ACT English: Independent and Dependent Clauses

When it comes down to identifying grammar errors in a sentence, you really cannot afford to overlook the dynamic duo of the grammar world: independent and dependent clauses. A clause is an expression (group of words) that includes both a subject and a verb. The difference between the independent and the dependent clause is simple: an independent clause is a complete thought that can stand alone as a sentence; a dependent clause is an incomplete thought that cannot stand alone as a sentence.

Independent Clause

When trying to identify independent clauses, use your instincts. If the clause can stand on its own as a complete sentence, it is independent. Below are examples of simple and complex sentences; the independent clauses are italicized:

  1. I brought my umbrella.
  2. Because it was raining, I brought my umbrella.
  3. I brought my umbrella, but John insisted that it wasn’t necessary.
  4. I brought my umbrella, only to find out that it wasn’t raining at all.

Notice that only the italicized parts of the sentence can stand alone as sentences. While the expression “because it was raining” contains both a subject and a verb, it cannot stand alone as a sentence, so it constitutes a dependent clause.

Dependent Clause

Use the same instincts to identify dependent clauses that you used to identify independent clauses. If the clause cannot stand on its own, it is dependent. In the following examples, the dependent clauses are italicized.

  1. After the game was finished, we went home.
  2. In order to accomplish your goals, you must believe in yourself.
  3. Because he feared a failing grade, John completed his homework.

Notice that in each sentence, a dependent clause must be accompanied by an independent clause. Also notice that words like “after” and “because” turn independent clauses into dependent clauses. If we examine the dependent clause “after the game was finished,” we can make it independent by removing “after;” now, “The game was finished” constitutes an independent clause.  “After” and “because” function as dependent marker words. Here is a list of others:
after, although, as, as if, because, before, even if, even though, if, in order to, since, though,unless, until, whatever, when, whenever, whether, and while.

Connecting Clauses

The ACT will most likely test your knowledge of connecting clauses.  As we saw with the earlier examples, a dependent clause can be placed before an independent clause with a comma (Because he feared a failing grade, John completed his homework). We can also place that dependent clause after the independent clause, but no comma is necessary: “John completed his homework because he feared a failing grade.”
To connect two independent clauses together, use a semicolon or a comma with a coordinating conjunction.
Example using Semicolon:

  • Students often don’t see the value of homework; they complete their assignments out of necessity rather than out of a desire to learn.

Example using Coordinating Conjunction:

  • Students often don’t see the value of homework, but teachers still try to convince students of homework’s importance.

You can easily remember the list of coordinating conjunctions–those conjunctions which can join two independent clauses with a comma–by the acronym FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.

Common Errors

Comma Splices

Comma splices occur when two independent clauses are joined by a comma without the appropriate coordinating conjunction or without a semicolon in place of the comma.

  • I enjoyed the lecture, it was full of interesting information.

To fix the sentence, replace the comma with a semicolon, insert a coordinating conjunction after the comma, or make one of the independent clauses dependent.
i.      I enjoyed the lecture; it was full of interesting information.
ii.      I enjoyed the lecture, and it was full of interesting information.
iii.      I enjoyed the lecture because it was full of interesting information.
iv.      Because it was full of interesting information, I enjoyed the lecture

Sentence Fragments

A sentence fragment is a dependent clause or incomplete thought which stands alone as a sentence. This negates the very definition of dependent clause!
i.      Running through the park on a Saturday morning. (this lacks a subject: who is running?)
ii.      The man in the alley, who was digging through the dumpster. (this lacks a predicate: the man in the alley, who was digging, did what?)
iii.      Because I ran through the park on a Saturday morning. (This is a dependent clause: why did I run through the park?)
To fix these, make sure you complete the incomplete idea by adding the missing subject or verb, adding the missing independent clause, or transforming the dependent clause into an independent clause.
i.      I ran through the park on a Saturday morning.
ii.      The man in the alley, who was digging through the dumpster, was covered in dirt.
iii. Because I ran through the park on a Saturday morning, I felt energized for the rest of the day.
Just remember, when you encounter long, convoluted sentences on the ACT , try to break the sentence down into its independent and dependent clauses. If you have trouble doing so, there might be problem with the sentence.