Complex Sentences

What is a complex sentence?

A sentence that contains two or more conjugated verbs is known as a complex sentence (une phrase complexe). These sentences are made up of two or more clauses, whereas simple sentences (les phrases simples) only contain one conjugated verb and therefore only one clause.

A clause is a group of words based around a verb. The verb of a clause is almost always conjugated, however there are some exceptions.

Examples:
Fiona cuisine pour ses invités.Fiona cooks for her guests.
one verb = one clause
Fiona a oublié d’acheter du lait quand elle a fait les courses.Fiona forgot to buy milk when she did the shopping.
two verbs = two clauses
Fiona va vite acheter du lait avant que ses invités arrivent et elle termine le dessert à temps.Fiona goes quickly to buy milk before her guests arrive and she finishes the dessert in time.
three verbs = three clauses

Read on to learn about the three different types of clauses in French grammar as well as the different ways in which we can combine them. Don’t forget to check that you’ve understood the topic in the free interactive exercises!

What are the three types of clauses in French?

There are three main types of clause in French grammar:

  • An independent clause (une proposition indépendante) is simple sentence that does not have a connection to another clause. They exist in isolation.
    Example:
    Fiona termine le dessert à temps.Fiona finished the dessert on time.
  • A subordinate clause (une proposition subordonnée) is also known as a dependent clause because they cannot form a sentence on their own; they always exist in relation to another clause. There are several different types of subordinate clauses.
    Example:
    Fiona a oublié d’acheter du lait quand elle a fait les courses.Fiona forgot to buy milk when she did the shopping.
    The phrase quand elle a fait des courses does not make sense alone: it only makes sense if it is preceded by Fiona a oublié d’acheter du lait.
  • A main clause (une proposition principale) is similar to an independent clause, but the main difference is that it also introduces a subordinate clause. In contrast to subordinate clauses, main clauses often retain their meaning even if we remove the subordinate clause.
    Example:
    Fiona a oublié d’acheter du lait quand elle a fait les courses.Fiona forgot to buy milk when she went shopping.
    The clause Fiona a oublié d’acheter du lait still makes sense even if we take away the subordinate clause quand elle a fait du courses.

Subordinate clauses in French

Subordinate clauses always depend on a main clause; they don’t make sense alone. We can recognise subordinate clauses in a sentence because they are usually introduced by a conjunction or a relative pronoun. Participle clauses and infinitive clauses are the exceptions to this.

Example:
Fiona a oublié d’acheter du lait quand elle a fait du courses.Fiona forgot to buy milk when she went shopping.
The subordinate clause quand elle a fait du courses does not make sense without the main clause Fiona a oublié d’acheter du lait.

There are different types of subordinate clauses:

Read on for an overview of each type of French clause.

Relative clauses

Relative clauses (les propositions subordonnées relatives) give more information about a noun without having to start a whole new sentence. They are introduced by a relative pronoun such as que. For more information, check out our page dedicated to relative clauses in French grammar.

Example:
Les invités ont adoré le gâteau que Fiona a fait.The guests loved the cake that Fiona had made.
two verbs = two clauses
The clause Les invités ont adoré le gâteau makes sense even without the subordinate relative clause.
In contrast, the clause que Fiona a fait cannot function alone, without the noun gâteau in main clause it doesn’t make sense.

Noun clauses

Subordinate noun clauses, also known as complement clauses (les propositions subordonnées completives), refer to a verb in the main clause and almost always act as the direct object in the sentence. They are special in that they cannot occupy another position nor can they be removed from the sentence. Read about the three different types of noun clauses in French grammar.

Example:
Les invités pensent que le gâteau de Fiona est délicieux.The guests think that Fiona’s cake is delicious.
two verbs = two clauses
The subordinate clause que le gâteau de Fiona est délicieux refers to the verb pensent. It acts as the direct object in the sentence (les invités pensent quoi?).
The clause Les invités pensent is the main clause.

Adverbial Clauses

Adverbial clauses (les propositions subordonnées circonstancielles) refer back to a main clause and are always introduced by a conjunction. These conjunctions answer questions like when?, how?, why? etc.

To learn more go to our section dedicated to adverbial clauses in French grammar.

Examples:
Fiona doit retourner au supermarché parce qu’elle a oublié d’acheter du lait.Fiona has to go to the supermarket because she forgot to buy milk.
Fiona a mis de la vanille dans son gâteau alors que sa sœur lui a conseillé de mettre de la cannelle.Fiona put vanilla in the cake even though her sister advised her to add cinnamon.
Bien qu’elle ait dû repartir au supermarché, Fiona a terminé le dîner a temps.Although she had to go back to the supermarket, Fiona finished the dinner in time.

Participle Clauses

Participle clauses (les propositions subordonnées participiales) use a participle form of the verb to shorten a clause. These clauses have a subject that is different to the subject in the main clause. We often use participle clauses in written French because they allow us to avoid longer, more complicated sentences.

Example:
Le dîner étant servi, Fiona et ses invités se mirent à manger avec apétit.With dinner being served, Fiona and her guests started eating with gusto.

Read more about participle clauses in French grammar on our dedicated page.