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!

intermediate
"Relative Clauses" in the English Grammar

What Are Relative Clauses?

Relative clauses are introduced by a relative pronoun, a relative adverb, or a relative determiner. There are two types of relative clauses in the English grammar:

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 we learn how each of them works:

1. Adjectival Clauses Introduced by Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns connect the adjectival clause to the independent clause. A relative pronoun heads an adjectival clause that adds more information to the noun/noun phrase in the independent clause. The most common relative pronouns are as follows: who, that, which, whom, and whose. Remember that whose must be followed by a noun.
For example:

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!

Particles can come before whom or which in a formal context. 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. This is an example:

He is my father whom you were looking for.

2. Adjectival Clauses Introduced by Relative Adverbs

Relative adverbs have an adverbial part of speech in a sentence and they introduce adjectival clauses that act as an adjective for the preceding noun/noun phrase. Relative adverbs are as follows: 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 happen when relative pronouns or relative adverbs are left out. The point is that they 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!

Therefore, who, that, and which followed by a verb cannot be left out. 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 cover 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:

  1. what, whatever
  2. who, whoever
  3. which, whichever
  4. when, whenever
  5. where, whoever
  6. whom, whomever
  7. why
  8. 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, and whichever. The possessive relative determiner 'whose' also introduces a nominal relative clause.

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 doesn't matter.

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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