Understanding Relative Clauses in English Grammar

Marcus Froland

Understanding grammar is a lot like putting together a puzzle. Each piece fits in a certain way to create a clear picture. Now, think about relative clauses. You might not know it by name, but you’ve been using them all the time. They’re the parts of sentences that give us more information without starting a whole new sentence. Sounds simple, right?

But here’s where it gets interesting. If you’re looking to polish your English or perhaps help others grasp its nuances, knowing how to use relative clauses effectively is key. This tiny piece of the grammar puzzle can change how we interpret information, making our communication clearer and more precise. But what exactly makes them so crucial? And how do they work their magic in sentences?

A relative clause is a part of a sentence that gives more information about a noun. It often starts with words like who, whom, whose, which, or that. For example, in the sentence “The man who lives next door is a teacher,” “who lives next door” is the relative clause. It tells us which man we’re talking about. Relative clauses can describe people, places, things, or ideas. They make sentences more detailed and interesting by adding extra information without starting a new sentence.

What is a Relative Clause?

A relative clause is a type of dependent clause that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. It must be connected to an independent clause to make sense. These clauses contain a subject and verb and begin with a relative pronoun, which serves to replace a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun when combining sentences. These clauses are sometimes referred to as “adjective clauses” because they provide additional information about a noun, much like an adjective does, thereby enhancing the meaning of the sentence.

The Basics of Dependent Clauses in Sentences

Dependent clauses, such as relative clauses, rely on and complement an independent clause in order to form a complete sentence. In essence, they serve to expand or clarify the meaning of the main idea being communicated. Identifying nouns is crucial for understanding how these clauses function, as the relative pronoun replaces the original noun, creating a relationship between the two clauses. This relationship ensures that the sentence remains coherent and unified in conveying its intended message.

Functions of Relative Clauses in Providing Information

The primary function of relative clauses is to specify or provide extra information about a noun mentioned in the sentence. In doing so, they serve to clarify which particular person or thing is being referred to by the speaker or writer. These clauses also add depth to a sentence by offering additional details about the noun, making the sentence more informative and complete without the need for multiple sentences.

For example, consider the sentence “The book, which I read last night, was very interesting.” Here, the relative clause “which I read last night” provides additional information about the noun “book.”

  1. Identifying the noun being modified by the relative clause.
  2. Connecting the clauses with a relative pronoun that replaces the original noun.
  3. Enhancing the overall meaning of the sentence by providing extra details.
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To further illustrate the functions of relative clauses, consider the following table that compares sentences without and with a relative clause:

Without Relative Clause With Relative Clause
Jane bought a house. Jane bought a house that has a swimming pool.
She met the artist. She met the artist who painted her portrait.
The movie was great. The movie, which received excellent reviews, was great.

As illustrated in the table, the use of relative clauses serves to both identify the noun and provide additional information, enriching the sentences and making them more informative and engaging.

Types of Relative Clauses: Defining and Non-Defining

Relative clauses can be divided into two main types based on their function in a sentence: defining relative clauses and non-defining relative clauses. By understanding the differences between these types of clauses, you’ll be better equipped to improve your English grammar and ensure clear communication. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at each type and their distinct features.

Importance of Defining Relative Clauses

Defining relative clauses, also known as restrictive relative clauses, are crucial because they provide necessary information that defines or restricts the noun. This information helps a listener or reader fully understand which specific person, place, or thing is being discussed. Without a defining relative clause, the noun would remain vague and the sentence’s meaning incomplete.

These clauses do not require comma usage and often begin with relative pronouns such as “who,” “whom,” “that,” or “which.” For example:

Jane Austen, who wrote “Pride and Prejudice,” is a renowned British author.

Distinguishing Non-Defining Relative Clauses

In contrast, non-defining relative clauses, or non-restrictive relative clauses, provide additional, non-essential information about a noun that is already defined or understood. Unlike defining clauses, non-defining clauses do not limit or restrict the noun’s meaning; instead, they add extra context or information for interest. Non-defining relative clauses are punctuated with commas, and the relative pronoun “that” is never used in them. More commonly, “which,” “who,” or “whose” are employed in non-defining clauses.

For example:

Jane Austen, whose books have been adapted into numerous films and television series, is a beloved author in British literature.

It’s important to recognize the distinction between defining and non-defining relative clauses and use them correctly in your writing. By doing so, you can ensure that your sentences are clear, concise, and communicate the intended meaning to your audience.

The Role of Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns are pivotal in relative clauses as they connect the clause to a noun or pronoun mentioned earlier in the sentence. Understanding the different relative pronouns and their uses is essential for choosing the right ones in constructing your sentence.

Relative Pronouns for People, Things, and Places

The most common relative pronouns are “who,” “whom,” “whose,” “which,” and “that.”

