Clauses and clause elements

(Most of the links in this handout go to the glossary of grammatical terms where you will find more explanations/examples than can be given in the handout.)


Clause element (constituent): a word/phrase/clause that fulfils a syntactic function in a clause or a sentence


1.    Peter is reading.

2.    He is reading a thick novel.

3.    He finds the novel fascinating.


Syntactic functions:


Verb (V): the state/action. Always a verb (phrase)

·      You must feed the cat.


Subject (S): the “doer” of the action. Typically a noun (phrase)

·      You must feed the cat.


Direct Object (dO): the sufferer/result of the action. Typically a noun phrase

·      You must feed the cat.


Indirect Object (iO): the beneficiary of the action. Typically a noun phrase

·      I fed the cat some fish


Subject predicative (sP): a description/qualification of the subject. Adjectival or nominal. Occurs with such verbs as be, become, etc.

·      The cat is hungry. / The cat is my favourite animal.


Object predicative (oP): a description/qualification of the direct object. Adjectival or nominal.

·      I find cats annoying. / The Egyptians considered the cat a sacred animal.


Adverbial (A): time, place, manner etc. Typically adverb (phrase) or prepositional phrase.

·      The cat wasn’t fed yesterday. The cat is in my favourite chair.  I am sitting uncomfortably on the floor.


Common syntactic functions of some phrase types


Phrase type

Syntactic function(s) at clause level

Syntactic function(s) at phrase level

Verb phrase



Noun phrase 

Subject, Object, Predicative 

complement of preposition

Adjective phrase 


premodifier in noun phrase

Adverb phrase 


premodifier in adjective phrase or in adverb phrase

Prepositional phrase


postmodifier in noun phrase, complement of adjective


Nominal function: syntactic function typical of a noun phrase (Subject, Object, Predicative; complement of preposition)

Verbal function: syntactic function typical of a verb phrase (Verb)

Adjectival function: syntactic function typical of an adjective phrase (Predicative; modifier in noun phrase)

Adverbial function: syntactic function typical of an adverb phrase (Adverbial; modifier in adjective phrase)

Read more about  form and function in the Internet Grammar of English



Clause: a combination of words/phrases, usually structured around a Verb. Main clauses have a finite Verb and can function as complete, independent sentences.
Subordinate clauses are either finite or non-finite (depending on the form of the Verb). They have a syntactic function in another clause, and are thus syntactically dependent. They cannot function on their own as complete, independent sentences.


Main clause: I was reading the newspaper.
Nothing caught my interest.

Subordinate clause: … that I subscribe to (finite)

… while I was having breakfast (finite)
… while having breakfast (non-finite)


Simple:        I was reading the newspaper.
Compound: I read the newspaper, but nothing caught my interest.
Complex:    I was reading the newspaper that I subscribe to.

I was reading the newspaper while I was having breakfast.

I was reading the newspaper while having breakfast.

The structure of a complex sentence (main clause)

|-------matrix clause--------| |-------------subordinate clause-------------------|
I read in the newspaper that the president is facing further criticism.

Matrix clause = main clause minus subordinate clause.

The structure of a compound sentence

|-------main clause------|    c  |-------main clause-------------|
I read the newspaper, but nothing caught my interest.

c = connector

sentence (complex)

adverbial                 Subject        verb        direct object         mainclause level

c     subj    verb                                                                   subordinate clause level

           verb phr    noun phr               noun phrase          phrase level

conj   pron aux verb   noun   noun verb det adj       noun        word level

When she was asked, Peter’s sister sang a beautiful folksong.

Analysis of some sentences:

     |--------S------------| |----V-----| |----------A-------------|
1. Winnie-the-Pooh sat down at the foot of a tree.

      S          V        |---------A----------------|    c    |----V------------|    A
2. He crawled out of the gorse-bush and began to think again.

         c    |--------------S---------------------|    V    |--------sP------------|
3. And the first person he thought of was Christopher Robin.

     |--------S------------|    V     |---------------------A---------------------------|
4. Winnie-the-Pooh went to a very muddy place that he knew of.

      S        V      |--------------A-----------------|
5. He rolled until he was black all over.

     S    V    |--------------dO-------------------|
6. I think the bees suspect something.

            A           S       V      |-------------dO-------------------|
7. Perhaps they think that you’re after their honey.

      |--------------S----------------------| V |----------sP-------|
8. The important bee to deceive is the Queen Bee.


Major Clause Patterns

Basic clause patterns: the ways in which the different constituent types can be combined in a clause (minus optional constituents)


Peter left.


Peter has left the building.


Peter is ill.


Peter is at home.


