I'm really not happy with the definitions that I've seen for sentences, main clauses and subordinate clauses.

The problems:
(i) The idea that a sentence is a clause that expresses a complete idea, whereas a subordinate clause does not. This is far to vague and useless a definition for my liking. I'm sure I can come up with an example that breaks the definition. I do not want to rely on meaning to define subordination.
(ii) The definition of a subordinate clause as a clause that is an adjunct to a main clause, not a part of it. This seems to make things quite messy. I'm sure it does not lead to the clearest recursive definition. I suspect that in modern grammars subordinate clauses are
constituents of higher-level clauses.
(iii) Is a conjunction a part of a clause or not? For some reason I cannot gather, co-ordinating conjunctions are considered extrinsic, subordinators intrinsic. Now, this may make identifying some subordinate clauses easier. A sentence that begins `because ...' is readily identifiable as one. But one might also view coordinators as belonging to the independent clauses that follow them. Then a clause such as `and ...' starts to look less complete and more like a subordinate clause, which it is not.
(iv) What is a conjunction? One might say that it is just a word that joins clauses together. But then relative pronouns are often not classed as conjunctions, and they do perform a joining function. One might say that
a clause containing a relative pronoun could, were it not placed next to a main clause, stand as a syntactically correct sentence in its own right. E.g., the `who is coming to dinner' in `I know who is coming to dinner' may occur as an interrogative sentence. But then consider
`She arrived this morning when I was at work'. In such circumstances I have seen `when' described as a relative adverb. Now, one might think that relative adverbs are like relative pronouns and are not conjunctions. But `when I was at work' cannot stand alone as a sentence as could `who is coming to dinner'. We need to alter it to `when was I at work?'.
To try and make things absolutely clear: in the last case I am trying to show that a given definition applying to relative pronouns is wrong because it fails when applied to relative adverbs. This relies on the assumption that a single definition must cover both cases. That is an assumption based on the idea that, for the same reason, neither relative pronouns nor relative adverbs are conjunctions.

Any comments regarding this muddle much appreciated.

R.
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I'm really not happy with the definitions that I've seen for sentences, main clauses and subordinate clauses.

Good, because there isn't a really good definition for them. If you come up with on, call me on 555...
The problems: (i) The idea that a sentence is a clause that expresses a complete idea, whereas a subordinate clause ... come up with an example that breaks the definition. I do not want to rely on meaning to define subordination.

Hmmm. This one isn't too bad, because a subordinate clause has to depend on a main clause for a large part of its meaning, but you get a point for spotting that the same effect is replicated in complete sentences by use of pronouns, and that such sentences are not called 'subordinate sentences' (and from here we go into the realm of "what is a full stop?".
(ii) The definition of a subordinate clause as a clause that is an adjunct to a main clause, not a ... not lead to the clearest recursive definition. I suspect that in modern grammars subordinate clauses are constituents of higher-level clauses.

Yup. Can't be any other way.
(iii) Is a conjunction a part of a clause or not? For some reason I cannot gather, co-ordinating conjunctions are considered extrinsic, subordinators intrinsic.

Wow. I haven't debated this idea for over twenty years. Hasn't a decision been reached, yet?
So much for 'bright young things'.
Now, this may make identifying some subordinate clauses easier. A sentence that begins `because ...' is readily identifiable as one.

...Which brings us back to the 'subordinate sentence' problem.
But one might also view coordinators as belonging to the independent clauses that follow them. Then a clause such as `and ...' starts to look less complete and more like a subordinate clause, which it is not.

Joshing aside, this is one of those issues where it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. Normally, a coordinating conjunction (to trim the scope a little) stands proud of the clauses which it coordinates and belongs to neither, but there's a whole fuzzy area regarding punctuation (which is not really a part of grammar) where the punctuation around coordinating conjunctions seems to insist that the conjunction /belongs to/ one clause or the other.
It won't be sorted out in a day, and I don't really feel that it needs to be. Remember that language and communication are an art, not a science. What works what is effective is not necessarily subject to clinical definition or description.
(iv) What is a conjunction? One might say that it is just a word that joins clauses together. But then relative pronouns are often not classed as conjunctions, and they do perform a joining function.

