Embedded Clauses

Now that we’ve looked at all the clause types, we need to understand how they interact with each other. Remember, a sentence can, and often does have multiple clauses, especially the compound-complex sentences. Sometimes these clauses are difficult to discern as they are embedded within one another and within phrases.



Look at the following sentence. It is the first sentence of the American Declaration of Independence, and so it is a very important sentence. Firstly, try to identify the independent clause within this sentence and therefore its main subject:

(Do not get distracted by the use of the commas in this sentence – they are somewhat old-fashioned.)

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (written July, 1776)

Independent clause: a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes  – the main subject of this long sentence is respect.

When… it becomes necessary – adverb clause, time relationship to independent clause

which have connected them with another – adjective clause modifying the noun bands

to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them – adjective clause modifying the noun station

that they should declare the causes – noun clause as object to the verb requires

which impel them to the separation – adjective clause modifying the noun causes (these days, the which would be written as that)

in the course of human events – prepositional phrase as time (adverb) modifier to the verb becomes

for one people to dissolve the political bands and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station – prepositional phrase with compound infinitive phrases as subject complement to it

Though this sentence may seem complicated, it is much simpler when cut into its clauses and phrases.


Let’s review a few central aspects of each clause type.

Independent: There must be one clause in the sentence that can be set apart and that can stand on its own as a complete sentence with a complete idea. This clause will be the independent clause and contain the main idea of the sentence. Remember that other clauses and phrases may come between the subject and the main verb of the independent clause, which means the independent clause will not always be obvious in a sentence.

Noun: This is not a modifying clause. A noun clause is, essentially, a noun and thus acts with a specific function in the sentence: as a subject or object of a clause, object of a preposition, or complement. Also remember that often the clause marker that can be omitted, making it even harder to recognize the noun clause.

Adjective: This clause always acts as an adjective to modify a noun. The noun can appear anywhere in the sentence and be part of any other clause or phrase.

Adverb: This clause always shows some sort of relationship between one clause and another, or acts as an adverb to a verb.

Keeping these basic concepts in mind, let’s look at a few multi-clause sentences.

Ex: Once all the forms you’ve been given are properly filled out, and you’ve made a copy for yourself that you may use for future reference, submit them to the secretary at the administration office, which is located on the 10th floor, and be sure to take a stamped receipt.

Once all the forms are properly filled out and you’ve made a copy – adverb clause, time relationship to independent clause (when should you submit?)

(that) you’ve been given – adjective clause identifying the forms

that you may use for future reference – noun clause as complement to copy

submit them to the secretary and be sure to take a stamped receipt – independent clauses (compound)

which is located on the 10th floor – adjective clause to office




The ISS, or International Space Station, which first entered orbit around Earth in 1998, has hosted astronauts from several nations, who, despite whatever political turmoil might be taking place on land back home, cooperate to advance scientific research that will one day help humanity as a whole reach places never seen before.

The ISS has hosted astronauts from several nations – independent clause

or International Space Station – appositive phrase (alternative name to the noun before it)

which first entered orbit around Earth in 1998 – adjective clause, modifying the ISS

who cooperate to advance scientific research – adjective clause modifying astronauts

despite whatever political turmoil might be taking place on land back home – prepositional phrase with noun clause as object of the preposition despite

that will one day help humanity as a whole reach places – adjective clause identifying research

never seen before – reduced adjective clause identifying places (that have never been seen before)

Based on what I’ve been reading and hearing in the media over the last several days, I would have to conclude that the campaign, which is still rather fresh, has stumbled quite heavily right out of the gate and will have serious difficulties in recuperating even if the candidate works to clean up his tarnished image.

I would have to conclude (+ noun clause that follows) – independent clause

that the campaign has stumbled and will have serious difficulties – noun clause as object to independent clause (with compound verb)

Based on what I’ve been reading and hearing (in the media over the last several days) – adverbial participle phrase (If I base (my judgment) on …) + prepositional phrase

even if the candidate works to clean up his tarnished image. – adverb clause, emphasis relationship to have difficulties

Final note: Doing this kind of analysis on sentences you find in written works is a great exercise in understanding the elements of a sentence. This is especially true of academic writing, which more often than tends to use overly long, complicated sentences.

Reduced Clauses