Anyone who's made it through a basic English class can probably identify nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. These basic parts of speech form the backbone of sentences and add a little spice by allowing us to modify the other words we use. A car becomes a new little red car, and a simple shirt turns into her favorite shirt. When it comes to adjective, adverb, and noun clauses, though, many students can find themselves confused. So just what are these clauses, and how can you tell if you're using them correctly?
Before we take a closer look at these troublesome constructions, you need to make sure that you understand a few basic grammar terms.
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun. In the phrase "new little red car," the words new, little, and red are all adjectives that specify what kind of car we're talking about.
An adjective phrase is a group of words that together modify a noun. This phrase will include at least one adjective along with adverbs or prepositional phrases. In the sentence "The very quiet girl was afraid of snakes," the phrases very quiet and afraid of snakes are both adjective phrases that modify girl.
An adverb is a word that modifies a verb or an adjective. In the phrase "The very big dog barked loudly," very (which modifies the adjective big) and loudly (which modifies the verb barked) are both adverbs.
An adverb phrase is a group of words that together act as an adverb. In the sentence "She left the party quite suddenly," the phrase quite suddenly is acting as an adverb and modifies the verb left.
A clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a verb. If that sentence can stand on its own (She left the party early.), then it's called an independent clause. If the clause can't stand as its own sentence (If you leave now...), then it's call a dependent clause.
A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.
Now that we've gone over adjectives and clauses, it should be pretty easy to figure out what an adjective clause is. Like the name suggests, an adjective clause is basically a clause that acts like an adjective. These are always dependent clauses, that is, they can't stand on their own as sentences but are instead attached to independent clauses in order to modify nouns. In the sentence "The table that we bought last week is already broken," the clause that we bought last week is an adjective clause that modifies table.
How can you tell if a clause is an adjective clause? It's actually pretty simple: once you have identified a dependent clause, try to identify the noun it's modifying. Adjective clauses will tell one of several things about that noun:
- What kind?
- How many?
- Which one?
In the previous example - The table that we bought last week is already broken-the clause that we bought last week is answering that question which one? by telling us which table we're talking about. Here are a few more examples with the adjective clauses underlined and the modified noun in italics:
The student who gets the highest grade will receive a prize. (Which one?)
She gave her extra ticket to the girl whose ticket never arrived. (Which one?)
They drove by the house where my boss lives. (Which one?)
We need to find a car that gets better gas mileage. (What kind?)
This necklace, which is one my favorites, will look great with that dress. (What kind?)
All the cookies that we have are stale. (How many?)
Adjective clause signifiers.
You'll notice that all these adjective phrases start with the same few words. These fall into one of two groups: relative pronouns and relative adjectives. Looking for these words in sentences can help you locate adjective clauses.
Punctuating adjective clauses
You may also have noticed that in some of the examples above the adjective clause is set off by commas. How can you tell if a clause needs to be punctuated or if can be left alone? The key is to look at what role the clause plays in the sentence. If it's necessary - that is, if the sentence doesn't make sense without it - then you don't need to use commas. If we remove the adjective clause from the first example above, then we lose a necessary piece of information that changes the meaning of the sentence:
The student who gets the highest grade will receive a prize. ->
The student will receive a prize.
On the other hand, when we remove the adjective clause here, the main idea of the sentence remains intact:
This necklace, which is one my favorites, will look great with that dress. ->
This necklace will look great with that dress.
When the adjective clause isn't necessary to the sentence, it should be set apart by commas.
Generally, if the adjective clause is needed to clear up any ambiguity about which noun is being talked about (i.e., we need the clause in order to know which student will receive the prize), then it's essential. If we already know which specific noun we're talking about (i.e., this necklace), then the adjective clause is just adding more information and is not essential to the sentence. Often this distinction is unclear and you could make a case either way, so don't worry too much if you have trouble identifying essential and inessential clauses.
A close cousin of the adjective clause, the adverb clause functions in much the same way, except adverb clauses modify nouns or adjectives. In the sentence "I'll be working until we finish the project," the clause until we finish the project is an adverb clause that modifies the verb phrase be working.
Like adjective clauses, adverb clauses can be identified because they answer several specific questions. Adverb clauses will tell you one of a few things about the verb of the main sentence:
- To what degree?
In the above example - I'll be working until we finish the project - the phrase until we finish the project tells us when we'll be working. Here are a few more examples with the adverb phrase underlined and the word being modified in italics:
My sister will come to the party even if she's tired. (How?)
I'll wash the dishes after I eat dinner. (When?)
She scrubbed the floor until it was spotless. (When?)
Because you got here late, you'll need to fill out these forms. (Why?)
Rather than buying a new car, she choose to have her old one fixed. (Why?)
Wherever you go, I'll find you. (Where?)
Alex will enjoy the movie more than his sister will. (To what degree?)
Adverb clause signifiers
Adverb phrases start with subordinate conjunctions, which are words that join together an independent and dependent clause while indicating which is the subordinate (or secondary) clause.
- even if
- in order
- so that
Punctuating adverb clauses
Like adjective clauses, adverb clauses are sometimes set off by commas. However, in the case of adverb clauses, it's their placement in the sentence that determines how they're punctuated. Clauses that begin the sentence should be separated from the main clause with a comma, while those added at the end of the main clause do not need a comma:
Rather than buying a new car, she chose to have her old one fixed.
She chose to have her old car fixed rather than buying a new one.
Nominal or Noun Clauses
At this point you can probably guess that a noun clause is a clause that acts like a noun. Also called nominal clauses, these dependent clauses can function in a sentence just like any other noun, meaning they can be a subject, subject complement, direct object, indirect object, the object of a preposition, or an appositive. In the phrase "Why you ate all that cake is a mystery to me," the clause why you ate all that cake is acting as a noun and is the subject of the sentence.
Because nominal clauses act like nouns, there's no set of particular questions they answer, since they're not modifying any other words in the sentence. Below are some examples with the nominal clauses underlined and the function of the noun in parenthesis.
Where you want to go is up to you. (subject)
Whether you open the present now or later depends on when your parents get here. (subject)
Your art project can be whatever you want. (subject complement)
Give the ball to whomever asks for it first. (indirect object)
Hand whatever food you have over to the teacher. (direct object)
Nominal clause signifiers
Noun clauses start with interrogatives (words that ask questions) or expletives (words that explain relationships).