Chapter 14: KISS Level Three: Add Clauses -- Subordinate & Main


        The traditional explanations of clauses are not very helpful to students who are attempting to study the structure of their own writing. First of all, there is the confusion between "subordinate and main" as opposed to "independent and dependent." Then, students are taught that "An independent clause can stand alone."  Let's look at this from a student's point of view.  The student is faced with the sentence "She knows Bill is sick."  Traditional grammars tend to divide this sentence into two clauses, an "independent" one ("She knows") and a "dependent" ("Bill is sick.")  But which of those two clauses can meaningfully "stand alone"? Worse yet, which clause is meaningfully dependent on which? "She knows" clearly depends on "Bill is sick" to complete (complement) it. "Bill is sick," however, is completely independent. The research that proves that instruction in grammar has been useless is valid in part because the grammar that has been taught contains so much confusion.
         "Main" and "subordinate" are much better terms to denote the difference between the two basic types of clauses. Most students, for example, are familiar with the idea of "subassemblies" -- an engine is a subassembly of a car. Similarly, subordinate clauses can be seen as subassemblies of main clauses. Every subordinate clause functions as a noun, adjective, or adverb (i.e., a subassembly) within another clause. Main clauses have no such function. The only exception to this rule is the infrequent subordinate clause that functions as an interjection. ("It was, he hoped, not true.")
         Because subordinate clauses are subassemblies of main clauses, a main clause includes all the subordinate clauses that chunk to it. (Note that we have arrived at Hunt's "T-unit.) Traditional texts are inconsistent about this relationship. They usually teach students that adverbial and adjectival clauses are not part of the main clause, and they usually do not address the whole/part question as it applies to noun clauses. But what reason is there for saying that in "When she was going to the store, she saw a robbery," the subordinate clause is not part of the main clause, but in "Going to the store, she saw a robbery," "Going to the store" is part of the main clause? Why are all other adjectives and adverbs considered as part of a main clause, but adjectival and adverbial clauses are excluded?  This doesn't make any sense to me, and I doubt that it makes any sense to our students.  It is much more logical, and much simpler, to consider, as Hunt does, all subordinate constructions as parts of a main clause.


         If students all enter seventh grade with the ability to recognize all the S/V/C patterns in what they read and write, they will be in an excellent position to master clauses precisely at the time that the research shows that these clauses bloom. Learning to consciously identify and manipulate clauses is then relatively easy, if one builds on previous knowledge. A clause is "an S/V/C pattern and all the words that chunk to it." If the entire clause chunks to some word or construction outside itself, it is subordinate. What it chunks to determines what type of subordinate clause it is. If it does not chunk to something outside itself, it is a main clause.
        In identifying clauses in randomly selected passages, students will probably run across a few that function as delayed subjects. ("It is true that they will find some that function as delayed subjects.") I would not expect seventh graders to master the concept of delayed subjects. We are back at "cutted" and "cut." We master the basic rule, the basic concept, first. Once students are very comfortable with the other functions of subordinate clauses, then we can expect them to master the unusual cases. Thus, if I were teaching seventh graders, and we ran across such a clause, I would explain it as a Delayed Subject. But I would tell students that I do not expect them to remember that now. It will come later. Bright students will learn it anyway, but this approach is intended for all the students. Most students need to focus on (and assimilate) one new grammatical concept at a time.
         The KISS Curriculum is intentionally conservative. It is aimed at helping all students, including the slowest. It therefore extends work on the subordinate clause into ninth grade. In analyzing clauses in real texts, including the students' own writing, teachers and students will find much to say about how clauses affect the meaning and style of writing. Using a variety of texts can help all students without boring advanced students. If, at some point in ninth grade, all of the students have consciously mastered clauses (and teachers can easily test for this), there is no theoretical or research reason for not introducing them to verbals, but why rush? There are a lot of other things to do in an English course besides grammar.

Required Objective

         Students should be able to identify "all" the clauses (subordinate and main) in any text that they read or write.

Memorization Required:

1. A clause is a subject / finite verb / complement pattern and all the words that chunk to it. [This means that there will be one clause for every S/V/C pattern that students can identify.]
2. Subordinate clauses function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs; main clauses have no such function.
3. If a sentence has only one S/V/C pattern, it has to be a main clause.
4. If a sentence has more than one clause, find the subordinate clauses first. Do this by looking for subordinate conjunctions and/or by beginning with the last S/V/C pattern in the sentence and working backwards through the sentence.

