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Author Topic: The relative importance of main clauses and subordinate clauses  (Read 74 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: June 19, 2017, 10:59:41 AM »

Last week, I received e-mail from a medical doctor in Newark, New Jersey, asking this very intriguing question about the relative importance of main clauses and subordinate clauses in complex sentences:

“I am a physician who teaches ESL to students on the weekends. Many of the high school students have had questions about a lesson I taught on subordinate clauses. They were confused about the idea that the main idea goes to the main clause and the least important goes to the subordinate clause. They showed me many examples of writing in magazines, textbooks, and journals where writers had put the obvious main idea in the subordinate clause. Is this English grammar rule still applicable? Am I teaching a rule that is not applied in common usage? I would greatly appreciate your help.”
Which idea in that complex sentence is the most important?


Here’s my answer to that question:

I’m afraid it’s not correct to say that in complex sentences, the main idea invariably goes to the main clause and the less important ones to the subordinate clause. Your ESL students who questioned that rule are right. There is, in fact, no such rule. This looks to me simply a misinterpretation of the basic rule that in a complex sentence, the main clause is the independent clause that can stand by itself, and the subordinate clause is the dependent clause that can’t stand by itself. This, of course, isn’t the same as saying that the most important idea should go to the main clause or will be found in it; it’s perfectly possible for the most important idea to be the subordinate clause itself or, at least, to be part of it. Indeed, the position of the idea in a complex sentence isn’t a correct yardstick of its importance in relation to the other ideas in that sentence.
 
This point becomes clear when we closely examine a complex sentence like this one: “Because her husband abandoned her, the stewardess decided to leave the family home.” That sentence, of course, can also be constructed this way: “The stewardess decided to leave the family home because her husband abandoned her.” Now, which is the more important idea—the one found in the subordinate clause “because her husband abandoned her” or the one found in the main clause “the stewardess decided to leave the family home”? We really can’t say; we can’t validly make a value judgment on their relative importance. All we can say is that the main clause “the stewardess decided to leave the family home” can stand by itself and that the subordinate clause “because her husband abandoned her” can’t. This is a grammatical and structural distinction that doesn’t establish the comparative importance of the ideas involved.

In a complex sentence, the most important idea may be found
in either the main clause or independent clause

The point gets even clearer in the case of complex sentences with a relative modifying clause, like this one: “What we didn’t realize when we bought the property was that it was prone to heavy flooding.” This sentence, of course, can also be constructed this way: “That it was prone to heavy flooding was what we didn’t realize when we bought the property.” Either way, the idea in the main clause is (2010)
 
This essay, 720th of a series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 11, 2010 issue, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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