Clause types

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Clause types

The term clause type is used here to refer to a range of strategies for reorganising the basic declarative clause in order to accomplish different communicative intentions. In English grammar there are five clause types that are each associated with one typical speech act. The five clause types are: declaratives, open interrogatives, closed interrogatives, exclamatives, and imperatives. Each of these clause types is typically associated with a different speech act. For example, interrogatives are generally used to form questions. This correlation is not absolute. Questions can also be posed by using declarative clauses, for example, the question The eggs are in the fridge? has the form of a declarative clause but, with rising intonation (as indicated by the question mark) it can be used to ask a confirmation question.


1. Five clause types

2. Correlation between clause type and speech act

3. Interrogatives and questions

4. Exclamatives

5. Imperatives and directives

Related pages


Five clause types

The clause types and their typical speech acts are:

Correlation between clause type and speech act

The correlation between clause type and the resulting speech act is not absolute, for example an interrogative clause (such as, How many times have I told you to close the door?) or declarative clause (such as, It's cold in here) can be used as a type of directive (= close the door). Here are some other examples:


Clause type

Intended speech act

Mel, this ice-cream is really tasty.


making a command

Don't you like your ice-cream, Mel?

closed interrogative

making a command

What do you think of your ice-cream, Mel?

open interrogative

making a command

How I enjoy feeding you up, Mel!


making a command

Eat some ice-cream, Mel.


making a command

All of these examples could be intended and understood as commands under the right conditions. For this reason it is important to distinguish between the clause type (the grammatical form of the clause) and the speech act type (the intended meaning of the clause in context).

Intonation is also an important marker of the speech act involved. In the case of questions, the clause is associated with rising intonation. In some cases intonation alone is enough to indicate that a clause is a question, even if syntactically it has the form of a declarative. The question mark indicates the intonation of the clause – not the clause type.

Mel wants a lion for a pet?

You're sure you heard right?

Note that a sentence may contain clauses of more than one type. The following two compound sentences contain clauses with different structures:

Doug likes frittata, but does Debbie like it too?

I thought Debbie liked quiche, or was it omelette?

In complex clauses, the subordinate clause can be of many different types – the only clause type usually excluded from this position is the imperative.

Clause types in subordinate clauses


Clause type

Mel thinks eating ice-cream is great.


Mel didn't say whether she ate ice-cream or not.

closed interrogative

Sarah wants to know how much ice-cream Mel ate last night.

open interrogative

We told Sarah what a lot of ice-cream Mel ate.


Interrogatives and questions

There are two different constructions that can be used to form interrogative clauses in English: these are called open and closed interrogatives.

Closed interrogatives

Closed interrogatives may only be answered by a limited range of responses, often simply yes or no, while open interrogatives, constructed using 'wh- words' allow for a much greater range of answers. Both open and closed interrogatives can be used to get either information or direction. Consider the questions the following table.

Information and direction questions


Information question

Direction question

Closed interrogative

Did you remember to lock the door?
Yes / No.

Should I lock the door?
Yes / No.

Open interrogative

What did you do about the door?
I locked it.

What should we do about the door?
Lock it.

Closed interrogatives are formed by placing the auxiliary before the subject. Consider the following pairs:


Closed interrogative

Mavis is smiling now.

Is Mavis smiling now?

Charlie can't see.

Can't Charlie see?

George had tonsillitis.

Did George have tonsillitis?

Clauses that do not already contain an auxiliary take the dummy auxiliary do in closed interrogatives.

Polar and alternative questions

Closed interrogatives can be divided into two types: polar and alternative questions. Polar questions take yes/no answers while alternate questions require an answer from the set options presented in the question. Polar questions can be presented with either positive or negative polarity.

Does Mimi want a lion for a pet?

Doesn't Mimi want a lion for a pet?

Alternative questions contain elements linked by or and the answer is expected to be identified with one of the elements.

Does Mimi want a mouse or a frog for a pet? [coordinated NPs – implies wanting one of these]

Does Mimi want to move to Africa or stay here? [coordinated clauses – implies doing one of these]

Because coordination using or is possible in other speech acts, its function in an interrogative clause is sometimes ambiguous. Intonation assists in determining which meaning is intended.

