Helping Your Sentences Stand Up for Themselves

Walnuts as pickedThere are two types of clauses that we use to build sentences in English. There are independent clauses, which contain a complete statement of subject, verb, and object; and there are dependent clauses, which contain an incomplete statement. The basic test for an independent vs. dependent clause is to ask yourself if the clause would make sense as a sentence. If it would, it’s independent.

A good writer knows which information should go in an independent clause and which information should go in a dependent clause. Because independent clauses are the core of your sentence, you generally want to use them to convey the most important information in that sentence. This will draw the readers’ focus and help them understand your writing.

Dependent clauses, which ‘borrow’ parts of their logic from the independent clause that governs them, should generally contain secondary information. For instance, look at the sentence, “The carriage rattled over the bridge, spraying melting snow behind it.” The independent clause carries the main image that the reader gets from the sentence, while the dependent clause gives us some information about the scenery.

Writers should be careful with their dependent clauses, because too many of them in one sentence can overburden your writing and leave your reader lost in a sea of commas and modifiers. Everyone can benefit from taking a sample of their writing and highlighting the dependent and independent clauses in different colors. Ideally, you should see that independent clauses dominate your writing. If the reverse is true, go through your sentences and find places where you can convert a dependent clause to an independent clause.

Good, strong writing is easy to understand. It tells the readers what they need to know, and it conveys information in relatively short segments of language. Minding your dependent and independent clauses is an important part of strengthening your prose.