up together and expressed, without ambiguity, by a single word:

She likes tea, she hates juice, she has a pet and she goes to the gym.

With this key feature of a coordinating word in mind – that it can cover multiple items – you can see why a coordinated clause typically cannot be put first, as many dependent ones can. If we allowed this to happen, there could be confusion about exactly which of the following items were actually ‘covered’ by the coordinator. In the first example sentence below, it is clear that ‘she did it’ is the last item in a three member set. In the second example, though, it is impossible to tell where the scope of the ‘and’ ends –  do I believe that she did it, or is this a new train of thought?

I believe that (she has the money, she has the will and she did it)

I believe that (and she has the will she has the money ? she did it ?

The same confusion simply could not arise with a subordinating conjunction like ‘when’, since it is always clear that it applies to just two items – even with a confusing lack of punctuation, John arrived is evidently a new train of thought in this utterance:

I believe that when Joan arrived we helped her John arrived

So far, all my examples of co-ordination use the word and, which most authors also present as being the ‘typical’ co-ordinator. Even with and, though, actual usage can add an implication which is of a one-way nature: she opened the door and hit me may, at a purely logical level, be equivalent to she hit me and opened the door. In practice, they tell a different story. This is because the implication that two past events are always presented chronologically means that ‘and’ can take on an additional, one-way meaning of the sort usually associated with dependency. 

This murky picture gets even murkier when we move on to other, less ‘typical’ coordinators. Teachers often lean on the acronym ‘FANBOYS’ as a way of grouping all the co-ordinating conjunctions but, of these words, only nor and or share most of the logical characteristics of and. But and yet are, in the strictest sense, equivalent to and (all three words essentially mean ‘all of these are true) but they also clearly carry even more of an implied one-way meaning. This implied asymmetry in their meaning – a one-way relation – is that the final item mentioned in the list is flagged as a surprise given that the others are true. The sentences below therefore carry different meaning, in a way that they would not if the conjunction used was and/or/nor:

She came in late, was disorganised, but did actually care

She came late, did actually care, but was disorganised.

But and yet could almost be said to belong in a category of their own. They have a considerable amount in common with words like ‘although’ and ‘while’ which, while being typically categorised as subordinating, are also logically equivalent to and, and can also be used to create a last-member-is-a-surprise list:

A persistent, generous, although somewhat awkward young woman, Jane is a complex character.

Her letter – gentle, considerate, while rather firm – made everything clear to him.

The only concrete distinction is that, when dealing with clauses, but and yet must, like and/nor/or, occupy a central position between the clauses they conjoin. Clauses starting with while and although are different: they can be preposed – shifted to the beginning:

While I loved being there, I had to leave

is good, but

Yet I loved being there, I had to leave

is not acceptable in contemporary English.

The final two FANBOYS words – for and so – are even further away from and. These are definitively one-way in meaning, and incapable of connecting more than two terms.  The following sentences are borderline acceptable in speech, perhaps, but could only make sense if we assume an implied ‘and’ is drawing together the first items in the list into a single sub-clause:

 I went to the beach, I cleared up the rubbish, I threw it in the bin so I got a reward.

I got tired, I lay down, I rested for I had worked hard.

As a mere school teacher, I hesitate to pass final judgement, but my feeling is that for and so really ought to be classed as subordinating conjunctions comparable to because, or perhaps as adverbs like however. It is, I suspect, only due to the rather puzzling fact that they require a central position that they have been lumped in with the FANBOYS as co-ordinators. Why the language has evolved so that this is the case with for and so is something of a mystery to me, but I suspect it is to do with the fact that they each have another grammatically important function – so is an adverb and for a preposition – and the rigidity around their position when functioning as conjunctions somehow helps to avoid confusion.

To add to this complicated story, we must also acknowledge the significant amount of disagreement that exists between the experts themselves. The most recently published comprehensive analysis of English grammar, for example, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, denies the existence of the subordinating conjunctions (the word class typically covering words like ‘because’, ‘although’ and ‘when’). For the linguists behind that book, these words are better designated prepositions, and the structures they ‘create’ simply a more complex type of prepositional phrase.

The key notion of dependency is also fraught with disagreement. Many teachers may feel that it is simply intuitive, for example, that in the phrase ‘the house’ the word ‘the’ depends on ‘house’, meaning ‘the house’ ought to be categorised as a ‘noun phrase’. They thus tend to feel somewhat frustrated with students who don’t just ‘see’ that this is the case. But an influential approach to grammar of the last few decades puts it the other way round – the determiner ‘the’ is identified as the ‘head’ word, meaning that ‘the house’ ought in fact to be categorised as a determiner phrase. While dependency here remains a one-way relation, the experts can’t seem to agree which ‘way’ it goes.    

