Fractured Clauses

Fractured Clauses Ah, grammar; everyone’s favorite subject. I can see your eyes glazing over already. However, for the sake of good writing and better stories, let’s talk for a minute about clauses. In my recent reading, I’ve been running into quite a few instances of clauses gone wrong. Poorly written, clauses can be awkward at best and can cause major confusion at worst. Do you really want your readers to be confused? I didn’t think so.

Let’s get the official definitions out of the way first.

A primary division of clauses is that between main clauses and subordinate clauses.  A main clause can stand alone; it can constitute a complete sentence by itself. A subordinate clause (also called an embedded clause) depends on the main clause and is therefore a dependent clause, while the main clause is an independent clause.

John, the president of the group, called the meeting to order.

The main clause is John called the meeting to order. The subordinate clause is the president of the group. You can see that the main clause creates a complete sentence, while the subordinate clause does not.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, there are restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, and they are handled in different ways. A restrictive clause does not require commas (as in my wife Irene …). Unless the man lives in Utah, he only has one wife, so the noun, wife, is restricted to Irene. While in common usage you might see such a sentence with commas (as in my wife, Irene, …), they are not necessary and could, strictly speaking, cause confusion.

In a nonrestrictive clause, commas are like parentheses so you need a pair bracketing the embedded clause. Imagining the sentence with parentheses can help to clarify the structure for us. The man (who was tall and slim) said hello. Or, The man, who was tall and slim, said hello.


Probably the most common misuse of clauses has to do with this comma issue. Over and over I have seen sentences like this:

He and Fred, his friend from high school ran down the street.

Understandably, his friend from high school ran down the street sounds like a good sentence. Only problem is, it’s half main clause and half subordinate clause. The main clause, He and Fred ran down the street, is a single unit while the embedded clause, his friend from high school, is a secondary unit. The correct structure should be:

He and Fred, his friend from high school, ran down the street.

Remember that bit about using commas or parentheses: either choice needs two, one on either side of the clause to set it apart from the main sentence.


The second problem I see is putting clauses in awkward places in a sentence.

“What’s the signal to jump?” one of the skydivers who was inside the plane with John and Marsha asked.

Awkward. With the clause who was inside the plane with John and Marsha in between one of the skydivers and asked, the speaker and the dialog tag are about as far from each other as they can get.

Instead, how about, “What’s the signal to jump?” asked one of the skydivers who was inside the plane with John and Marsha.

Here’s another one:

Junco Research, who had filed a lawsuit against Victor’s company claiming property damage in a Nevada circuit court …

Again we have clauses that are chopped up and divided awkwardly. It sounds as if the damage was done in the court, not that the lawsuit was filed there. Instead, this should read something like this:

Junco Research, who had filed a lawsuit in a Nevada circuit court against Victor’s company claiming property damage …

And finally:

I saw a mouse running along the baseboard out of the corner of my eye.

That sounds painful. Do I really have a baseboard running out of the corner of my eye? Or a mouse? Let’s hope not. A simple rearrangement will straighten this out.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a mouse running along the baseboard.

This way, out of the corner of my eye modifies me (I saw), not the baseboard or the mouse.

The real problem for writers (myself included) is that we know what we’re trying to say. We have the image of the action clearly in our minds, so however the sentence is structured, it makes perfect sense to us. In times like these, it really does benefit us to remember old Mrs. McGillicuddie’s 8th grade English class on grammar and sentence structure. Barring that, we need plenty of beta-readers and/or editors to check up on us. Clauses can be tricky, but our readers will thank us for using them correctly.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

28 thoughts on “Fractured Clauses”

  1. The other thing that makes this difficult is that, spoken in a conversation, our tone and the context allow the hearer to understand without being confused. Even though it is incorrect, it sounds correct because we understand what is meant. Writing is different. We do not hear the tone, the cadence, or the rapidity of the statement.

    1. Excellent point, Yvonne. When speaking, we give clues with our tone and inflection, tilt of the head, quirk of the eyebrows, etc. In writing, we must rely on punctuation for the clues. Thanks for adding that.

  2. Since we love being picky here, “the president of the group” is a phrase, not a clause. A clause has a subject and a predicate. “who was the president of the group,” for example.
    The rest of your post is bang on.


  3. Super duper! Thanks for this post, Melissa. This is another one to share with my Press. I caught a lot of these errors you mentioned in a piece I was editing for an author the other day. Maybe some folks will make my job a little easier after reading this.

    1. Thanks, Blaze. Just a reminder that we always have to be on guard against ways we confuse our readers, never a good thing. I hate having to stop reading to figure out what the sentence is really trying to say.

