Clauses in Redesigned SAT Writing
Which of the following two examples is not a sentence?
He was tired.
Because he was tired.
Only the first one is a sentence. The second is a fragment.
Both of these, however, are clauses. So what exactly is a clause? Well, a clause is a phrase that contains a subject and a verb. It may or may not be a sentence.
So what’s the point of a clause? And what is the SAT really testing you on when it mentions clauses?
To answer the first question: breaking up long sentences into clauses helps us to better understand what each part of the sentence is doing.
This will also help you be able to tell when you are dealing with an actual sentence or when you are dealing with a fragment or a run-on. Which answers the second question: what does the SAT want you to know?
Sentence with Two Clauses
Now let’s take a look at a sentence that is made up of two clauses:
Because he was tired, Charlie decided not to run the race.
The first clause, “because he was tired”, is not a sentence. We call this a subordinate clause because it is not the most important part of the sentence. Hence, it is subordinate or secondary to the main part or man clause of the sentence, “Charlie decided not to run the race”. In other words, the big idea is that Charlie didn’t run the race.
It’s important to note that a subordinate clause is also called a dependent clause, because it “depends” on another clause. Otherwise, it’s just a sentence fragment. Similarly, a clause that is a complete sentence is called an independent clause. It’s independent; it doesn’t need to rely on any other clauses to be a sentence. The SAT is not going to test you on the exact terminology, but it will test you on the ability to determine whether a clause is a fragment.
Among the following examples, see if you can figure out which are sentences and which are fragments.
1) Though she participated often in class, hoping to get an ‘A’.
2) Hoping to get an ‘A’, she participated often in class.
3) Growing up in a household in which everyone watched baseball, David knowing all of the rules of the game.
4) Because he studied, he passed.
There are things I did in the sentences above. One is I relied on what are called subordinating conjunctions. Yep, as you can guess they relate to subordinate clauses. Indeed, if I take a simple sentence like “he studied” and if I add a subordinating conjunction in front of it, what was a sentence is no longer a sentence; it is now a subordinate clause.
This might seem counterintuitive since we would think that adding a word to a clause would make it less “fragment-y”. But that is not the case, if that word is a subordinating conjunction.
Subordinating conjunctions include because, although, even though, since, nevertheless, whereas, while.
There are more, but a good shortcut to identifying whether a word is a subordinating conjunction—and therefore a word that can make a perfectly valid sentence and a dependent clause—is to ask yourself the following: Does it provide a reason, contrast, or condition for the main clause?
Unless you finish all of your broccoli, you can’t have any ice cream. = Condition
Sarah was a star athlete, whereas her sister, Maggie, would rather not get up off the couch = Contrast
Now back to the four questions above.
1) The first part is a dependent clause (notice that subordinating conjunction “though”). The second part is a phrase, an orphan in search of a verb and a subject. Put that together with the dependent clause and you get a fragment.
2) A sentence. The first part technically isn’t a clause but a modifying phrase (more on these later). But since the second part (the clause after the comma) has a noun subject and a verb, and no subordinating conjunction, it is sentence. Put that together with the first phrase and you get a complete sentence.
3) The set up here looks very similar to #2. Notice, however, that the second clause doesn’t have an actual verb. It has the participle “knowing”, making the second clause gibberish. Therefore, #3 is not a sentence. Had “knowing” been “knew”, #3 would be a totally valid sentence.
4) First off, you can start a sentence with “because”, as long as you have a comma at the end of the first clause and the second clause is an independent clause. Since, “he passed” has a noun subject (“he”) and a verb (the past tense of pass), #4 is a sentence.
Knowing the difference between dependent/subordinating and independent/main clauses will set a strong foundation for of the grammar that follows. You’ll be able to spot the comma splice (something the SAT loves testing), understand semicolon use, and know when to use and not to use commas.
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