The contrast between dependency and coordination is thus much more complicated than the vast majority of classroom teaching is conveying. It is tempting to respond that my arguments only bite with unusual or rare examples, and that the explanations offered to students are a necessary pedagogical simplification. But in truth, the complexity is very close to the surface of the topic. An average secondary school student is more than capable of recognising the problems with the claim that dependent clauses ‘don’t make sense on their own’ and are ‘less important’. Given how little understanding there seems to be of the principles which underlie all this, the teaching that goes on is far too often simply the thoughtless drilling of content for content’s sake.

At this stage you might be tempted to ask why we’re even bothering –  given all this confusion, complexity and disagreement, can any of this really matter very much to the average Year 9 student struggling with their writing? Well, I have a great deal of sympathy with that question – I’m really not sure we should be. There is very little evidence that simply knowing these kinds of terms improves your writing (though there is some that being asked to combine clauses – without any accompanying technical waffle – does).

Forcing all students to confront the minefield of syntactic dependency is rather like insisting cookery students master the fundamental chemistry underlying their recipes: it is undeniable that this chemistry has something to do with why the cake tastes so good, but it seems rather a waste of time teaching prospective chefs too much about it. Some chefs do, it is true, take pride in their chemical understanding, but many great ones do not: it is clearly not required knowledge. This is an even more powerful point when one recollects how few teachers themselves fully understand the complexity of what they are being asked to teach (and, I should add, I do think teachers should be learning at least some of this – here the appropriate analogy is less with chefs and more with doctors, who really ought to understand the basic chemistry of medicines, even if their patients do not).

The one useful benefit of thinking of the FANBOYS conjunctions as a distinct group is the understanding that, because the clauses formed from these conjunctions cannot be preposed, it is acceptable for them to form a single sentence in writing. This might seem counter intuitive, but in fact makes perfect sense. Many teachers tell students, wrongly, that conjunctions can’t start sentences. While this does in fact happen all the time in good writing, the teachers who say this are, to be fair to them, typically trying to avoid something like the following:

I did in fact go to the party that night. Because I still loved her. I couldn’t speak to her for weeks afterwards.

The bolded subordinate clause is confusing here because we cannot say with certainty which of the other clauses it refers to – the previous or subsequent one. For this reason, professional writers generally avoid using preposable clauses as a single orthographic sentence in this way. The same confusion simply does not arise when we know that the conjunction must be in the middle.  As ‘for’ must be central, the following, while perhaps not the best writing, avoids this ambiguity:

I did in fact go to the party that night. For I still loved her. I couldn’t speak to her for weeks afterwards.

From the point of view of improving writing, then, most of the paraphernalia around identifying sentence structures could and should be ditched tomorrow. FANBOYS could, perhaps be retained, but simply as a way of remembering the ‘central conjunctions’ – conjunctions which must be central, and so can be used without confusion to form a single clause sentence (plus, perhaps, at least two other, similar words arguably missing from the list: only and then).

There is another argument that a mastery of these concepts improves a student’s analytical ability. In my experience, though, it tends at best to result in analytical points like the following:

The writer uses the subordinating conjunction ‘because’ to introduce a dependent clause in order to explain why nothing was forgotten.

I’m not at all sure that analytical passages such as this one are worth the trouble, and am pretty sympathetic towards students who feel that writing responses such as this is a somewhat ridiculous activity. Truly effective analysis is usually more about identifying patterns – repeated uses of a particular structure – as well as stylistic departures from these patterns and expectations. These can then be explained terms of their reflecting the particular genre of the text (from a structuralist point of view) or the way that they help achieve the purposes of the writer/s (from a functionalist point of view). For older students who are enthusiastic about language analysis, using dependency and coordination to finesse this kind of skill is a plausible aim, but it strikes me as almost certainly too much to drag all students through this conceptual quagmire on the basis that a select few might make use of it one day, especially when such students can be assumed to have the motivation to master the foundational understanding pretty quickly.

The contrast between dependent and independent clauses has been swept back into classrooms in the rush to render English teaching more ‘rigorous’ and ‘knowledge rich’. It is dumped on teachers’ and students’ desks with little thought to what it really means, or how it may be of actual use. Unlike some grammatical features (clause type, tense and aspect, given and new) dependency is of little use to school students as either writers or as analyzers of texts. It is complex and ambiguous, and controversial to explain and define. Most teachers have to a large extent been innocent victims in this, since they have lacked the knowledge required to understand what was being asked of them. A great deal of ‘rigorous’ content of this sort has been stuffed into the English curricula in recent years; the challenge for teachers is to do the learning, and so gain the confidence they need, to tell the stuffers to get stuffed. 

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