  4. If you are interested in a simple, visual resource book to review key grammar rules in writing check out Harry R. Noden’s books called Image Grammar published by Perfection Learning. Clauses, the number one nightmare of English teachers, are expertly explained through the use of picture prompts.

  5. Agreed on everything, except for the “spouse example.” If you have only one wife, my grammar manuals state that “my wife, Mary,” should be set off by commas. Also true of siblings. If you write, “my brother, Mike,” it indicates that you have only one brother; “my brother Mike” would mean that you have more than one brother. Regardless of an author’s preference, I’d say choose one style or the other but be consistent in your writing.

    1. Linda, as I said, I was going by the Chicago Manual of Style and of course we all know there are other style guides as well and they don’t always agree. I’m with you on choosing one style and sticking with it. Consistency rules where agreement might be nebulous. Thanks for commenting.

      1. Thanks for this post! You’ve actually got this point backwards, though–the name of the spouse is set off by commas precisely because it is nonrestrictive (see CMoS 6.23, and note their example: “Ursula’s husband, Jan, is also a writer.”).

        1. Which one is more correct, the way you’ve suggested above, or ‘Jan, Ursula’s husband, is also a writer.’ ? Is it purely a matter of the author’s choice, or does it depend on contect?

          1. Ian, I think we could argue this either way. My CMoS doesn’t show it at 6.23 but at 5.50 it says, “If the appositive has a restrictive function, it is not set off by commas: My son Michael was the first one to reply.” I actually feel like we’re getting down to splitting hairs here, and I would say choose the style that works best for you and stick to it. Between what’s “correct,” common usage and breaking the rules for your own reasons, I don’t think these commas are going to make or break a story.

          2. I agree, Melissa. But asking stupid questions like this helps me learn something about this peculiar language we use. It has so many irregularities, it’s hard to know what is and sin’t correct. But as you say, at the end it’s a matter of choice and that leaves plenty of room for nit-pickers to have sport and criticise.
            As for splitting hairs, why not? I learned a lot about biology at school when dissecting rabbits. Are hares very different? One has to split one to find out!

  6. Great post, Melissa. Correct grammar and sentence structure are vital, but sometimes even a grammatically correct sentence can be horrible – simply because we are trying to squash too much information into one, single sentence.

    When I’m writing that first draft, I’m writing for myself. As a result, I tend to do a lot of information squashing. I need to get all those bits and pieces in as efficiently as possible.

    My challenge after the first draft is to work out just exactly what the /reader/ needs to learn in any given sentence, and what can be safely left out, or saved for another sentence. Harder than it sounds. 🙂

    1. You’re right; there’s a lot more to consider than just being grammatically correct. We have to look at our writing from all sides to make sure we’re giving the reader the best experience we can. Yes, harder than it sounds but worth the effort. Thanks for adding that.

  7. Excellent post, Melissa, it’s always helpful to be reminded of the rules and to have a good back up (beta reader, editor) checking the work that often comes spilling out without consideration for clause structure; or phrasing, Gordon. I mostly get the structure right, but I’m often not aware of the difference between a clause and a phrase.

    1. Thanks, TD. Just to clarify, I’m not holding a class here and there’s no test; I don’t think we all need to memorize every detail of the style guide. We just need to be aware of how these things work (or not) so we can lead our readers as effortlessly as possible through our story. If we’re unsure, we can always look the rule up. No worries!

  8. Having never understood anything about grammar this has be completely banjaxed! It sounds as convoluted as legal language which, I’m convinced, is designed purely to confuse and make simple things unclear except to the initiated.I still haven’t a clue what clauses are, although I probably use them all the time, and I’m left wondering at then end whether I even need to know. Oh, sure, the purists will say that I do need to understand in order to be a better writer, but really, is that true? I use language (any one of several) in whatever form best tells what I want to say. But do I need to understand and analyse the structure? I’m not sure that I do. It certainly isn’t my rime motivator! I just want to share the stories in whatever way I can that interests other people.

    1. Ian, I sure don’t want you to be banjaxed! (And what the hell is that, anyway?) As I said to TD, I don’t believe we need to know the gruesome details unless that appeals to us; it suffices that someone somewhere is working in a dark corner to tease all this out. I think most of us write instinctively, feeling our way through via pacing, sound, etc. When our writing gets convoluted, though, we need to be able to pull out the parts of it and reorder it so it flows. We want our story-telling to be as far from legalese as possible!

      1. Thanks Melissa, that’s very reassuring. I was beginning to think it was like looking into the intimacies of my alimentary tract and needing to know the details of all the cell types, how they function and what can go wrong with them, just to be able to digest my dinner. If I need to analyse to that extent the language I use simply in order to write reasonably well, I think I might give up. Then the world would lose out. As it is I shall carry on in blissful ignorance. 🙂

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