Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2011
The Legal Writer
Celebrating Dependence:
The Joys of Subordinate Clauses
By Megan McAlpin

Pop quiz. Which of these sentences needs a comma before the conjunction so?

a. The officer pulled the speeding car over so she could give the driver a ticket.

b. The officer had probable cause so she stopped the car.

If you guessed — umn, answered — b, you’re right. If you answered a, well, you’re wrong.

But in all fairness, it was a really hard quiz. To get it right, you have to know the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction. You also have to know the difference between an independent clause and a dependent clause. Ugh, right?

It might seem like knowing the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction isn’t all that helpful for your everyday life. Sure, it will impress people at parties, but beyond that, what use is it really? Well, knowing the difference between different kinds of conjunctions and different kinds of clauses will help make punctuating, writing and editing easier. And who doesn’t need that? So let’s get started.

Truly Independent?
An independent clause is, essentially, a complete sentence. It has everything it needs to stand alone as a sentence. For example, in option b above, there are two independent clauses.

The officer had probable cause.

He stopped the car.

Each of these clauses could have been a sentence, but the writer chose to combine them and link them with the coordinating conjunction so.

Unlike independent clauses, dependent clauses can’t stand alone as a sentence. But, and here’s where things get tricky, they actually kind of look like sentences. They have subjects and verbs and sometimes objects and complements. But the problem is that, even though they look like sentences, they don’t act like sentences. Take a look at what happens when you try to split option a above into two separate sentences.

The officer pulled the speeding car over.

He could give the driver a ticket.

Something’s just not quite right about the second sentence. It doesn’t really make sense on its own. It really only makes sense in relation to the first sentence. In other words, the second clause depends on the first clause for its meaning — which is why the name “dependent clause” is so clever. It looks like a sentence, but it just doesn’t act like one.

But finding a dependent clause by looking for strings of words that look like sentences but don’t act like sentences isn’t very practical. Luckily, this is the point in our little drama where the conjunctions make their entrance.

So or So That? (So What?)
Conjunctions have a pretty simple job. Whenever I think of conjunctions, I picture railroad cars. Remember conjunction junction? “Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” Well, that’s actually a pretty terrific definition of a conjunction — it hooks up words, phrases and clauses and shows the relationship that those words, phrases and clauses have to each other.

There are actually a handful of different kinds of conjunctions. But we’re just going to focus on coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. You might want to look up the others. But knowing about the other conjunctions doesn’t actually even make you a hit at parties. Trust me. I’ve tried.

Subordinating conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions are like grammatical co-workers. They work in the same office but have slightly different jobs. You already know that a coordinating conjunction joins grammatically equal elements—two words or two phrases or two clauses. (Remember FANBOYS? — see “Running On? Life Support for Sentences by Suzanne Rowe, July 2009 OSB Bulletin; www.osbar.org/publications/bulletin/09jul/legalwriter.html .) For example:

The court was deciding whether the defendant was negligent, but it had to consider the young plaintiff’s role in the accident.

The court considered the child’s age and experience.

Subordinating conjunctions, on the other hand, let a reader know that a dependent clause is coming. They announce: “Hey, there’s another part of this sentence coming but to really know what it means, you have to know how it relates to the rest of the sentence.” For example:

If the child had been older, the precautions the defendant took to protect children from the dangers of the pool on her property might have been sufficient.

The child didn’t recognize the danger she faced when she climbed the short fence to retrieve her ball.

The most common subordinating conjunctions include after, although, as, as if, because, before, even though, how, if, in order that, once, rather than, since, so that, than, that, though, unless, until, when, where, whether, while and why. I really tried to come up with a FANBOYSesque acronym for the subordinating conjunctions but just couldn’t do it.

Perfect Punctuation
So, now that you know the difference between an independent clause and a dependent clause and the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a subordinating conjunction, you’re ready to punctuate perfectly. Well, almost ready. You still need to know where the commas go in the midst of all these clauses and conjunctions.

The rule for coordinating conjunctions is really pretty simple. Use a comma when a coordinating conjunction joins two independent clauses. Notice what this rule doesn’t say. It doesn’t say use a comma anytime you see a coordinating conjunction. Nope. So anytime you see a coordinating conjunction paired with a comma, do a quick check to be sure that there is an independent clause on each side of that sentence.

Works: The officer had probable cause, so she stopped the car.

Doesn’t work: The officer had probable cause, so stopped the car.

The rules for commas and subordinating conjunctions are just a little more complicated. But, we’re lawyers, right? We expect all of our rules to be just a little complicated. And, really, compared to some statutes, these rules are a breeze.

The rules for subordinating conjunctions depend mostly on where the subordinating conjunction shows up. If the subordinating conjunction shows up at the beginning of the sentence, you need a comma. Oh, and the comma doesn’t go just anywhere, you need to put it at the end of the dependent clause that the subordinating conjunction introduced. Take a look:

When the child climbed the fence, she slipped and fell into the pool.

Even though the defendant had built a small fence around the pool, it was mostly decorative and insufficient to keep children out.

If the subordinating conjunction shows up at the end of the sentence, you may or may not need a comma. How’s that for a lawyerly rule? Maybe this will help: you need a comma if the dependent clause is not really essential to the sentence, but you don’t use a comma if the dependent clause is essential to the sentence. (Okay, grammar geeks, we’re just talking about the rules for dependent clauses that function as adverbs.) Still a little fuzzy? Let’s try a more direct approach.

If the dependent clause at the end of the sentence begins with although, even though or though, then you probably don’t really need the clause in your sentence. The comma stays. Take a look:

The court reasoned that the child was simply too young to realize the danger, even though she had some limited experience with swimming pools.

The sentence would still make perfect sense without the final clause. The final clause is just, well, bonus information. Because you don’t need the clause, you do need a comma.

If, on the other hand, the dependent clause at the end of the sentence begins with after, as soon as, because, before, if, since, unless, until and when, then you should ditch the comma. Take a look:

The court held that the defendant was liable because she failed to take precautions to protect children against the dangers of the artificial condition on her property.

Here the final clause isn’t just a bonus. It really completes this sentence. We need the clause, so we don’t want to alienate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Because you do need the clause, you don’t need the comma.

And Now Back to that Quiz
So, if you’re still not sure why option a wasn’t the right answer to the quiz, take another, closer look at that option. What the writer meant was:

The officer pulled the speeding car over so that he could give the driver a ticket.

Ah-ha! Remember that so that is a subordinating conjunction? Those two tiny words force the second part of the sentence to rely on the first part of the sentence for its meaning. In the example, the point of the second part of the sentence isn’t to tell the reader that the officer could give the driver a ticket (of course she can!) but to tell the reader why the officer pulled the car over.

Of course, the dirty trick in the pop quiz was that the writer of option a dropped the that from so that. But dropping the that is perfectly legitimate sometimes. (See “Which Is That?” in July 2010 OSB Bulletin; www.osbar.org/publications/bulletin/10jul/legalwriter.html.) I guess that just gives you one more reason to really know the difference between an independent clause and a dependent clause

So now you know why option a was the wrong answer to the pop quiz. Whether the officer should have given that poor driver a ticket is an entirely different question.

Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook (7th ed. Bedford/St. Martins 2009). 


Megan McAlpin teaches Legal Research and Writing at the University of Oregon School of Law. You may contact her at mmcalpin@uoregon.edu.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2011 Megan McAlpin

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