How to identify independent and dependent clauses on the ACT English section & SAT Writing section

The English section of the ACT and the Writing section of the SAT love to tinker around with sentence structure. Many questions revolve around finding the right punctuation piece to join two ideas together. Do you want a comma? How about a semicolon? Or do you need to insert a word or two for the sentence to “make sense?” One way to keep all these rules in line is by making sure you know how to properly identify independent and dependent clauses.

You may have heard of independent clauses as “part of a sentence that can stand on its own” or as “complete thoughts.” Dependent clauses, on the other hand, can’t stand on their own for one reason or another. For example, take the sentence, “After Jon did his taxes, he went out to buy a new cell phone.” This sentence is made up of both a dependent clause and independent clause. “After Jon did his taxes,” does not hold its own as a complete sentence, but “He went out to buy a new cell phone” does.

However, don’t forget that independent clauses can be very short and intentionally vague. For example, “Before walking in, he did it.” There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue behind this sentence, or as much mystery and intrigue as you can get out of an ACT sentence. Nevertheless, the clause “He did it,” is independent. You may not know who he is or what it is referring to, but that’s irrelevant to whether the clause is independent or dependent. It’s a complete thought in the sense that it contains a subject and an action.

When you’re figuring out whether a clause is dependent or independent, you’ll want to look for a few key words. Dependent clauses don’t stand on their own because they contain a word or two that forces it to depend on another part of the sentence. Usually, these words are minor conjunctions or relative pronouns. If you don’t know what these parts of speech are, that’s okay. All you need to do as a test taker is recognize what they look like on sight and how to link them correct. Below are two lists that the ACT likes to use in this context:

Minor conjunctions: after, because, even though, still, until, while

Example Clauses:

  • After he ate breakfast
  • Because she worked overtime
  • While waiting for the subway

Relative pronouns: who, whom, which, where, when, that

Example Clauses:

  • When the clock struck midnight
  • Where the dog liked to play fetch
  • Which the fortune teller predicted

Notice that each of these phrases is left dangling to some extent. If you see a clause that begins with one of these key words, you have a dependent clause. In addition to being an incomplete thought, these clauses want to pair up with an independent clause to form a complete sentence. The reason why they’re dangling is not because they don’t fully explain themselves but because they contain either a minor conjunction or a relative pronoun. As we mentioned before, “He did it” is an independent clause even though it doesn’t tell a lot of information. It doesn’t contain a minor conjunction or relative pronoun, so it’s independent.

Once you’ve correctly identified a clause type, you can start figuring out how to link them together. There are multiple ways that the ACT and SAT test these rules and subvert them as well, which we focus on here.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions about your individual test prep plans, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.

Related Posts

How To Properly Connect Clauses on the ACT & SAT
How To Simplify Complex Sentences

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Jon Chang

About Jon Chang

Jon holds master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and NYU. He has helped students of all ages prepare for standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, PSAT, GRE, and MCAT. Jon firmly believes that every student can achieve top marks on any test with the right amount of effort applied in the right direction. He goes beyond rote learning and teaches creative problem-solving as a method for better understanding of any material. Jon’s work has been featured on and in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics. 

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