Grammar Hammer: Punxsutawney Phil and His Long Clause

Punxsutawney Phil and friend, celebrating Groundhog's Day last week. Photo via Day-finder.com

Via this column, we’ll explore one grammar rule each week. If you have a grammar question you’d like me to address, please drop me a line at grace.lavigne @prnewswire.com and I’ll do my best to answer it.

Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow this Groundhog Day, so that means six more weeks of “winter.” Phil has doomed us all. So in light of our dependence on this glorified vermin’s weather-predicting skills, we will be discussing dependent and independent clauses.

(Do groundhogs even have claus-es?)

An independent or main clause expresses a complete thought and can stand alone. A grammatical sentence can include:

  • A single independent clause: Having a rodent predict the weather seems silly.
  • An independent clause plus a dependent clause: Having a rodent predict the weather seems silly, but having a talking head do it seems worse.
  • Two or more independent clauses: Phil actually controls the weather, and he is a cranky dude.

Conjunctions are words that link groups of words together, and specify the words’ relationships to one another. Coordinating conjunctions (words like and, but, because, or, for, nor, yet, so) are used to join words of equal grammatical weight (independent clauses).

  • Some say “Phil” was his father’s name and some say “Phil” was his mother’s name.
  • Phil won’t dance with you to “The Pennsylvania Polka” because he hates that song.

A dependent or subordinate clause cannot stand alone and implies there is more information coming. On its own, a dependent clause is incomplete in meaning.

  • Since Phil can’t speak.
  • While he pets Phil.
  • As Phil was eating.

Subordinating conjunctions cause independent clauses to become dependent (like since, although, after, as, as if, because, before, despite, even if, in order that, so that, unless, until, whenever, whereas, while).

  • Subordinating conjunctions can simply be tacked on to an independent clause to make it dependent.
    • People from all over gather to see Phil emerge from his den, but it’s just another reason to stay up all night drinking
    • It is just another reason to stay up all night drinking is an independent clause until you add the subordinating conjunction but.
  • Or subordinating conjunctions can replace the subject to make the sentence dependent:
    • Phil’s den smells really weird.
    • Replace Phil’s den with which and it becomes dependent: Which smells really weird.
    • But the dependent clause is grammatical within a larger sentence: Phil likes company in his den, which smells really weird.

Written by Grace Lavigne, editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

4 responses to “Grammar Hammer: Punxsutawney Phil and His Long Clause

  1. Since an independent clause can stand alone, does that mean all independnt clauses are grammatical sentences?

  2. Hi rsmithing! The short answer: an independent clause is not necessarily grammatical just because it stands alone, because it can still break other grammar rules.

    It depends on whether you’re considering grammar rules for clauses only, or all grammar rules. For instance, if you’re only considering rules of clauses, then as long as your stand-alone clause is independent and not a run-on, it is grammatical.

    However, consider this independent clause: “This is how it looks like.”
    In terms of clause rules only, this sentence correctly stands alone — “This is how it looks like” is not a fragment or a run-on. Nevertheless, the sentence misuses the interrogative “how” because it should be “This is WHAT it looks like.” (How could “how” “look like” anything?) So it is ungrammatical in another sense.

    Conclusion: There is always more than one way to be ungrammatical!

    This was a really interesting question! Thanks.

    • First, I should really learn to spell “independent.”

      Next: interesting answer — thanks! I used to tutor ESL students with the advice of, “think of independent clauses as you would sentences,” but I always stopped short of defining them as sentences, because there could always be an exception.

  3. Some grammarians will tell you that “independent clause” is just another word for “sentence,” but I’m of the belief that “all independent clauses are sentences, but not all sentences are independent clauses.”

    It’s a matter of preference, but I believe that sentences that start with “however” could just as easily replace it with “but” (which is a conjunction as I said in my article.) Saying you can’t start a sentence with “but” or “because” or “and” or any other conjunction is a simplistic answer, and is generally best followed for people who don’t want to think about grammar too hard. But rules can be bent sometimes for style purposes — like for this sentence.

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