Clauses and Style

A survey of subordinate clauses and alternatives in use in English, with
relation to style, variation and register.

Nigel J. Ross

General Introduction

Very often translation courses offer lessons in advanced grammar as well as practical translation. A good deal of time may well be spent analysing and practising during the grammar hours. The translation lessons will make ample use of such grammatical forms, the right one being chosen for the context according to the text being translated. Unfortunately very often there is little link-up between the areas of study. Likewise grammar textbooks or books on translation theory tend to give little practical help on preferences for one grammatical form rather than another, according to the stylistic variety of the text.

This paper aims to a little way in bridging the gap between theory and use. The first section looks at what a clause is and does, its function and purpose; a rapid review is made of principal types of subordinate clauses. Later sections consider how clauses are used in some significant areas of formal and informal English. The main varieties of language dealt with are science, the law, advertising and the world of journalism. In the main, written texts are analysed, though many comments are also relevant to spoken varieties. Observations are necessarily generalisations about the patterns and trends that are found; small numbers of exceptions are bound to be found.

Clauses and Alternatives: A Grammatical Introduction

A clause is quite simply a complete thought expressed in a phrase containing a conjugated verb. Simple sentences such as: "The cat sat on the mat. The mat was in the middle of the room." are composed solely of main clauses, though any text which is made up wholly of one-clause sentences will sound childish. Usually we add secondary of "subordinate" clauses to our basic sentences to supply further information without ending one sentence and starting another, eg "The cat sat on the mat which was in the middle of the room." Grammatically there are a number of different kinds of subordinate clause.

A clause which relates back to a specific antecedent – the noun "mat" in the example above – is a relative clause, often introduced by a relative pronoun such as which, who or that. At times the pronoun can be omitted, eg "The woman [whom/who/that] I spoke to was from Boston." In a sentence which presents a hypothesis and a consequence, the subordinate clause beginning "if", "when", etc is known as a conditional clause. Another kind of subordinate clause is the adverbial clause (doing the job of an adverb), time and purpose being two of the main functions of this type of clause. Our list could continue, but it would be of little further help for the rest of this paper.

There are, however, alternatives to true subordinate clauses which must be mentioned at this stage. We can shorten relative clauses by removing the relative pronoun and even the auxiliary verb, eg "The man [who is] speaking on the phone …". If the verb of the clause is the verb "to be" (or the verb "to have"), any trace of the verb may be lost, eg "the mat in the middle of the room." – this is actually an example of a prepositional phrase (it is no longer a true clause as there is no verb). Further alternatives are embedding – a secondary sentence or phrase is placed inside the main one simply by the use of brackets or dashes – and piling up a series of nouns, adjectives or phrases adjectivally, eg "next year's dramatically-compressed primary and caucus schedule." 1

Even though this is a necessarily brief rush through the range of subordinate clauses and their alternatives, there is clearly a wealth of possibilities. The problem is when and how to use one rather than another; it is high time to look at specific areas and varieties of English.

High-Register Texts

It should come as no surprise to find that more formal texts show a preference for full subordinate clauses and that relative pronouns are generally included in relative clauses. Such texts tend to shy away from shortened clauses, or, more particularly, from alternatives to clauses. By their very nature, full clauses are more typical of written language and higher registers. A clause-count over a number of sentences will give a reasonably high frequency for formal writing; sentences will probably be fairly long – the length at least in part being due to the use of clauses.

Generalising about all formal texts can be useful, but even greater light can be shed on clause patterns by considering separate areas of language use. In this context, the language sub-varieties of sciences and the law are two kinds of formal writing that are well worth putting under the linguistic microscope.

Scientific writing is highly stylised with its impersonal approach, its heavy use of the passive, its technical terminology and its logical format, to name but a few features. One trait of scientific texts that is closely linked to the use of clauses is scientists' predilection for sentences beginning with a pleonastic "it", eg "It has been found that many of the results were subject to error." This construction leads us straight into a subordinate clause, of course, even though it could have been avoided fairly easily, eg "Many of the results were found to be subject to error." Nevertheless, the initial pleonastic "it" is very usual and often begins sentences with two or more subordinates, eg:

"It has been observed that the genetic make-up of marine mammals predisposes them to reproductive failure when exposed to even moderate levels of PCBs." 2

The second subordinate clause in the above example ("when exposed to even moderate levels of PCBs") is a useful pointer to another feature of scientific writing, namely conditional clauses. Conditional clauses are particularly common simply because science is very much a matter of considering effects or results of specific conditions. Presumably because of the fact that conditional causes are used so frequently, scientists have developed a "shorthand" method of presenting them. Often the subject and the verb "to be" are omitted, and the "when" or "if" may also disappear in a conditional clause starting a sentence. This gives results such as: "Heated to 152°C, the substance melts."