Although I give students an instructional handout on clauses (See the end of this chapter.), I do expect them to memorize the definition of a clause. I also suggest that if they memorize the content of items 2 - 4, they will not have to use the handout very often.

Suggested Approaches to Instruction:

        Within the KISS Approach, the fastest way to teach students how to identify clauses is to give them the instructional handout, demonstrate how to use it, and then give them a series of short, randomly selected passages as exercises which will be reviewed in class.  In analyzing the sentences in a passage, the students should work in the regular KISS manner, sentence by sentence, first placing prepositional phrases in parentheses, then labeling S/V/C patterns, and only then turning to the instructional material for clauses. Learning to recognize the various types of clauses is a matter of using a few rules, learning to recognize coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, and then mastering the analytical procedure. The procedure presents the most difficulty, but reviewing homework with the KISS Grammar Game helps students master it.
        Teachers will probably want to caution students not to give up. Currently, students are conditioned to the exercises in the textbooks. Such exercises are usually designed to begin with simpler sentences and then move into sentences that are slightly more difficult. Rarely do these exercises reach the complexity of some of the sentences that students will find in their own writing or in randomly selected texts. In analyzing "real" texts, therefore, students need to be warned that they will hit difficult sentences, that they should do the best they can with them, and then move to the next sentence. They will almost always find easier sentences later in the passage. Without this warning, many students hit a difficult sentence and simply give up.


        As with KISS Levels One and Two, assessment can consist of two or three short quizzes. Because so much can be done with them stylistically, and because many major errors involve clause boundaries, clauses are probably the most important construction for students to master. As a result, teachers may want to start using some exercises related to the "Desired Objectives" before most of the students have mastered the "Required Objectives." As they do exercises related to the "Desired Objectives" students will be learning not only how to recognize clauses, but also why and how they can apply that ability to improve their writing.

Class Time Required:

        Most students who can identify S/V/C patterns will need only four or five 50-minute class periods to master clauses. (If this seems like a lot of time, remember that currently many teachers cannot do this.) By the time they get to Level Three, they will be accustomed to the KISS Approach, the Grammar Game, and probably to the need to concentrate on the how of the method -- the procedure, and not just on the what. As always in the KISS Approach, the first period should be devoted to distributing and demonstrating the material. After that, teachers may prefer to use class time in different ways. Some teachers might want to devote one class every week, for two or three weeks, to the review of short passages. Other teachers may find that their students respond better if they spend part of a period using the KISS Grammar Game, and then review the next homework passage one sentence per day at the beginning of class.
        Although some teachers might consider it as belonging with the "Desired Objectives," I would strongly suggest that one full class period be devoted to small group work in which the students review their analysis of a passage of their own writing. This should be extended to a statistical analysis in which students count the number of words in the passage, the number of main clauses, and the number of subordinate clauses. Then they can calculate the number of words and of subordinate clauses per main clause. Teachers may want to use a simple spread sheet to compile class averages for these statistics, or they may simply want to introduce students to the comparable statistics in the research of Hunt, etc., which can be found on the KISS web site. This class period should be either preceded or followed by a class period devoted to some basic aspects of style, including the advantages and disadvantages of long and short main clauses and of complex and simple clause structure. Although this will require two more class periods, it makes what the students have been studying very relevant to their own writing.  Teachers who can afford to devote this time to grammar will almost certainly find students much more motivated after this exercise than they were before.
        In an ideal KISS curriculum, the four or five class hours that I have been discussing would all be spent in seventh grade. But in an ideal curriculum design, students would also be devoting eighth and ninth grades to clauses. If seventh graders enter eighth with the ability to analyze the clauses in their own writing, then, technically, no time needs to be spent on grammar during eighth and ninth. Obviously, students forget, and not all students will have mastered the concepts. In eighth and ninth grades, therefore, teachers may want to include a few very short analytical exercises. These could be paragraphs from students' writing, or short selections from the literature (including poetry) that the students are reading. The primary purpose of these exercises might be to have students use their conscious knowledge of clauses before they lose it, but the discussions of the passages could get into questions of style.

Desired Objectives

The Psycholinguistic Model

         If they have not already been introduced to it, students should be presented with a version of the KISS psycholinguistic model, at this level, with a version that includes at least one subordinate clause. A major problem with much current instruction is that it gives students "rules" without providing any justification for them. The model provides that justification for many questions of errors and for questions of style.


