Focus on Adverb Clause as Subordination

When it comes to adverbial modifiers, some authors have said in the well-known advice to “kill your darlings” because “[T]he road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Despite such admonitions, some feel that these modifiers can be both useful and essential to writers. For instance in the post Advice on adverbs, I quoted Barbara Baig, a strong supporter of adverbs, who claims that as one of four content or major parts of speech, these modifiers are “an essential for every writer’s toolkit [because] they can do things that the other parts of speech cannot” (

Baig distinguishes the different forms adverbial modifiers take, and this earlier post looks both single word and prepositional phrases. This current post will focus on adverb clauses, building on the discussion in the last post on complex sentences, one of four sentence types available to writers. As discussed in this post, complex sentences allow writers to create clear relationships between ideas by subordinating one idea to another. This contrasts to compound sentences, which coordinate or join two related and equal ideas.

In his post on building adverb clauses, Richard Nordquist elaborates on the differences between coordination and subordination by providing various ways to combine the two sentences below:

The national speed limit was repealed.
Road accidents have increased sharply.

Depending on the intent of the writer, one option is to coordinate the two sentences:

The national speed limit was repealed, and road accidents have increased sharply.

Though combining them into a compound sentence does connect the two ideas, it doesn’t distinguish between them. Creating a complex sentence with an adverb clause does provide opportunities to clarify the relationship and make the writer’s meaning clearer. Norquist offers two variations of complex sentences with adverb clauses (in bold) which produce different meanings:

Since the national speed limit was repealed, road accidents have increased sharply.

Because the national speed limit was repealed, road accidents have increased sharply.

In the first version the time relationship is emphasized; in the second a cause relationship is established.

As we have discussed in the writingessentials blog, adverbs are those words that modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, and even entire sentences and that can show aspects such as time, cause, reason, modification, or condition. Compare these two sentences – one with a single adverb and another with an adverb clause:

Our sales increased recently.

Our sales increased when we lowered our price.

When a single adverb modifies a verb, it can answer questions – such as When? Where? How? or Why? – about its action.

A subordinate clause used as an adverb can also answer these questions of a verb.


We continued our game when the rain stopped.


Our farm begins where the road turns.


Mr. Cruz spoke as if he meant business seriously.


We moved because our house was too small.

An adverb clause can also answer the question On what condition? or Under what conditions? about the verb:

The engine will start if you push the car.       

Fear is good if it leads you to protect yourself.

The discussion so far has focused on adverb clauses modifying verbs, but like single adverbs, adverb clauses can also modify adjectives, adverbs, and entire sentences. provides examples of two of these situations:

Adverb clause modifying an adjective:

He is as happy as he deserves to be.

Main clause: He is (as) happy.

Adverb clause: as he deserves to be.

Adverb clause modifying an adverb:

He speaks French so quickly that I cannot understand him.

Main clause: He speaks French (so) quickly.
Adverb clause: so quickly that I cannot understand him.

Here is an example of an adverb clause modifying the entire sentence:

When she saw the price, Lucille changed her mind.

As we saw in the previous post, the adverb clause, just like the adverb it resembles, can generally be moved from one position to another in a sentence:

When they are tied up, dogs bark.

Dogs bark when they are tied up.

Dogs, when they are tied up, bark.

Adverb Clause Signals

Single adverbs can often be identified as those –ly words, since many adverbs are formed by adding -ly to adjectives: polite—politely, graceful—gracefully, fearless—fearlessly. Adverb clauses can be identified by certain words that signal the clause is beginning. These clause signals are also called subordinating conjunctions.  Just as coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS) connect two independent clauses in a compound sentence, subordinating conjunctions connect two clauses, this time a clause that has a lower rank than a sentence (subordinating clause) to an independent clause. We have seen many of the common adverb clause signals in the examples above – when, where, if, because.

Punctuation with Adverb Clauses

Punctuating adverb clauses depends on location and meaning or relationship expressed.  When an adverb clause is at the beginning of the sentence, it is an introductory word group and needs a comma separating it from the independent clause, as discussed in an early post on commas with an introductory word groups.

An adverb clause that comes in the middle of a sentence is usually set off by a pair of commas because tit interrupts the main clause.

When the adverb clause comes after the independent clause, the conjunction is usually strong enough to hold the two clauses together, although some use a comma in cases of comparison/contrast or concession (though/unless) as is used in this sentence.

The Elliptical Adverb Clause

A final note about adverb clause is their potential for reduction. As we saw in the post on the mechanical mark the ellipsis, the word elliptical means “having words omitted.” With elliptical adverb clauses, the subject and part of the verb are omitted. These missing words are understood:

When finished, this building will be the tallest in the city.
When [it is] finished, this building will be the tallest in the city.

Because fewer words are used (the clause is reduced), writing can become more streamlined. The danger when forming elliptical clauses is to be careful about dangling word groups, something we discussed in the post on hanging sentences. In order to avoid a dangling word group, it’s important that the main clause answer who or what of the elliptical clause. Here we have an adverb clause and its elliptical version:

While I was pushing the car, . . .

While pushing the car, . . .

It would be wrong to write a sentence with the following construction:

While pushing the car, my coat ripped.

To correct this, the subject of the elliptical clause needs to be put in the main clause so that it answers the question Who? or What?:

While pushing the car, I ripped my coat.

Adverb clauses offer writers numerous opportunities to clarify meaning and create relationships between ideas by subordinating some to others. And as Bain has asserted, adverbial modifiers in their various forms contribute to “the repertoire of syntactical techniques available to those of us writing in English” (

(Resources: English 3200, Nordquist,, Bain)

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