A further "shorthand" expedient is to begin a sentence with an infinitive rather than a fully-fledged adverbial clause of purpose, eg "To obtain sufficient results, the compound was …" (instead of: "So that sufficient results could be obtained…" or "In order that sufficient results could be obtained…") Here we are getting into the realms of scientific jargon.

Scientists tend to prefer a basic two-clause sentence, the subordinate coming before the main clause. The reason for this is at least in part explained by the fact that this structure mirrors the logical approach of science itself – a cause giving an effect, a condition a result, a remise and outcome.

Probably the term "clause" is more synonymous with legal language than with any other variety of English. A law, treaty or contract may simply be made up of a series of subordinate clauses, as in the this example from a guarantee:

"The Company guarantees its products against any and all defects in materials or workmanship … subject to the following conditions:
  1. That the Guarantee registration Card enclosed with the Instruction Book supplied with the instrument has been filled in correctly …
  2. That the serial number shown on the instrument has not been defaced or altered …" 3

No other form of the language regularly uses so many clauses in a single sentence. One reason for this is that legal texts must be written with extreme care as they deal with rights and restrictions that may have serious consequences. No stone must be left unturned, every facet of a situation must be stated clearly and precisely, in many cases by adding clause upon clause.

Subordinate clauses in legal English tend to be highly formal; it is still common to find "whom" rather than "who" and "for whom" rather than "who … for" or similar prepositional phrases, eg:

"The Company will pay ... the amount ... to the person or persons to whom the same is therein expressed to be payable." 4

Furthermore the language of the law also has a set of compound relative pronouns which are no longer found in other modern varieties of English; examples are "whereby", "whereto", "whereupon", etc, eg:

"In witness whereof we the undersigned have attached our signatures."
OR "This document wherein …"

The main reason for all of these out-of-date forms is that legal documents are, for the most part, copies based on previous documents. In order to avoid possible loopholes, compilers use tried-and-tested formulas from the past which are linguistically, though not legally, old-fashioned.

Despite its rather long-winded nature, the language of the law does use shortened clauses starting with a participle, specifically for a subordinate between the subject and the verb. Some typical examples are:

"The damages sustained by the Company may be ..."
"All proceedings including arbitration shall be …"
"Passengers on a journey involving an ultimate destination or stop in a country other than that of the country of origin are advised that ..." 5

One final point to mention about the language of the law is another feature which is just about unique to legal texts. The relative pronoun "which" is at times followed by the noun it refers back to. Though not normally used in English, this construction proves to be necessary in long, meandering legal sentences to be sure that the reader has no doubts as to what the clause in question relates to. So we find relative clauses starting: "which action may lead to …" or "which contract shall be deemed null and void …", perhaps half a dozen lines or more after the "action" or "contract" was first mentioned.

Low-Register Texts

Moving on to less formal English, sentences are often shorter and on the whole fewer subordinate clauses are found. Extra information may in fact be added more frequently by the use of co-ordination (and, but, etc) instead of by secondary clauses, rather as we do in speech. Indeed less formal texts are closer to speech, closer to a less carefully organised form of language. The use of co-ordination is one way of avoiding "heavier" subordinate clauses, but there are other ways of side-stepping the formal style. Different types of low-register texts tend to do this in different ways; it is therefore useful to identify some alternatives to clauses while looking at some of these varieties of language.

The world of advertising is a useful place to start. Of course, advertising copywriters dodge subordinate clauses by stopping a sentence and starting a new one and by using co-ordination. At times, however, a clause becomes necessary; the danger is that this can lead to a long, relatively complex sentence – just the thing to discourage a potential customer from going on reading. So we commonly find a compromise: a clause is used but is punctuated as a separate sentence. Grammatically the result may not be very acceptable, but visually is becomes easier to read, livelier and more effective. Here is a good example from an advertisement for Slim-a-Soup:

"That's why Slim-a-Soup tastes just as satisfying as ordinary soups.
Which is hardly surprising. Because it's made by Batchelors, the people who know about soup as well as about slimming ... " 6

Such "sentence-clauses" are common only in advertising; they are never, for example, found in another informal style of writing – news reports – even in popular, tabloid newspapers. Nonetheless newspapers and magazines do have methods of by-passing full, "stuffy" subordinate clauses.

