What is the difference between a main and a subordinate clause?

Many European languages distinguish between main and subordinate clauses either by placing a comma between the two or by also changing the word order in the latter. So what is the difference between the two types of clauses?

Main clauses are independent sentences that do not require any further clause to be grammatically correct. Subordinate clauses, by contrast, are dependent clauses that cannot be used in isolation as they merely provide the context (such as a reason) to another statement, i.e. the one in the main clause. Consider the following examples in both German and English.

Ich lerne Deutsch (main clause), weil ich in Deutschland leben möchte (subordinate clause).

I'm studying German (main clause) because I would like to live in Germany (subordinate clause).

In both languages the main clauses could be standalone sentences, whereas the subordinate clauses couldn't. However, while the English language in this situation does neither require a comma to separate the two clauses nor a change in syntax, the German language does. In a German main clause, the conjugated verb needs to be second, whereas in a subordinate clause it goes to the end.

Er hat keinen Deutschkurs besucht (main clause), obwohl er nach Deutschland umziehen will (subordinate clause)

He didn't attend a German course (main clause), although he wants to move to Germany (subordinate clause).

In this example, the English language also requires a comma to separate between the main and the subordinate clause, yet again there is no change in word order.

In both languages and many others, subordinate clause conjunctions can be learned as indicators of dependent clauses. Common examples of subordinate clause conjunctions can be found in our more detailed post on German word order.

On our German language blog "Auf Deutsch bitte!", you will find more information on coordinating conjunctions, relative clauses in German, direct and indirect questions in German, on the difference between als and wenn, as well as um...zu vs. damit, nach vs. nachdem, vor vs. bevor, aber vs. sondern, dass in German subordinate clauses, and when to use zu in German sentences.

You might also be interested in my Ultimate Guide to Learning German. Check it out to learn how to learn German fast. Our German lessons and small-group intensive German courses can help you achieve your goals.

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