Questions on comma placement before subordinate clauses seem to pop up quite a lot on the internet.
This might be because the term “subordinate” sounds a bit too technical, or perhaps, most people think that the punctuation system is too complicated and hard to digest.
One thing’s for sure though, and that is, the role of punctuation marks in the written language is simply to disambiguate meaning rather than to complicate.
So, without further ado, let us now discover the intricacies behind the comma placement before subordinating clauses.
- 1 When do we need a comma before a subordinate clause?
- 2 The meaning and function of subordinate clauses
- 3 A comparison between subordinate and main clauses
- 4 A guide on the comma placement before subordinate clauses
- 5 The incorrect comma use before a subordinate clause
- 6 The optional comma placement before subordinate clauses
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
- 8 Conclusion
When do we need a comma before a subordinate clause?
A pre-comma is necessary when we use subordinate clauses as parenthetical elements, no matter where they appear in the sentence. In particular, this rule applies to all nonrestrictive subordinate clauses, as well as all other types that introduce nonessential information. On the other hand, we should not place commas before any restrictive subordinate clauses because their meaning is crucial to the whole sentential meaning.
The meaning and function of subordinate clauses
Reaching this post either means you’re a student trying to recall your past lessons or you’re a writer trying to confirm your understanding of the issue at hand.
Knowing these comma subtleties very well utterly saves a whole heap of searching-and-reading time that could be used instead for other more critical matters.
In a nutshell, subordinate clauses are syntactically-inferior sentence elements to main clauses because of their inability to stand alone.
And, there are three types of subordinate clauses, namely, the noun, adjective, and adverb clauses.
Since understanding the differences among these types is fundamental in mastering the comma-placement guidelines, the next subsections aim to shed light on these nuances first.
A comparison between subordinate and main clauses
A subordinate clause is simply a set of words that is unable to convey a complete meaning.
On the other hand, a clause that expresses a grammatically and pragmatically complete meaning is called a “main clause,” which can function independently.
To understand the meaning and function of the subordinate clause, we must first understand its relationship to the main or independent clause.
At this point, I hope that you have already deduced that while the main clause is independent, the subordinate clause, on the flip side, carries a dependent meaning.
Our basic grammar knowledge would tell us that a sentence must contain at least a subject and a verb to be considered complete.
Thus, the statement below is considered as a “main clause”, which is also referred to as a complete sentence, despite its extremely short construction.
To illustrate these things more clearly, here’s a better example showing the main clause with more complete and realistic meaning.
Albeit complete in meaning, the sentence above may not be enough to express our argument fully.
So, we do have an option to add further information afterward, depending on the idea that we want to express.
This is where our subordinate or dependent clause comes in, which is introduced by, none other than, the “subordinating” type of conjunction.
The job of subordinating conjunctions is to link the main clause to the subordinate clause, forming what we refer to as a “complex sentence” structure.
Be careful not to mistakenly think of the other type of conjunction which has a coordinating function because they have a different job which is to tether two independent clauses.
These coordinating conjunctions go by the acronym FANBOYS which stands for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.
Whereas, some of the most common subordinating conjunctions are although, because, since, that, before, after, if, and unless.
Since we are talking about subordinating clauses in this post, we need to eliminate compound sentences in the picture, leaving us with complex sentences to analyze.
Going back to the example earlier, let us now form a complex sentence from “I am hungry.”
To note again, a subordinate clause needs a main clause to fully function in sentences because it cannot stand on its own.
Now that we’ve compared and contrasted subordinate from main clauses, we can already proceed to the three types of subordinate clauses in English.
Types of subordinate clauses
There are three different types of subordinate clauses in English, namely, the noun, adjective, and adverb clauses.
Knowing the differences among these types will help us understand the pre-comma placement guidelines, which come after this section.
The noun clause
The first type of subordinate clause is what we refer to as the noun clause, which, obviously, functions as a noun in a sentence.
In other words, a noun clause is simply an extended noun phrase that can either be used as the subject or object in a sentence.
Here’s an example of a noun clause.
Here’s a noun clause functioning as a subject.
And, here’s a noun clause functioning as an object.
The example above specifically acts as the object of the preposition “for” since one is necessary for the construction.
The adjective clause
The second type is the adjective clause, which is further classified either as restrictive or nonrestrictive.
A restrictive clause carries information that is critical or essential to the overall meaning of the sentence.
Meanwhile, a nonrestrictive clause only carries supporting or additional information to the statement.
Here’s an example of an adjective clause.
Here’s an example of a restrictive adjective clause.
And, here’s an example of a sentence with a nonrestrictive clause.
By the way, an adjective clause is also known as a relative clause. If you want to learn more about relative clauses, please click here.
The adverb clause
The last type is called an adverb clause, which, as the name per se suggests, also functions as an adverb in sentences.
An adverb clause tells us when, how, why, or how often things happen, just like how ordinary adverbs function in a sentence.
These clauses are very easy to spot since they are introduced by subordinating conjunctions, similar to the example given in the first subsection.
Here’s an example, again, of an adverb clause.
The adverb clause in the example above expresses the condition that has to be met in relation to the main clause.
The subordinating conjunctions if, even if, as long as, and provided that are also used similarly.
At this point, I hope that you have already understood what subordinate clauses do, as well as identify them in sentences.
It’s now time to know when to insert your commas, particularly before subordinate clauses.
A guide on the comma placement before subordinate clauses
The easiest way to recognize the necessary pre-comma placement is to identify grammatically-nonessential yet stylistically-interesting information.