I get the feeling that I should have read your entire posting before starting to reply (my comments about 'subjunctive sentences' would have fit better here than earlier), but you're quite right in your observations. What you have to do is stop thinking of grammar as a set of rules regarding words or parts of speech that Must Be Obeyed, and start looking at communication through language as a set of constructions that are habitually used by native speakers. There are several thousand 'habitual constructs' (some scientifically grammatical, many not), and each construct has to be accepted as a part of the standard for where it is used.
One might say that a clause containing a relative pronoun could, were it not placed next to a main clause, ... the `who is coming to dinner' in `I know who is coming to dinner' may occur as an interrogative sentence.

Erm...
That 'who' is not a relative pronoun. "Who is coming to dinner" is a nominal (or a substantive, in the other main school of terminology). I ahve always found the term 'relative pronoun' to be a dangerous one, because relative clauses are too often defined in schoolbooks as being no more than adjectives, which results in massive confusion in the minds of lawyers whose names I shall abstain from mentioning.
But then consider `She arrived this morning when I was at work'. In such circumstances I have seen `when' described ... a sentence as could `who is coming to dinner'. We need to alter it to `when was I at work?'.

I think you may be over-analysing, here. That there's a 'when' or 'where' in a sentence doesn't mean that what follows it has to be a complete sentence. Any pronoun carries a lot of baggage into the sentence/clause into which it's inserted; that's a given. Think simple.
To try and make things absolutely clear: in the last case I am trying to show that a given definition ... is an assumption based on the idea that, for the same reason, neither relative pronouns nor relative adverbs are conjunctions.

Sometimes they are, sometimes they're not.
Even I have to think twice before parsing some 'when's as adverbs, conjunctions, or nouns; and I've been doing this for donkeys' yonks. Think structure by structure, not word by word in any other direction there be monsters.
Any comments regarding this muddle much appreciated.

I'll comment that I've enjoyed your posting. Keep thinking.

Mark Wallace
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I'm really not happy with the definitions that I've seen for sentences, main clauses and subordinate clauses. The problems: (i) ... for the same reason, neither relative pronouns nor relative adverbs are conjunctions. Any comments regarding this muddle much appreciated. R.

I was taught, long ago, to diagram sentences and I never have questions like this. Of course, we didn't use the term "relative pronoun" back then, let alone "relative adverb."
IIRC, a sentence is an " independent clause." An independent clause needs no other clause to help it; it has a subject and a verb (although the subject is sometimes "understood": "Sit!").

Cece
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Hmmm. This one isn't too bad, because a subordinate clause has to depend on a main clause for a large part of its meaning,

But, equally, the main clause often depends on the subordinate clause for its meaning. Of course, it might very well be able to stand alone as a syntactically complete sequence, but that is a different matter. The `meaning' definition, as far as I can tell, leads to intractable philosophical difficulties. It is not a definition that can be practically applied.
(iii) Is a conjunction a part of a clause or not? For some reason I cannot gather, co-ordinating conjunctions are considered extrinsic, subordinators intrinsic.

Wow. I haven't debated this idea for over twenty years. Hasn't a decision been reached, yet? So much for 'bright young things'.

Bright young things with dull old books...
Seriously, my problem is having been exposed to English grammars in NLP classes (PSGs etc.). When I now look at traditional grammars I find it difficult to accept them. But, unfortunately, there are many books worth reading that still adhere to the traditional approach.
It won't be sorted out in a day, and I don't really feel that it needs to be. Remember that language and communication are an art, not a science. What works what is effective is not necessarily subject to clinical definition or description.

