Relative Clauses

Relative clauses give us more information about people and things. They are used to combine clauses and avoid repetition. Click here to learn!

"Relative Clauses" in the English Grammar

What Are Relative Clauses?

Relative clauses are dependent clauses that provide additional information about a noun or pronoun in a sentence. They begin with a relative pronoun, a relative determiner, or a relative adverb and function as adjectives, modifying the noun or pronoun that they follow.

Relative Clauses: Types

There are two types of relative clauses in English:

  1. Adjectival Relative Clauses
  2. Adverbial Relative Clauses

What Are Adjectival Relative Clauses?

Adjective clauses (also called bound clauses) modify a preceding noun or a noun phrase. In other words, they act as an adjective for the independent clause.

Adjectival relative clauses are introduced by:

Now let us explore each of them in more detail.

1. Adjectival Clauses Introduced by Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns connect the adjectival clause to the independent clause. They introduce the adjectival clause, providing additional information about the noun or noun phrase in the independent clause. The most common relative pronouns are who, that, which, whom, and whose. Keep in mind that whose must always be followed by a noun.
Pay attention to the examples:

This is my father who/that visited us last night.

'Who visited us last night' is an adjectival clause introduced by 'who.' The adjectival clause describes 'my father' in the independent clause.

The book, which/that I was reading last night, was amazing.

I don't know the man whose book you are holding.

'Whose' acts as an adjective for 'the man'.

Tip!

In formal context, particles can accompany whom or which. For example:

He is my father of whom I am proud.

He is my father whom I am proud of.

This is the book which I was talking about.

Warning

Some phrasal verbs have inseparable particles. As a result, particles cannot be used before whom and which. Here is an example:

He is my father whom you were looking for.

2. Adjectival Clauses Introduced by Relative Adverbs

Relative adverbs function as adverbs in a sentence and introduce adjectival clauses that modify the preceding noun or noun phrase, functioning as an adjective. Some of the common relative adverbs are when, where, why, and how. For example:

I don't remember the day. The day you saw me. → I don't remember the day when you saw me.

'When you saw me' is an adjective for 'the day.'

I know the school where you studied chemistry.

3. Adjectival Clauses Introduced by Zero Relatives

Zero relatives occur when relative pronouns or relative adverbs are omitted from a sentence, but the clause is still understandable in context. It's important to note that the omitted pronoun or adverb must be followed by a subject. For example:

I don't remember the day when I was there.

I don't remember the reason why I was there.

I don't remember the man who/that I was talking to.

I don't remember the book which/that I was proud of.

Tip!

Accordingly, who, that, and which followed by a verb cannot be omitted. For example:

The man who was there is my dad.

using a relative clause in a sentence

What Are Nominal Relative Clauses?

Nominal relative clauses (also called free clauses) are either a subject, an object, or a complement for the independent clause.

Nominal relative clauses are introduced by:

We will explore them in detail:

1. Nominal Clauses Introduced by Nominal Relative Pronouns

Nominal relative pronouns introduce nominal relative clauses acting as an object, a complement, or a subject for the main clause. The most common nominal relative pronouns are what(ever), who(ever), which(ever), when(ever, where(ever), whom(ever), why, and how.

Look at some examples:

I talk to whomever I want.

'Whomever I want' is the object of 'talk to.'

This is whatever you were telling me.

'Whatever you were telling me' is the complement of 'this is.'

2. Nominal Clauses Introduced by Relative Determiners

Relative determiners and the possessive relative determiner 'whose' can also head a nominal relative clause acting as an object or a subject for the independent clause. Nominal relative pronouns are what, whatever, which, whichever and the possessive relative determiner 'whose'.

I don't know which book you bought.

'Which book you bought' is the object of 'know.'

Whichever/which book to buy doesn't matter.

'Whichever/which book to buy' is the subject.

I don't know whose book you are holding.

'Whose book you are holding' acts as an object for 'know.'

Non-finite Clauses

Nominal relative clauses can be non-finite because the verb in the relative clause can be infinitive. For example:

Whichever book to buy doesn't matter.

When to go is important.

I don't know what gift to give you.

Tip!

Whose can mark either an adjective clause or a nominal clause. It depends on the role it takes in a relative/dependent clause. Compare these two sentences:

I don't know whose book you have.

The nominal clause acts as an object for 'I don’t know.' 'Whose' is a relative determiner.

I don't know the man whose book you are holding.

The adjective clause acts as an adjective for 'the man.' 'Whose' is a relative pronoun.

Review

There are two types of relative clauses and each is introduced by different relatives.

  • Adjective clauses: They act as an adjective for the preceding noun or noun phrase.
  1. Relative pronouns
  2. Relative adverbs
  3. Zero relatives
  • Nominal clauses: They act as a subject, an object, or a complement for the independent clause.
  1. Nominal relative pronouns
  2. Relative determiners

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