The teacher gave Peter an assignment.


The assignment made Peter's headache worse.


He put his books in a drawer.



Valency: the number of constituents that are required in addition to the verb in order to form a grammatical sentence (one-place verb: verb + one constituent, two-place verb: verb + two constituents etc.)


1.      It is snowing.

2.      A heavy snowfall has blocked the road.

3.      I’ve put a note on the door.


Transitivity: a transitive verb requires a direct object to complete the sentence. The opposite is intransitive.


One-place verb: SV

4.      Mary has left.

5.      Mary left a moment ago.

6.      All the honey had been eaten.

Two-place verb:

I: SVdO  (monotransitive verb)

7.      Polly snatched my letter.

8.      They have eaten all the honey.

9.      We’ve been trying to organize ourselves.


II: SVsP  (copular verb)


10.  Life is a joke.

11.  He seems a bit odd.

12.  The authorities have become aware of these practices.

13.  Something went wrong.

Equative (=)

14.  Blindern is the name of the campus.

15.   Words are the building blocks for speech.

16.  All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.


III: SVA  (intransitive verb – obligatory adverbial)

17.  This job leads to nothing.

18.  He lives in a world of his own.

19.  We are in an auditorium.

20.           This glass breaks easily.


Three-place verb

I: SViOdO  (di-transitive verb)

21.  She handed me a letter.

22.  I’ll call you a taxi.

23.  I paid her the full amount.


II: SVdOoP (complex transitive)

24.  She considers herself ordinary.

25.  They made the evening a success.

26.  It left her lame in her right leg.

27.  They call themselves Williams.


III: SVdOA (monotransitive verb – obligatory adverbial)

28.  The crisis in ambulance services is putting lives at risk.

29.  It’s bringing tears to my cheeks.

30.  They must keep the aircraft in continuous use.


Troublemaker I: postmodifier vs. object predicative

I have a basket full of apples. The basket is full of apples
* The basket is full because I have it.

I filled the glass full. The glass became full.
The glass is full because I filled it.

Troublemaker II: direct object vs. subject predicative:

She felt a fool. She felt the material. She kissed a fool.

Troublemaker III: SViOdO vs. SVdOoP

He found her a good husband. (SViOdO - he found a husband for her)
He found her a good wife. (most likely: SVdOoP - he thought she was a good wife)

I made David a meal. (SViOdO - I prepared a meal for David)
I made David a success. (SVdOoP - I caused him to be a success)

Troublemaker IV: Delimiting constituents: postmodifier vs. adverbial

I know the bloke with the beard in the corner over there.
We stationed the bloke with the beard in the corner over there.
He photographed the bloke with the beard in the corner over there.
                                                                                - ambiguous; the picture was taken in the corner (adverbial)
                                                                                    or a picture was taken of the man in the corner (postmod)

Minor patterns


Anticipatory subject (aS) (it/there) – the notional subject comes at the end of the clause


1.      There is milk in the fridge. (SVA)

2.      There was a sudden explosion. (SV)

3.      Is there any food left? (SVA)

4.      It is unlikely that mastery of English grammar will ever make you rich. (SVsP)

5.      It makes sense to create such a system. (SVdO)

6.      It is hard keeping a relationship going. (SVsP)


Anticipatory object (aO)

7.      I find it hard to accept this sudden change.


Free predicative (FP)

8.      Terrified, they ran away as fast as they could go. (cf. They were terrified and ran away …)


Vocative (Voc)

9.      What’s that, Sarah?

10.  You in the blue jacket, come here!


Insert (Ins)

11.  Ah, that’s nice of you.

12.  Oh well I don’t know.

13.  I would like a return ticket to Cardiff, please.


14.  Oblique objectI sent an application to a computer company. (cf. I sent them an application.)

15.  I’ll save one for you. (cf. I’ll save you one.)

16.  They never presented him with this problem.

17.  They never presented this problem to him.


Connector (c)

18.  And they lived happily ever after.

19.  She’s nice, if you like that type.


Semantic roles of subjects:

Agent: Mary gave John a book.

Affected: A book was given to John.

Instrumental:The book made John happy.

Charaterized:The book was expensive.

Semantic roles of direct objects:

Affected: Peter burnt the toast.

Effected: Peter made us toast.

Eventive: Peter gave a shout.

Semantic role of indirect objects:

Recipient: Mary gave John a book.

Semantic role of subject and object predicatives:

The students were overwhelmed.
The students looked overwhelmed.
The students found grammar intriguing.

Exercises with clause analysis  here
More on form and function in  The Internet Grammar

Go to the grammar home page
©  HH