These clauses are called parentheses, whose role is to add an emphatic effect to a statement that evokes persuasion.
Nonrestrictive adjective clauses are a classic example of parenthetical elements, but parenthetical elements are not limited to clauses alone.
Thus, a parenthesis may otherwise consist of a single word, a phrase, a fragment, or even an entire sentence.
The rule of thumb is to always set off these subordinate clauses with commas no matter where they appear in a sentence.
Put a comma before a nonrestrictive adjective clause
As elaborated earlier, a nonrestrictive adjective clause carries grammatically-inessential information in relation to the rest of the statement.
These nonrestrictive clauses may either come midway or toward the end of the sentence, which need to be singled out with commas.
The commas mark the clause’s grammatical independence, as well as the emphasis intended to be conveyed.
Here’s a mid-sentence nonrestrictive adjective clause.
And, here’s one at the end of the sentence.
The adjective clauses in the examples mentioned are nonessential sentence elements, which means they can be conveniently removed.
Commas, therefore, are deemed necessary in marking the removability of such subordinate clauses in sentences.
Put a comma before any parenthetical subordinate clause
While adjective clauses are quite easy to spot, other subordinate clauses may be slightly hazier.
Here’s an example of a parenthetical noun clause.
Here’s an example of a parenthetical adverb clause.
To know whether a clause is parenthetical, just simply take it out from the sentence.
The incorrect comma use before a subordinate clause
Now that we have grasped the necessary pre-comma usage, let’s also see the circumstances where the comma insertion becomes wrong.
Do not put a comma before a restrictive adjective clause
While nonrestrictive adjective clauses need pre-commas, the restrictive ones must not be preceded with a comma on the other hand.
Again, this is because restrictive information, from the word itself, is highly crucial to the meaning of the whole statement.
And thus, it cannot be taken out from the sentence because doing so makes the grammaticality and overall meaning fall apart.
Here’s an example to show that.
The quick and easy way around restrictive clauses is to check the antecedent used, which means the noun being described by the clause.
An unspecified noun needs restrictive information afterward, while a specific one only needs additional, nonrestrictive description.
Do not put a comma before an adverb clause that comes after the main clause
The other case that makes a pre-comma inappropriate is the reversed complex sentence structure.
A reversed complex sentence is introduced by the adverb clause, and then, followed by the main clause afterward.
We cannot start a sentence with a comma, so, obviously, we must never put one before “despite” in the example above.
This condition is true among most subordinate adverb clauses, with a few special cases that need some thorough consideration.
An exception to the rule applies to a few subordinating conjunctions, which is explained in the next section.
Don’t worry, we’re almost done, so please hold tight just a little bit more.
The optional comma placement before subordinate clauses
So far, we have already discussed the conditions that prompt either the pre-comma placement or omission.
But, you know, as English teachers often say, some exceptions to the rule apply every once in a while.
A few adverb clauses may or may not need a pre-comma placement despite being used in the normal order in complex sentence format.
This is true when the subordinating conjunction used may imply the meaning “but,” which is a coordinating conjunction.
Again, coordinating conjunctions are used in creating compound sentences, which prompts a pre-comma usage.
Let’s now go over these conjunctions with dual purposes, which might need a little bit of self-deliberation.
“Although” that means “but”
The subordinating conjunction “although” can either be used to mean “even though” or “but.”
When it is used to mean “even though,” a pre-comma is not needed, as shown in the example below.
However, a comma is necessary when we use “although” to mean “but.”
“While” that means “but”
The same is true with the “while,” which could either mean “during the time” or “whereas.”
A comma is inessential when the meaning of “while” refers to time.
And, you must have guessed it right. A comma is necessary when we use “while” to compare and contrast two arguments.
Pretty easy, yes? I hope things are much clearer now.
“Whereas” that means “but”
Lastly, the comma before “whereas” is also optional, at least for some writers.
For the sake of this post, I would like to take the position that a comma before “whereas” when used mid-sentence is crucial for textual readability purposes.
Meanwhile, we also need to consider the arbitrariness of language and people’s preferences, which means not everyone practices pre-comma usage.
Here’s how to use “whereas” in a sentence to contrast ideas.
And, here’s another option of not using a pre-comma, which is possible as long as the omission does not lead to misinterpretation.
So what do you think is the default equation in deciding whether to put a comma before “whereas”?
Apparently, it’s quite easy.
The longer the contrastive argument is, the more necessary the pre-comma to “whereas” becomes. That’s. Just. It.
Frequently Asked Questions
When is a comma necessary before subordinating conjunctions?
A pre-comma is essential before a subordinating conjunction only if the clause is parenthetically interrupting the sentence either midway or towards the end. And, we also need a preceding comma when using the conjunctions while, although, and whereas when they mean “but.”
What are the types of subordinate clauses?
The three major types of subordinate clauses are called noun clauses, adjective clauses, and adverb clauses. These subordinate clauses cannot stand alone, therefore, their meaning is dependent on the main clauses that they are paired with.
What are some examples of subordinating conjunctions?
The most common examples of subordinating conjunctions are those that don’t belong in the FANBOYS. These are because, although, since, unless, provided that, despite, since, and as long as.
This text is quite exhaustive, and hence, you can pat yourself on the back if you’ve reached this part.
All I‘m hoping for is that you’ll never have to worry about whether or not to insert a comma before subordinating clauses, ever again.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.