To an extent I agree. But, if the language is going to be described, then at least that should be done as accurately as possible.
One might say that a clause containing a relative pronoun ... is coming to dinner' may occur as an interrogative sentence.

Erm... That 'who' is not a relative pronoun. "Who is coming to dinner" is a nominal (or a substantive, in the other main school of terminology).

I'm sorry, that was a badly chosen example.
I should have suggested something like:
I know the girl who is coming to dinner.
To some extent this feels like a con. Perhaps one could interpret the first as the elliptical statement of the second. I have this problem with adverbial conjunctions and relative adverbs: Are not the first just cases of the second with unexpressed (indefinite) antecedents? E.g.,
I will do that when I'm ready
= I will do that at some point in time when I'm ready

Equally, with relative pronouns
I know who is there
= I know someone who is there
But perhaps you can come up with an example where this doesn't work.
I think you may be over-analysing, here. That there's a 'when' or 'where' in a sentence doesn't mean that what follows it has to be a complete sentence.

I agree, but often the bit of the clause that remains could be used as a sentence without alteration. There are, necessarily, many more cases to consider. What I'm trying to say is a little difficult for me. It's something like this:
If the `when' forms part of a subordinate clause that can be replaced with another subordinate clause of the same meaning, and this new clause, including `when', is a sentence, then `when' is a relative adverb rather than an adverbial conjunction.

I doubt if that's quite right. I need to revise my formal grammar, and then come up with a definition.
R.
This posting is too huge to deal with in one response. I'll try to respond to section (iv) here. Maybe I'll get to the others later.
(iv) What is a conjunction? One might say that it is just a word that joins clauses together. But then relative pronouns are often not classed as conjunctions, and they do perform a joining function.

It is practically impossible to provide good definitions of parts of speech, or of any syntactic categories, without appealing to a more sophisticated model of grammar than is available within so-called traditional grammar. Just look at the helpless gyrations of traditional grammarians trying to define 'verb'.
Traditional grammarians applied the label 'conjunction' very broadly, though they excluded relative pronouns. Modern grammarians typically recognize at least four parts of speech in place of the traditional class of conjunctions:
1. True (coordinating) conjunctions: 'and', 'but', ...
2. Subordinators: 'because', 'if', 'when', 'after', 'although', ...
3. Complementizers: 'that', 'whether', ...
4. Sentence connectors: 'therefore', 'however', 'so' 'nevertheless',...
These four classes differ very substantially in their properties.
One might say that a clause containing a relative pronoun could, were it not placed next to a main clause, ... the `who is coming to dinner' in `I know who is coming to dinner' may occur as an interrogative sentence.

As Mark Wallace has already pointed out, the 'who' in this sentence is not a relative pronoun, but an interrogative pronoun. In 'I know the man who is coming to dinner', 'who' is a relative pronoun. Your example of `I know who is coming to dinner' contains no relative clause: instead, it contains an embedded question.
But then consider `She arrived this morning when I was at work'. In such circumstances I have seen `when' described as a relative adverb.

No; this 'when' is not a relative adverb, but a subordinating conjunction (subordinator). Here is an example of 'when' used as a relative adverb:
'I live for the day when I can retire.'
Here the sequence 'when I can retire' is a relative clause attached to 'the day'. Your example involves no relative clause, since the clause introduced by 'when' is attached to no head.
Now, one might think that relative adverbs are like relative pronouns and are not conjunctions.

Relative adverbs are usually not regarded as conjunctions today.
But `when I was at work' cannot stand alone as a sentence as could `who is coming to dinner'. We need to alter it to `when was I at work?'.

Sorry, but this is irrelevant. This "stand alone" test is not a reliable test for anything.
To try and make things absolutely clear: in the last case I am trying to show that a given definition ... is an assumption based on the idea that, for the same reason, neither relative pronouns nor relative adverbs are conjunctions.

