Grammar 101: Clauses Pt. 2 – Why Clauses Matter

“Good order is the foundation of all things.” 
Edmund Burke


This is the second in series of posts about teaching clause structure in key stage 2 (although I’d hope key stage 3 teachers found it useful too). Last time I walked through how I’d structure the teaching of clause structure by first developing an understanding of verbs and then of the clause as containing a single verb, before dividing clauses into two broad categories: main and subordinate. And finally subdividing subordinate clauses into three further flavours: adverbial, relative and non-finite clauses. I’d recommend reading that post before this one if you haven’t already.

In this post, I want to discuss why an understanding of clauses can help students write better sentences, avoiding style over substance and marrying form to function.


The Living and the Dead in Egypt.

What’s off about this sentence? [fig.1]


No, I’m not referring to Margaret’s homicidal episode. Or even that she’s a fan of the nation’s favourite culinary competition. There’s nothing wrong with the content; there’s an interesting juxtaposition between the violence of the murder and the homeliness of what follows which makes the sentence all the more sinister, and perhaps comedic (depending on the darkness of your humour). The grammar is fine, the words seem well chosen and there’s not a punctuation mark out of place.

But it’s not how I’d choose to write this sentence. And it’s all to do with the content of its clauses. [fig.2]


In the adverbial clause (seriously, go and read the first post in the series), we are told that Mary has beaten her husband to death with a rolling pin, and in the main clause that she sits down to watch The Great British Bake Off. The information in the former is brutally engaging, a real WTF (what the flip) moment, and in the latter it’s mundane, trivial, barely registers on a scale of interesting. The most interesting part of the sentence has been tossed away in the subordinate clause, while the main clause is a second class ticket to Dullsville. When we read the conjunction ‘after’ (whether we know it’s a conjunction or not) our mind registers what immediately follows as a subordinate idea, that something bigger is coming along. It’s the hors d’oeuvres, and we devour it, eager to feast on the main event, the big idea. Only for it to be like a bad skydiving joke – it falls flat. The sentence is upside down and back to front. Excitement and interest has been subordinated to drab ordinariness.

And this clausal criminality is easily prevented [fig.3]. Rearrange the clauses to let the reader be lulled by the sedentary subordination, and then BAM, toss in that grenade of a main clause.

fig 3.

You only know this if you know your main clauses from your subordinate clauses. And you can only teach this to students who know this too. All too often the teaching of clauses in key stage 2 begins and ends with technical accuracy and sentence variety. Both of these things are vitally important and need to be mastered before we can can focus on how an understanding of clause structure can improve sentence quality. We do want technical accuracy: students need to know how to spot and write different clause types, how to use a range of conjunctions, how subordinate clauses only make sense when attached to other clauses, and how clauses are demarcated. And we do want sentence variety: we want students to employ a range of clauses in varying patterns of complexity so that sentences don’t feel repetitive.

But it’s when technical accuracy and sentence variety have been mastered that the really interesting work can begin – how the clever crafting of clauses within sentences can enhance meaning and engage the reader.

Take this simple example of a short writing session I did with a group of year 5 children recently. We were beginning a story about a character who had found an gibbon which had escaped from the local zoo (as you do). Our story was to start with our protagonist, Jim, on his way to return the gibbon. We gathered ideas to flesh out the scene, the what, the when and the where. of things We came up with these ideas among others.

Jim is walking through an empty park.
Jim is on his way to the zoo.
It is Sunday morning.
It is raining.
Jim is wearing a suit. The suit is torn.
He is pushing a gibbon in a shopping trolley.
The gibbon is holding an umbrella.
The gibbon is nice and dry. Jim is soaking wet.
Jim is feeling miserable and annoyed.

The first step in writing a corking first sentence was to identify the idea that will grab the reader and give them that WTF (what the flip) moment. And there’s only one option. There’s a gibbon in a shopping trolley.  Who cares that Jim is in a park or that it’s Sunday, or even that it’s raining and Jim is wet. There’s a goddamn gibbon. In a shopping trolley! So we wrote it down. [fig. 4]

fig. 4

Main clause done. Big idea captured. We have our main meal. Time to smother it with a little sauce to add flavour. So we added our supporting ideas through subordination, and whipped the vocabulary into shape, et voilà. [fig.5]

fig. 5: colours added for demonstration only.

And our gibbon is the main kahuna of the main clause, while Jim, the rain and the park are reduced to a subordinate sideshow.


The Things We Throw Away

That’s not to say, strong writers don’t flip this idea on its head. In our initial sentence about Mary, murder and a certain baking show [fig. 1], with the killing tossed aside as mere subordination, and with the quiet humdrum of watching television as the focal point, the sentence becomes ever darker, ever more twisted. The murder matters so little, the television so much. Just what kind of monster is Margaret?

Perhaps my favourite example of this is from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried:

Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquillisers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than The in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. they carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet, they carried jungle boots – 2.1 pounds – and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted  Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity.

As Ted Lavender and his troop of soldiers trek through the jungle in the midst of war, the focus is squarely on the everyday kit of the soldier. Twice in this passage are we told of Lavender’s death. But so trivial is life in wartime that it is snuffed out with less page time than the helmet he carried. His death doesn’t merit a whole sentence, or even a main clause, but is buried within a subordinate clause. Such is the smallness of human life.