         The KISS web site includes a detailed study of the writing of 31 seventh graders, including their comma-splices and run-ons. Almost half of these errors (48 %) appeared in sentences that proficient adults might well punctuate with a semicolon, colon, or dash.  Currently,  middle-school teachers (and textbooks) may touch on the use of these punctuation marks, but instruction usually consists of brief rules followed by ten to twenty rather obvious sentences as an exercise. Instruction then ceases until, perhaps, it is repeated in a later grade in the same format. The ineffectiveness of such an approach is obvious to any instructor of college Freshman composition -- most students have little understanding of how to use these punctuation marks. That ineffectiveness probably results from the fact that traditional approaches to grammar do not teach students how to recognize the clause boundaries in their own sentences.
         Because Level Three of the KISS Approach does teach students how to recognize these boundaries, instruction can be much more effective. To approach this particular problem within a KISS Approach, teachers might want to select for one or more analytical exercises passages that contain (or should contain) a larger than average number of compound sentences that are (or should be) punctuated with a semicolon, colon, or dash. Another approach would be to require students, in a revision of a paper, to include at one or two sentences that require such punctuation.

Comma-Splices, Run-Ons, and Fragments

         As with the use of the semicolon, colon, and dash, most students' problems with comma-splices, run-ons, and fragments are the result of their not understanding clause boundaries. Because the KISS Approach teaches students to recognize these boundaries, and because the psycholinguistic model validates the reasoning that condemns splices, run-ons, and fragments as errors, it is probably not necessary to give students exercises aimed specifically at avoiding them. Teachers may, however, want to use as one of the later analytical exercises, a student's paper that contains several of them. In the process of reviewing the homework, students will recognize the errors and the class can discuss how to fix them.

Variety in Sentence Structure

         The statistical exercise suggested as part of the "Required Objectives" forces students to apply what they have been learning to their own writing. Once students see, for example, that, compared to their classmates, they used very few subordinate clauses (or that they used way more), students are much more motivated to learn. Teachers who can afford the class time may therefore want to use combining and decombining exercises, especially those which include questions of logical relationships  (See below.)

Projects in Statistical Stylistics

         Teachers who have the time might want to have their students, either individually or in small groups, do a project in statistical stylistics. Each individual (or group) should select at least three or four passages (approximately 250 words long) from one specific newspaper, magazine, journal, or book. The students should analyze these passages for words per main clause and for subordinate clauses per main clause, and then calculate the averages for their chosen publication. Brief written reports on the results can be shared with the class. The students can then be asked to study the results and write an essay on what they found. What they will find, in all probability, is that there are differences in the numbers, differences that reflect, among other things, writing aimed at different audiences.


        In addition to sentence-combining and de-combining exercises to increase the flexibility of students' writing, teachers might want to rewrite short literary passages, changing the clause structure. Then give students both versions, and ask them which was the original, and, of course, why. The following, for example, are two versions of the same passage from Dickens:

        Although it was the best of times, it was also the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, while it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, but it was simultaneously the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, while being the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope and the winter of despair. Although we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to Heaven. We were all going direct the other way. Iin short, the period was like the present period. Some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
        It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Among other things, the first version eliminates the comma-splices, but it also eliminates the sense of haste (no stopping) that those splices provide. The first version also destroys the sense of balance created by Dickens' main clauses. I would suggest, for example, that the equal balance of Dickens' "we had everything before us, we had nothing before us" turns into an emphasis on "nothing" in "Although we had everything before us, we had nothing before us." The sense of controlled disorder, established by the parallel main clauses in the original, has, in my revision, turned into simple disorder.


        Hume's logical categories (identification, extension, and cause/effect), explained in Chapter Ten, can be integrated with sentence-combining activities to show students how to revise sentences to make the syntax support their meaning. To create such exercises, I take sentences from my students' papers. One of the sentences I have used is:

They were watching the football game, and they forgot to feed the baby.
The answers suggested below are the most probable, but students may come up with additional acceptable variations. Although students should probably do the exercise first on their own, the most important part is the class discussion which leads students to see that the two ideas expressed in the compound main clause can be logically connected in a number of different ways and styles. Note that none of  the revisions is intrinsically better than the original -- unless it better conveys the meaning and style that the writer wishes to express.

Combining as Main Clauses with a Colon or Semicolon

A student wrote, "They were watching the football game, they forgot to feed the baby."

1. Rewrite the sentence using a colon, semicolon or a dash. Indicate whether your version reflects amplification (formal or informal) or contrast.

