Clauses and their parts

The clause is a central unit of any language. A simple way of thinking about clauses is to regard them as units of language which convey a single message about some event or state, including information about what kind of event or state it is; who is taking part; where, when, why, or how it happened, etc.

Here are some very general examples of the kinds of messages clauses convey:

  • Somebody did something at a certain time.

  • Somebody did something to someone else.

  • Something was the case at a certain time.

  • Something happened for a certain reason.

  • Something has a certain property.

Clauses are analysed in terms of clause elements, which can be understood as shorthand ways or referring to the parts of the message conveyed by the clause. We use the following clause elements: 

A Swedish perspective: Clauses and clause elements (click to expand/contract)

Generally speaking, identifying clauses and clause elements is done in the same way, regardless if the language analysed is English or Swedish. So, if you can do this in one language that you know, you can normally do it in any other language that you happen to know.

Swedish and English have the same clause elements and both languages have main clauses and more or less the same types of dependent clauses. What is said about the clause elements in English is true about Swedish as well, but please note the comment on predicatives.

The predicate verb (V)

The central part of the clause is the predicate verb, which specifies what kind of event or state we are talking or writing about. In the following clauses, the predicate verb is highlighted.

(1) The boys gathered in the street.

(2) The road had been blocked by a tree.

(3) Several accidents had occurred during the afternoon.

Notice that the predicate verb may consist of more than one word. Thus, the term 'predicate verb' does not denote a special subclass of the word class 'verb', but specifies a role or function that a part of the clause has.  

The subject (S)

The subject of a clause identifies an important participant in the event or state described by the predicate verb. Depending on the verb, the subject identifies who does something; who or what has a certain property; who or what is in a particular state, etc. In the following clauses, the subject is highlighted.

(4) Boys gathered in the street.

(5) All the boys gathered in the street.

(6) Water has a higher density than oil.

To identify the subject, it often helps to formulate a question based on what general situation the clause is about. Thus, the first clause above is about someone gathering somewhere. To find the subject, we ask a question like 'Who gathered somewhere?'. The answer is 'boys', which thus functions as the subject of the clause.

Notice that the subject can consist of many words, as in the second example. 

Objects (O)

A clause may contain one or two objects. In general terms, an object denotes someone or something which is affected by the action described by the verb. In the following clauses, the object is highlighted.

(7) We mixed the two liquids in a test glass.

(8) The increase in immigration indirectly affected the inflation process.

(9) They placed the test tube in a steel container.

To identify the object, we can ask a question of the general type 'What/Who did the subject Verb?' Applied to the first example above, the question would be: 'What did we mix?' The answer is 'the two liquids' which thus functions as the object of the sentence.

The presence or absence of objects is determined by the verb. Thus, some verbs (transitive verbs) require the presence of an object, while others (intransitive verbs) do not.

Some verbs (ditransitive verbs) require two objects. In the following clause the two objects are highlighted.

(10) The new law gave the government full control over the banks.

The first object, the government, is referred to as the indirect object, and the second object is referred to as the direct object.

The indirect object can also be in the form of a prepositional phrase, in which case the direct object precedes the indirect object, as in (11):

(11) She sent some documents to the professor.

Please note that if there is only one object in a clause, this object is always a direct object, unless the verb actually requires two objects, in which case we may have ellipsis, as in (12):

(12) They often give to charity.

Predicatives (P)

Predicatives ascripe properties to the subject or object of a clause. The most typical verb that occurs with a predicative is be, but there are several other verbs that can create a similar link to the subject. Here are a few examples with the predicatives highlighted:

(13) Bill is a mathematician.

(14) The results were somewhat surprising.

(15) Several of the members in the control group seemed surprised.

(16) Over time, the impact of the discovery became more and more obvious.

These examples all involve subject predicatives, i.e. predicatives which ascribe properties to the subject. The following example illustrate cases where the predicative ascribes a property to the object.

(17) Everyone considers James a promising mathematician.

(18) The research team all found the results somewhat surprising.

In the first example, James functions as the object, and the predicative, a promising mathematician, ascribes a property to Bill. Similarly, in the second example, the results functions as the object and somewhat surprising ascribes a property to the results. Predicatives that are linked to the object in this way are referred to as object predicatives.

A Swedish perspective: Predicatives (click to expand/contract)

In school we were taught that the verbs vara, bliva, heta, and kallas were supposed to be followed by predicatives. However, this is not the whole truth. There are other Swedish verbs that can also be followed by subject predicatives. It all depends on what "job" they do in the clause in question.

Any verb that provides a link between a subject and a subject predicative, or between an object and an object predicative is a verb that may be followed by a predicative. Similarly, any noun (phrase) or adjective (phrase) that ascribes a property to a subject or an object, instead of denoting a separate entity or modifying the verb, functions as subject or object predicative, instead of as object or adverbial. Let us have a look at a few examples in English and Swedish:

(1) Hon förblev mig trogen.

