Kinds of subordination

Subordination will here be used as synonymous with hypotaxis; it is the dependency of a clause. A subordination relation is either one of adjunction or of embedding:

  1. A subordinate clause combining with its main clause as a whole without being a constituent of it is an adjoined clause.
  2. A subordinate clause that functions as a constituent of its main clause is embedded in it.

Furthermore, clauses contract the two main kinds of dependency relations, modification and government, depending on whether the dependent or the head is relational. It is not clear whether this distinction applies to adjoined clauses. At any rate, adjoined clauses are not governed, whereas the distinction yields two kinds of embedded clauses:

These two distinctions provide the subdivision of this section. A description may make the following subdivisions inside each section:

For the sake of clarity, some subordinate clauses will be enclosed in brackets in the examples to follow.


Structural grammar subdivides verbal dependents in such a way that complements are valency-dependent, adjuncts are not. In the grammar of complex sentences, however, the term ‘adjunction’ has received a slightly different use (Hale 1976). An adjoined subordinate clause is one which is not a constituent of its main clause. It consequently has no syntactic function there. Structurally, it is not embedded. This means that – apart from parenthetical constructions – it either precedes or follows the main clause, as in and .

Whereas many other birds build a nest up in the tree,
the jinjiwarnu [bird species] builds itself a small shelter in the spinifex grass.(Hale 1976:87)
I was trimming a boomerang when you came up.(Hale 1976:79)

This subordinate clause is introduced by the universal subordinator of the language, which does not convey any particular interpropositional relation. The interpretation of the complex sentence yields an adversative relation in E1, a simultaneous relation in E2. Although the language has extremely free word order, the only possible permutation at sentence level is for the two clauses to swap places.

Adjunction is the weakest and loosest form of subordination. The subordinate clause is almost of the same rank as the main clause, the only difference being that the main clause, but not the subordinate clause by itself can represent the whole structurally. Apart from this small bias, the construction is almost sociative.

In many (although not in SAE) languages, the conditional clause is an adjoined clause. The adjoined relative clause is another subtype of the adjoined clause.


A subordinate clause that functions as a constituent of its main clause is embedded in it. It may either modify or be governed by its main clause. Of modifying embedded clauses, there are two main subtypes:

Adverbial clauses

A subordinate clause that has the same distribution as an adverbial is an adverbial clause. illustrates the definition.

.a.We live [ as our forefathers used to live ].
b.We live [ like our forefathers ].

In .a, the subordinate clause is a clausal expansion of the modal adverbial of the b-version and bears the same modificative relation to the main predicate as the latter.

Relevant subdivisions from a structural point of view include those treated in the other subsections of the semasiological analysis. Among other things, adverbial clauses differ in that some of them are permutable, others not. The subordinate clause of is an example of one that cannot be preposed.

.Linda blocked the door [ so that Irvin could not escape ].

Another relevant structural property of such subordinate clauses are constraints on the selection of verbal categories imposed by the conjunction. For instance, the Latin conjunction postquam “after” requires that perfect tense in the subordinate clause which is anterior to the respective tense of the main clause. Other conjunctions require a certain mood in the subordinate clause, as e.g. Latin ut “in order that” requires the subjunctive. In , the conjunction perché is compatible with either mood. With the indicative, as in #a, the interpropositional relation is causal, while with the subjunctive, as in #b, it is final.

.a.Non eleggiamo quel candidato perché l'Italia è un paese ragguardevole.
ItalianWe don't vote for that candidate because Italy is a respectable country.
.b.Non eleggiamo quel candidato perché l'Italia sia un paese ragguardevole.
ItalianWe don't vote for that candidate in order for Italy to be a respectable country.

In grammatical descriptions, adverbial clauses are often classified by the criterion of their interpropositional relation, typically, some concrete relation like ‘temporal’, ‘causal’ etc. Although this is a familiar traditional approach, it is inconsistent: adverbial clauses have a position in a structural classification, but the subclassification by their interpropositional relation follows functional criteria. Consequently, this subdivision does not belong here and instead into the onomasiological grammar of nexion.

Adnominal clause

An adnominal embedded clause is one that bears a sociative or dependency relation to some nominal, which is, thus, its head. The sociative relation between the head and the dependent clause is apposition. Since relational nouns do not take propositional complements, the dependency is one of modification. An adnominal modifier is an attribute; therefore, a modifying adnominal clause is an attribut(iv)e clause.

Since the subordinate clause here is by definition a subconstituent of an NP, it is nominalized to some extent. The nominalization may or may not be accompanied by the orientation of the underlying clause.

More on adnominal clauses in the section on attribution.

Complement clause

A complement clause is a substantive clause in the function of a complement. The most important of these functions are: subject, direct object and complement of an adposition. Thus, in principle all those categories that can govern an abstract noun phrase can also govern a complement clause. The exception, discussed in the section on attribution, are relational nouns, which do not take propositional complements. There are complement clauses governed by

  1. adjectives
  2. verbs
  3. adpositions.

These are illustrated in turn by - .

.I am proud [ that I found a complement clause depending on an adjective ].
.a.[ That a complement clause functions as the sentence subject ] is not rare at all.
b.We have never found [ that a complement clause could be indirect object ].
.The difference consists in [ that this complement clause depends on a preposition ].

Among all the parameters along which complement clauses vary, desententialization is the most important one. For instance, in English, complement clauses of adjectives and prepositions, as in and , tend to display stronger desententialization than complements of verbs, as in .

Explicitness of linking

Just as in the other sections on complex-sentence formation, the continuum of the explicitness of linking provides the criterion for the lowest level of subdivision of this section. The topic is treated systematically in a dedicated section which also contains an example series illustrating the said continuum from syndesis to asyndesis in subordination. Here it suffices to supply some information on asyndetic subordination.

If the term ‘asyndesis’ is applied to verbal expressions (verbal sentences and clauses), it presupposes their finiteness. This is because a non-finite verb form signals its syntactic dependence morphologically, thus, syndetically. As a consequence, subordination can be diagnosed under conditions of asyndesis only for intrinsic interpropositional relations, as in .

.I thought you were younger.

Here the valency of the verb in the first clause forces the analysis of the second clause as a subordinate one. In finite asyndetic constructions such as , however, where an extrinsic interpropositional relation is inferred, it is impossible, in the absence of other criteria, to diagnose subordination.

.I could not come earlier, the train was late.