I would like to clear up some longstanding confusion of mine on subordinate clauses, especially since it is a rather simple grammatical topic and it is about time that I learn it.

Which of the following sentences have a subordinate clause? I suspect that they all do, but I just want to make sure.

  1. It is not good that man should be alone. (Gn 2:18)
  2. He said that it would rain today.
  3. I could not decide which pancake to order.
  4. I did not see who was shouting.
  5. I was shocked that he would be so gracious.

If my suspicion is right, and each of these sentences contains a subordinate clause, then does it follow that a subordinating conjunction (that, who, whom, which) necessarily introduces a subordinate clause?

(I am assuming that all relative clauses are also subordinate clauses, as indicated on this grammar website.)

  • 2
    The simple answer is yes, that is their job, but they are very often optional and even in some cases inadmissible. Your examples do indeed all contain subordinate clauses. "That" is a subordinator but "who, whom and which" are not, though they can be relative pronouns, which introduce relative clauses. The subordinate clause in example 4. is a straightforward relative clause; The s/c's in 1, 2. and 5. are content clauses. In 3 "which" is an interrogative determiner, not a relative pronoun, though there is an infinitival relative clause present which modifies "pancake".
    – BillJ
    Sep 19, 2017 at 18:31

2 Answers 2


All of the examples you cite indeed contain subordinate clauses, but in general a subordinating conjunction does not necessarily introduce a subordinate clause. In numerous languages of the world, there are sentences like “That you be happy!” or “If you could give me your phone number”, which are not short versions of “[I wish that you] do smth”, but are independent main clauses with a so-called hortative or jussive meaning. It’s often called “insubordination”: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

  • I thought about this possibility. But here's the question that I have. Is "that" in the exclamation "That you be happy!" a conjunction? Same with "if" in the second example? Interested to get a response.
    – ktm5124
    Sep 22, 2017 at 16:12

In his The Syntactic Phenomena of English, McCawley discusses this problem of identifying subordinate clauses. He suggests testing whether a construction allows for the extraction of a constituent simultaneously from the main clause and a putative subordinate clause as a negative test, since in general this works only for coordinate clauses, not subordinate clauses.

For instance, beginning with "She said to some man that the doctor would see him," if we form a question by extracting "some man ... him", we get *"Who did she say to that the doctor would see?" Since that is ungrammatical, we can conclude that the clause "that the doctor would see him" is a subordinate clause.

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