[trogen functions as object predicative; mig is the direct object]


(2) The milk turned sour.

[sour functions as subject predicative; the milk is the subject]

(3) Stina verkar snäll.

[snäll functions as subject predicative; Stina is the subject]

(4) They elected her president.

[president is the object predicative; her is the direct object]


We can clearly see that other verbs than vara, bliva, heta, and kallas and their English translation equivalents can be followed by subject and object predicatives. Like so many other rules of thumb, this rule about verbs that are followed by subject predicatives must be regarded as a useful simplification, rather than as the truth.

Another important fact that should be pointed out here is that Swedish and English differ when it comes to what follows so-called sense verbs, such as taste/smaka, feel/kännas or känna sig, and smell/lukta. In English, we say

(5) It tastes nice.

where the property 'nice' is ascribed to the subject it, i.e, nice functions as subject predicative.

In Swedish, we say (6), instead of (7):

(6) Den smakar gott.

(7) *Den smakar god.

This shows that we do not have a subject predicative here in Swedish, but rather an adverb (phrase) functioning as adverbial, answering the question "How does it taste?".

To see this even more clearly, we can use different subjects. Then we see that the adverb stays the same, regardless of which type of subject we use (adjectives, on the other hand, agree with their subjects in Swedish: Den är god; Det är gott; De är goda).  

Finally, it should be mentioned that there is an important difference between Swedish and English when it comes to the use of the indefinite article in connection with subject predicatives denoting such things as someone's profession, or political or religious affiliation. This difference is illustrated by the following examples:

 (8) ENG:  He is a doctor of Law.

      SWE: Han är doktor i juridik.

(9)  ENG:  She is a Socialist. 

      SWE: Hon är socialist.

(10) ENG: Ahmed is a Muslim.

       SWE: Ahmed är muslim.


Please note that this differnce in article use between the two languages in connection with subject predicatives is only visible when the subject is singular. As usual, the indefinite article does not combine with the plural, so there is no article in (11), where Sara and Elisabeth is a plural subject:

 (11) Sara and Elisabeth are Socialists.

Please note, finally, that words such as socialist can also be adjectives, and since adjectives do not agree with the nouns that they modify in number in English, the adjective socialist stays the same (and is not capitalised) in (12) and (13):

(12) This country is socialist.

(13) These countries are socialist.


Adverbials perform a wide range of functions within a clause.

Some adverbials specify circumstances that accompany an event or a state. For example, an adverbial may specify when, where, why or how an event took place. In the following clauses the adverbials are highlighted.

(19) After the war, the manufacture of arms was forbidden.

(20) A sensible savings plan is preferable, because of the financial advantage of saving over borrowing.

(21) The nerve was divided with a pair of scissors.

Other adverbials indicate how a clause is related to a previous one.

(22) However, the government recovered 7 billion of the debt.

(23) Moreover, treatment with digoxin may precipitate digitalis intoxication.

A third group of adverbials provide comments on the content of the clause, e.g. with respect to the speaker's or writer's attitude towards the truth or content of the clause.

(24) Apparently, large groups are perceived as more threatening than small ones.

(25) Admittedly, the old critics did not question progress as such. 

A clause may contain more than one adverbial. The following clause has three adverbials.

(26) In general, however, the army would need more funds to purchase more and better weapons.

You can read more about adverbials if you follow this link:

A Swedish perspective: The principle of end focus (the information principle) (click to expand/contract)

There is a tendency in English to place elements that contain new and important information towards the end of sentences and clauses. Another way of putting this is to say that we should organise our sentences and clauses in such a way that we present given (old) information before new information.

This tendency is sometimes called 'The principle of end focus' and sometimes 'The information principle'. Swedish has a similar tendency (but it is not as strong as in English), so this does normally not cause problems for Swedes writing in English.

A Swedish perspective: The principle of end weight (click to expand/contract)

There is a strong tendency in English to order the constiuents of a clause/sentence in such a way that we have the heavier constituents towards the end of the sentence and the lighter ones at the beginning.

By a heavy constituent we understand a constituent that consists of many words and syllables. Please note that 'heavy' is a relative term, that is, consituents are heavy (or light) in relation to other constituents. Generally speaking, this means, for instance, that a dependent clause is heavier than a phrase, a phrase is heavier than a word, and a noun is heavier than a pronoun.  

Since we do not always do this in the same way in Swedish, this is something that Swedes have to pay some attention to. In English we would almost always say and write (2) instead of (1), while in Swedish, both (3) and (4) are quite acceptable (the heavy constituents are highlighted in the examples):


(1) To go fishing in the mountains is nice.

(2) It is nice to go fishing in the mountains.

(3) Att åka och fiska i bergen är trevligt.

(4) Det är trevligt att åka och fiska i bergen.


Please note that 'the principle of end focus' and the 'principle of end weight' normally are not in conflict in English, since elements that are heavy in terms of words and syllables tend to carry much (and new) information, that is, they also tend to be informationally heavy.