We are not talking about pieces of truth, but about analytical convenience. Treating relative pronouns as conjunctions is a bad idea, because it introduces muddle and clarifies nothing.

Larry Trask
`She arrived this morning when I was at work'. In such circumstances I have seen `when' described as a relative adverb.

No; this 'when' is not a relative adverb, but a subordinating conjunction (subordinator). Here is an example of 'when' used ... to 'the day'. Your example involves no relative clause, since the clause introduced by 'when' is attached to no head.

I thought `this morning' was the head. Is it not?
With regard to the other points, I'm happy to yield to your greater knowledge, but I would appreciate just a fraction more elaboration here. None of the (admittedly feeble) grammars I've consulted recently define `relative adverb' properly.

Thinking about it, I wonder if the two can be distinguished by trying to replace `when' by `in/on which'. If the substitution works, then `when' might be a rel. adverb. Certainly, it works for your sentence, but not for mine. Why exactly this should be a good test, if indeed it is, I do not know.
Thanks,
R.
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ps
I first started to feel queasy about relative adverbs some time ago when I read:
(Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar)
b. Strictly `ote, entha, `ws, etc., are subordinating conjunctions when the clause introduced by them fixes the time, place, or manner of the main clause;
but are relative adverbs when they serve only to
define the antecedent and introduce a clause merely supplementary to the main clause.
I should have resolved the issue then. If Greek grammar is applicable to English (there is no reason why it should be) then my `when' would seem to be a conjunction. But perhaps not. It really isn't clear to me what it means to define the antecedent. Consider again:
`She arrived this morning when I was at work'
The when-clause seems to fix a particular time during that morning. This is a situation described in Smyth's first sentence. Or is it? I really don't know what is going on here.

Also:
`She arrived one morning when I was at work'
In this case `one morning' could refer to any number of mornings. Here `when I was at work' might define the particular morning, or at least a subset of all
possible mornings.
I had understood a relative adverb to be a word like `when' that introduces a subordinate clause and follows a noun phrase. The sub-clause `comments on' or `defines' the noun phrase in question. But this is all very informal and none of the grammars I have seen describe the situation adequately. I would appreciate your comments.

R.
(LT)
No; this 'when' is not a relative adverb, but a ... the clause introduced by 'when' is attached to no head.

I thought `this morning' was the head. Is it not?

No; it is not. A relative clause forms a unit (a noun phrase) with its head. In my example, 'the day when I can retire' is such a unit: the entire phrase identifies the day under discussion. This phrase can be used in other positions: 'The day when I can retire will be a great day.'
But 'this morning when she arrived' is not a unit of any kind. Note in particular that it does not identify the morning under discussion. The adverb phrase 'this morning' already identifies the morning, and the clause 'when I was at work' is attached to the verb phrase 'arrived this morning'. In other words, 'when I was at work' explains when she arrived, and not which morning we are talking about. But in my example the relative clause 'when I can retire' explains what day I'm talking about, and not when I live.
With regard to the other points, I'm happy to yield to your greater knowledge, but I would appreciate just a ... but not for mine. Why exactly this should be a good test, if indeed it is, I do not know.

I'm not sure this test will work in every case, but it does work in many cases because 'in/on which', with the relative pronoun 'which', is another way of introducing a relative clause but not an adverbial clause.
Larry Trask
(iii) Is a conjunction a part of a clause or not? For some reason I cannot gather, co-ordinating conjunctions are ... clause such as `and ...' starts to look less complete and more like a subordinate clause, which it is not.

I think everybody would agree that a subordinating conjunction forms a constituent (a syntactic unit) with its following clause:

Susie was late ((because) she missed her train).
But coordinating conjunctions are a vexed issue. Which of the following is right?
(Susie missed her train) and (Mike got stuck in traffic).

(Susie missed her train) (and Mike got stuck in traffic).

Traditional grammarians preferred the first. Modern grammarians are divided, since there is evidence for both analyses.

Larry Trask
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