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What Is a Small Clause?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A small clause is part of a sentence that often has a subject and predicate, but may lack a verb or includes a verb without tense. This can be seen in a sentence like "The jury found the man guilty," as the section, "the man guilty." In this sentence, the main clause has a subject of "The jury" and a predicate that includes the verb "found" and the small clause "the man guilty." There is no verb in this section, though it can be considered to include an implied verb in the form of "to be" since it can be rewritten as "the man to be guilty."

In many ways, a small clause functions like a subordinate, but the lack of a verb or tense often separates it from other types. A clause is basically the main unit of a sentence or complete thought, which consists of a subject and a predicate. In a sentence like "The man threw the ball," there is a subject of "The man," and the predicate consists of the rest of the sentence. This entire sentence is one clause, though a number of words and phrases make up the predicate and subject.

Sentences can also consist of multiple clauses, often requiring the use of conjunctions or other connectors to piece them together. A sentence can have a main and a subordinate clause, such as "The man threw the ball, which was caught by a dog." In this sentence, the main clause is the same as the previous example, but a subordinate has been added that relies on the main one for full meaning. The subordinate clause, "which was caught by a dog," is meaningless on its own, since the subordinating conjunction "which" acts in the place of the subject. In this case the subject is actually "the ball."

A small clause is typically used in a similar way, since it often acts as a subordinate within a sentence. In the sentence, "The jury found the man guilty," there is a simple subject consisting of "The jury" and the predicate includes the verb "found." The rest of the predicate includes the small clause "the man guilty," which has a subject and predicate, but no verb.

Any small clause can be considered as a separate part of the sentence, even though it often relies on another section for full meaning. The subject of this is "the man," but the predicate lacks anything beyond "guilty." There is also an implied verb of "to be" in which the small clause can be written as "The man is guilty," or the sentence rewritten as "The jury found the man to be guilty." Even in the rewrite, this section remains a small clause since the verb, although no longer implied, has no tense.

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