1a) They were watching the football game; they forgot to feed the baby. [Contrast]
1b) They were watching the football game: they forgot to feed the baby. [Amplification - formal]
1c) They were watching the football game -- they forgot to feed the baby. [Amplification - informal]
I would accept any of the preceding responses. The distinctions in how the colon, semicolon, and dash are used are not always observed by good writers, but they can be a way of leading the reader to see more precisely what the writer has in mind.  Individual readers always perceive texts differently, but in this case, to me, the semicolon suggests a difference between what they were doing and what they should have done. Personally, I would not use a colon or semicolon here, but some people might see the second clause as an amplification of the first. [That is why I expect students to indicate contrast, amplification -- formal,  or amplification -- informal. The objective is to get the students to align their punctuation with their perception of what they mean when they write.]

Combining Using Subordinate Clauses

Use a subordinate conjunction to combine the two sentences to establish the indicated logical connection and focus on the main idea.

2. Main idea = "were watching"; logical connection = time

They were watching the football game, when they forgot to feed the baby.
3. Main idea = "forgot"; logical connection = time
When they were watching the football game, they forgot to feed the baby.
4. Main idea = "forgot"; logical connection = cause/effect
Because they were watching the football game, they forgot to feed the baby.
5. Main idea = "were watching"; logical connection = cause/effect
They were watching the football game, so they forgot to feed the baby.
It would be possible to say "They were watching the football game, because they forgot to feed the baby," but it sounds awkward or improbable.

Combining Using Semi-Reduced Clauses

6. With a focus on "forgot," and a logical connection of time, make one of the sentences a semi-reduced clause.

While watching the football game, they forgot to feed the baby.
7. With a focus on "watching," and a logical connection of time, make one of the sentences a semi-reduced clause.
While forgetting to feed the baby, they were watching the football game.
Out of context, this sentence sounds awkward, but I include options such as this so that they can be discussed. I can, for example, easily imagine this option being used by an angry wife, returning home from work to find her husband and his friends gathered around the television.
        The connection between grammar, meaning, and style makes exercises such as this interesting to students who can generally identify the clauses in their own writing. Able to identify clauses, they can understand what is being manipulated, and what effects are being created. And they also know that they now have the ability to apply such manipulation to their own writing. (In the next chapter, this type of exercise is extended to gerundives, and then to appositives, thereby further increasing the students' writing options.)

An Instructional Handout for Identifying Clauses

1. Put parentheses (    ) around each prepositional phrase in the text.
2. Underline subjects once, finite verbs twice, and label complements (PN, PA, IO, DO).
3. Place brackets around each subordinate clause. If the clause functions as a noun, label its function (PN, IO, DO, OP) above the opening bracket. If it functions as an adjective or adverb, draw an arrow from the opening bracket to the word that the clause modifies.
4. Put at vertical line at the end of every main clause.

A. A clause is a subject / verb / complement pattern and all the words that chunk to it. (Memorize this, and you'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration.)
B. A subordinate clause chunks to a word or construction outside itself but within the  sentence.
C. A main clause has no such function. (It includes all the subordinate clauses that chunk to its parts.)
D. Every sentence normally has at least one main clause.
E. If a word functions as the object of a preposition or as the complement of another verb, it cannot function as a subject.

A. Place parentheses around each prepositional phrase.
B. Underline every subject once, every finite verb twice, and label complements (PA, PN,
     DO, IO).
C. Put brackets [   ] around each subordinate clause. (See "Finding Clauses.)
D. Put a vertical line after each main clause.

A. There will be one clause for every S / V / C pattern.
B. If a sentence has only one S / V / C pattern, put a vertical line after it and go on to the next sentence.
C. If a sentence has more than one clause:

1. Check for subordinate conjunctions first. They will often indicate where subordinate clauses begin. If you have put brackets around all the clauses introduced by subordinate conjunctions, and you still have more than one unanalyzed S / V / C pattern in the sentence, go on to 2.
2. Start with the LAST S / V / C pattern and work backwards! For each clause:
a. Find the last word in the clause.
b. Find the first word in the clause. (Start with the word before the subject and keep moving toward the front of the sentence until you find a word that does not chunk to that S / V / C pattern.
c. If the clause begins with a subordinate conjunction (See the list below.), it is obviously subordinate. Put brackets around it.
d. If the clause does not begin with a subordinate conjunction, check to see if it answers a question about a word outside itself but within the sentence. If it does, put brackets around it. If it does not, put a vertical line after it.

Common Subordinate Conjunctions:

after, although, as, because, before, if, since, when, where, while, that, what, who, how, why, which, until, whenever, wherever, whatever, whoever, whichever, whether