Should I buy Mimi a mouse ↑ or a frog ↓ for a pet? [alternative question]

Should I buy Mimi a mouse or a frog for a pet ↑? [polar question]

Interrogative tag

Tag questions come in two types: reversed polarity tags and constant polarity tags. In reversed polatiry, the polarity of the tag is opposite to the polarity of the clause. (So, if the clause is positive, the tag will be negative.) Reversed polarity tags are used for confirmation:

Suki dislikes mice, doesn't she? [reversed polarity tag]

Constant polarity tags have the same polarity value as the clause. (So, a positive clause will have a positive tag.) Constant polarity tags are used to express surprise:

Suki dislikes mice, does she? [constant polarity tag]

Open interrogatives

Open interrogatives involve the 'wh- words': who, whom, whose, what, which, when, where, why, how. Note that whom is the accusative case form of who and whose is the genitive case form. The accusative whom has grammatically and stylistically restricted uses.

Who dislikes mice?

Mice are disliked by whom?

Whose mice are those?

What does Suki dislike?

Which small rodent terrifies Suki ?

When does Suki usually see mice?

Where do the mice actually live?

Why is Suki is so afraid of them?

How does Suki react if she sees one?

It is possible to have more than one interrogative phrase in a clause:

Who said what?

How many days of extension did you give to which students?

Echo questions

Echo questions are used to express surprise or to seek confirmation of the speaker's previous utterance. They mirror the form and content of the previous utterance.

Echo questions



Echo question

Closed interrogative

Mimi bought a lion.

Mimi/She bought a lion?

Open interrogative

Mimi bought a lion.

Mimi/She bought what?

In this type of open interrogative the interrogative phrase is never fronted.


Exclamative clauses are typically used to allow the speaker to express a heightened evaluation of a situation. They are introduced by the forms what and how. The interrogative pronouns what and how allow the speaker to focus on specific constituents within the clause.


In exclamative clauses, what functions as an adjectival – it encodes information about quality or degree. With singular nouns it is clear that what occurs as an external modifier because it appears before the determiner. With plural and non-count nouns, the determiner is not present. In these cases the exclamative and the interrogative phrases are similar but the clause type can still be distinguished by the presence/lack of subject auxiliary inversion.



Open interrogative


What a great guy Doug is!

What kind of guy is Doug?


What cute little mice we caught!

What cute little mice did we catch?


What ice-cream we tasted!

What ice-cream did we taste?


The exclamative how functions as an adverb. Again, exclamative and interrogative phrases may be similar but the clauses will differ in terms of the behaviour of the subject and auxiliary.



Open interrogative

degree modifier in AdjP

How clean Debbie's car is!

How clean is Debbie's car?

adjunct in clause

How Mel told Sarah off!

How did Mel tell Sarah off?

Alternative exclamatory possibilities

In addition to exclamative clauses (which can sound rather quaint), exclamation can be accomplished in a range of other ways. In addition to intonational signals of excitement, exclamatory meaning is communicated through lexical choice (often conventionalised) as the following examples show. Note that these examples involve a range of clause types.

What the hell does Jude think we're trying to do?!

Don't be such a bastard!

I just saw the most fantastic movie!

Imperatives and directives

Imperative clauses can generally be identified by:

1. Omission of the second person subject.

2. Verb in the plain form (with restricted use of modal auxiliaries – because the deontic status of the clause is indicated by the structure).

3. Use of the auxiliary do with the verb be in negation.

Comparison of declaratives and imperatives



Comment about imperative examples

You (must) eat those eggs.

Eat those eggs.

no 2nd person pronoun; no modal

You are eating a lot.

Eat a lot.

no 2nd person pronoun; plain form verb

Everyone eats eggs.

Eat eggs everyone.

3rd person subject but still plain form verb

You aren't very cooperative

Don't be very cooperative.

Use of auxiliary do (c.f. *You do be very cooperative.)

First person imperatives

Second person subjects are the norm in imperatives, although it is possible to use third person forms such as everybody. First person plural imperatives are also possible but they have a special form, introduced by let's.

Comparison of declaratives and first person imperatives



We eat a lot of eggs.

Let's eat a lot of eggs.

We are eating a lot.

Let's eat a lot.

We aren't very cooperative.

Don't let's be very cooperative.
Let's not be very cooperative.

Uses of imperatives

The conventional use of imperatives is to issue directives. These commonly function as commands but other specific types of speech acts may also be expressed by imperatives.

Imperatives and speech act types


Intended speech act

Don't come to class late.

order / command

Please turn off your mobile phones in class.


Prepare the exercises before the tutes.


Make sure you practice substitution tests.


Feel free to discuss any questions about the course with me.


Ask as many times as you need so that you're sure.


When imperatives refer to non-control but positive experiences they are usually interpreted as wishes:

Have a great holiday.

Enjoy the movie.

Don't worry about anything.

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Clause types

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