One typical newspaper device is to give information about people immediately after they are mentioned, simply by putting the information between commas. Age is a classic example, eg "Mike Brown, 33, ...", but this method also extends to profession and address, eg "Mike Brown, 33, an unemployed welder from Edgeware, Middlesex, ...". This example leads us usefully on to another common way of adding information without a secondary clause – that of using a prepositional phrase such as the "from Edgeware, Middlesex," above. The device is widely used, and an introductory "which/who is/are" is highly unlikely. Further examples are:

"The cliff near the family's home got its name from previous tragedies." 7
"The 2,885-yard-long summit tunnel between Littleborough, Lancs, and Todmorden, West Yorkshire, …" 8

Newspaper writers' aversion to clauses may at first sight seem to be counter-productive. They aim at writing in a fairly concise style, cramming information into sentences – and subordinate clauses might well seem to be a useful tool, but instead they are fairly rare. What we frequently find in fact has the flexibility of a full clause, the brevity needed for concise newspaper reports and the liveliness of every day speech. This useful compromise is the shortened or "false" relative clause, beginning with a participle – once again the "which/who is/are" has been dropped, eg "Taylor, now living in Manchester, admitted …" Further examples are:

"Detectives hunting the killer of shot police sergeant John Speed were yesterday studying a postcard from Spain." 9
"The brothers, estranged in 1963, were reunited …"
"Wearing nothing but a nightie, Jane P., 22, …"

In their attempts to reproduce a style that is more reminiscent of informal speech, journalists at times break off a sentence half way through, embed another explanatory sentence, just as we do when we speak, and then continue with the original. An example is:

"Moments later one of the wagons - each held about 30 tons of petrol - went up with a roar." 10

It is interesting to note that this kind of alternative to a subordinate clause is also common in broadcast advertisements, which, though carefully scripted, also try to emulate everyday speech.

American news magazines, principally Time and Newsweek, tend to use many features from newspaper style, though an informal style would seem to be less of an over-riding prerogative. These examples are in fact reminiscent of newspapers but slightly more formal:

"Of some 140 political prisoners pardoned last month by Soviet party leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the best known was Mathematician Iosif Begun, a 54-year-old refusenik."11
"A former refugee worker who was imprisoned without being charged for two years in the 1970s by the Communist government in Laos, Suvan runs an organisation called the Village Weaver."12

In trying to keep their position as front-running news sources, some degree of dynamism must also be present in the language. One way this is done is to delay subjects, creating a kind of suspense with an initial subordinate clause or an alternative as the above examples show. Indeed, very often a shortened relative clause begins a sentences, as in:

"Criticised by many Filipinos for hard-heartedness, the Aquino government …"13

What is dynamic and up-to-date in language may actually vary, rather like most "modern", fashionable things. A few years ago, one popular way of adding information in American news magazines and elsewhere was to use a fairly common phrase, hyphenated and place before the noun, eg:

"By all the old-fashioned handshake and here's-what-I'm-going-to-do-for-you standards of American politics ..." 14
"… each is trying to pull of a similar I-told-you-so coup." 15
"The Democrats' it-takes-a-hero-to-beat-a-movie-star pragmatism …"16

Perhaps it is no great loss that such constructions are no longer so very popular.

Concluding Remarks

Clauses and alternatives to clause play a significant role in determining the style of a piece of writing, as we have seen. This fact can be of great help to all those involved in writing, particularly when endeavouring to make a translation convey not only the meaning but also the right framework for expressing those ideas. Subordinate clauses, however, are only a smallish aspect of grammar and language, and any complete consideration of style or register must look to a great many other factors.

Further Reading

Crystal and Davy, 1969, Investigating English Style, Longman, London.
O'Donnell & Todd, 1980, Variety in Contemporary English, Unwin Hyman, London.


(Where quotations are not numbered and no source is given, the example has not been taken from any specific source and is merely indicative of the kind of language found.)

  1. Newsweek 3 Nov 1983
  2. The Ecologist no. 6, 1988
  3. Guarantee Certificate for an ITT Cassette Recorded
  4. Life Policy preamble, Guardian Assurance Co. Ltd.
  5. Advice to International Passengers on Limitation of Liability British Airways Passenger Ticket
  6. Batchelor's Slim-a-Soup display advertisement
  7. Daily Star Dec 1984
  8. The Mirror Jan 1985
  9. Daily Express
  10. The Mirror Jan 1985
  11. Time 9 Mar 1987
  12. Time 9 Mar 1987
  13. Time 16 Oct 1989
  14. Newsweek 3 Nov 1983
  15. Newsweek 3 Nov 1983
  16. Newsweek 3 Nov 1983

The author would like to thank Margaret Bagnall for her perceptive comments on the first draft of this paper.

   Published in Turjuman Journal of Translation Studies (Vol 1 no. 2 October 1992), Université Abdelmalek Essaadi, Ecole Supérieure Roi Fahd de Traduction, Tangiers.




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