Once Upon a Northern Night

One of my favourite books  to explore clause structure in key stage 2 is Jean E. Pendziwol’s, Once Upon a Northern Night, a poetic lullaby of a book with beautiful pictures by Isabelle Arsenault. Here in two wonderful sentences, she describes snow-covered pines:

Once upon a northern night, pine trees held out prickly hands to catch the falling flakes that gathered in puffs of white, settling like balls of cotton, waiting.

When you walk beneath the trees, the wind will tickle them until they drop their snowy treasures, dusting your hair and sprinkling your nose.

You can hear the lullaby in its structure – adverbial, relative and non-finite clauses swirl gently around one another like the falling snow they describe. They create a lilting rhythm that mimics the rise and fall of steady breathing as we slowly drift into sleep.

Having unpicked how the writer creates this flowing sentence structure by using subordination to such great effect, year 5 students at Chetwynd Primary Academy,  Nottinghamshire, created their own.

Once upon a northern night, the glowing moon, which sat in a midnight sky, watched over the winter wonderland as the snow floated all around, leaving nothing but silence.

Once upon a northern night, within a velvet black sky, lay a million stars, twinkling, shimmering and glimmering, illuminating everything in their snowy path.

Once upon a northern night, floating down elegantly, a frosty snowflake, that is unique and beautiful just like you, fell from the silvery sky, set tingling calmly on the ground as other drifted after.

Not only are these children crafting beautiful sentences, they are doing so with intention and purpose. They understand clause structure – they know their adverbial clauses from their non-finite clauses – and they know how to employ them to wonderful effect. As Daniel Willingham says, knowledge precedes skill. Teaching grammar doesn’t necessarily lead to dull tick-box writing if done well.


Ride the Daft and Happy Hills

Several years ago, I watched a year six lesson on clause structure. The teacher used one of Alan Peat’s sentence patterns (when, when, when, then) to help develop able writers’ sentence structure. The model sentence went something like this (I don’t recall the precise wording):

When I woke up, when I got dressed, when I went downstairs, then I ate breakfast.

The example didn’t quite sit with me. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know why. There isn’t just one adverbial clause to digest before we get to the main course, but three. You woke up, did you? Now what? Oh, you got dressed, but then what? Went downstairs? Alrighty. Now here it comes, the big idea, what we’ve been building up to… Oh. You ate breakfast. Is that it? The rhythm of the sentence is pretty (threes often have a poetry about them), but its form over function. If you make me wait for three ordinary adverbial clauses, you better damn well make that main clause worth it.

The above example, is a type of sentence known as a periodic sentence. The writer makes the reader wait for the main clause. It can create a sense of mystery, of suspense as we wait to hear how the sentence works itself out. One of my favourites is from Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

I love how childhood is painted as magical fantasy world as we ride the daft and happy tumble of adverbial phrases and clauses (and one relative clause for good measure) before we are rewarded with the simple and direct main clause (okay, two main clauses). It perfectly evokes those childhood snowfalls that always seemed thicker, deeper, whiter. It don’t snow like it used to when I were a lad. Now that’s how to use a periodic sentence; the pay off is deeply satisfying, just like the snow.

Again, at Chetywnd Primary Academy, this time in Year 6, we played around with this idea when writing Greek myths based upon the epic journey of the crafty Odysseus. Landing on and  island somewhere in the Aegean, having sensed that all is not well, Odysseus and his crew finally come face to face with the deadly creature that inhabits this land. Here, in examples from several students, we meet the monster for the first time:

And then, rising from the ground, spreading its wings, its vividly coloured feathers of orange and flame scarlet sparkling in the sunlight, a magnificent beak opening to release a piercing shriek, the bird burst into flames.

And there, resting beneath the tallest tree, coated in thick black shadows, its tail a hissing serpent, eagle wings spread wide, with a body of a lion and a human head, a fearsome monster glared at the men.

And as Odysseus stepped forward, his petrified legs trembling with fear, in the shadowed sunlight, beyond low canopies and broad trunks and winding branches, seen from the corner of an eye, the fearsome creature in full body armour stood.

This is form married to function. The sentences work because we want to know just what this fearsome creature is that is terrifying our hero so. And this is not a sentence pattern that is simply caught through reading. It needs to be taught. And it needs to be understood. It’s no coincidence that all three of these examples, build up to the main clause with a sequence of non-finite clauses and adverbial phrases. These are structures that have been taught and practised to mastery. They have been shown how to build up these into a periodic sentence through clear modelling.

Of course, some children soak up great sentence structure from their  reading – if they read often and their reading material contains great sentences. But when children read, I suspect they are focusing on the drama, the action, the characterisation and great sentence patterns largely pass them by. And children who do soak up some of those great sentence patterns, will use them intuitively in their writing. And they will always be stronger writers if they understand the techniques that they have stolen from their favourite writers and so write knowingly with intent. And there are those children who simply don’t read widely enough to intuit great sentences at all; the only way they will create well-crafted sentences is if they are explicitly taught the grammar from which the magic is made.

On the next few posts, I’ll walk through two to teach different clause types explicitly, so this kind of magic can happen.

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