  • Who and whom are used when referring to people, with “who” as a subject and “whom” as an object.
  • Whose indicates possession for both people and things.
  • For things or objects, which is the standard pronoun.
  • That can refer to people, things, and places in restricting clauses.
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Choosing Between Who, That, Which, and Whom

Selecting the correct relative pronoun requires understanding the role it plays in the sentence—whether it serves as a subject, object, or possessive—and the noun it refers to. Below is a comparison of these pronouns and their appropriate uses:

Pronoun Use as a Subject Use as an Object Possessive
Who People
Whom People
Whose People and things
Which Things Things
That People, things, and places People, things, and places

In informal English, “that” is often preferred over “whom,” and at times, the relative pronoun can be omitted entirely when it functions as the object of the clause. Practicing the application of these pronouns in your writing can help enhance the precision and formality of the language used, ultimately benefiting the reader’s comprehension of your content.

When to Use “That” in a Relative Clause

Understanding when to use the relative pronoun “that” is crucial for clarity and coherence in sentence construction, especially when distinguishing between formal and informal English. In this section, we’ll explore the appropriate instances to utilize “that” within a relative clause and the factors to consider when opting for alternative relative pronouns or omitting them altogether.

As a versatile relative pronoun, “that” is commonly used in defining relative clauses. It is particularly prevalent after quantifiers such as “something,” “anything,” “everything,” “nothing,” and superlatives (e.g., “the best,” “the most,” “the least”). Serving both as a subject and object within a clause, “that” can refer to people, things, and places.

Example: This is the book that I was talking about.

In formal writing, “that” is often preferred to maintain a certain standard and consistency of language. However, when it comes to informal English, especially in spoken communication, “that” can be replaced with other relative pronouns such as “who” or “which,” or even be omitted altogether for a more conversational tone.

  1. Formal: The person that arrives first will win a prize.
  2. Informal: The person who arrives first will win a prize.
  3. Informal and spoken: The person arriving first will win a prize.

However, it is crucial to note that the relative pronoun “that” is never used in non-defining (non-restrictive) relative clauses, which are set off by commas and generally utilize “which,” “who,” or “whose” as the relative pronoun.

Example: The new restaurant, which just opened last week, has amazing food.

Using “that” effectively in relative clauses requires understanding the context, purpose, and audience of the communication. By recognizing when to employ “that” and when to consider alternative relative pronouns or even omitting them, you’ll enrich your English language skills and ensure your messages are conveyed accurately and effectively.

Reducing Relative Clauses for Conciseness

To achieve more concise writing, writers often turn to the strategies of relative pronoun omission and subject pronoun deletion. These techniques help eliminate redundancy and simplify the sentence while preserving its meaning and clarity. Understanding when and how to use these methods effectively is critical for both native and non-native English speakers to enhance their communication skills.

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When and How to Omit the Relative Pronoun

Relative pronouns can be omitted from a sentence in specific situations, with the most common case being when the pronoun serves as the object of a clause. Removing the relative pronoun results in a more streamlined and concise sentence without sacrificing any essential information. However, if the relative pronoun is the subject of a clause, it is necessary and cannot be excluded. Take note of the following examples:

The book that I bought is on the shelf. (relative pronoun as object – can be omitted)
The book I bought is on the shelf. (concise)

The person who called you is my friend. (relative pronoun as subject – cannot be omitted)
The person called you is my friend. (incorrect)

Understanding Subject Pronoun Deletion with Action Verbs

In relative clauses, subject pronouns can be deleted if the action verb takes on the “-ing” form. This reduction method applies primarily to restrictive relative clauses and helps make sentences less cumbersome. Eliminating the pronoun and changing the verb form results in a more fluid and efficient sentence without losing clarity or essential information. Consider the examples below:

The artist who is painting the mural has a unique style. (subject pronoun and verb)
The artist painting the mural has a unique style. (subject pronoun deleted, verb form changed)

To ensure the effectiveness of these strategies, it is crucial to be aware of the role the relative pronoun plays in the clause, and apply them judiciously to achieve a more concise writing style.

Subject-Verb Agreement in Relative Clauses

Mastering subject-verb agreement in relative clauses is critical for precise and grammatically correct English. Ensuring coherence between the verb within the relative clause and the noun or pronoun it refers to, whether singular or plural, is of utmost importance. Remember, the relative pronoun must take a verb that agrees with the original noun’s number, maintaining consistency throughout the sentence.

Complex sentence constructions can sometimes be challenging when it comes to subject-verb agreement, especially in sentences with phrases like “one of the…”. It’s essential to identify the noun the relative pronoun is referring to and make sure the verb agrees in number. For example, use a singular verb with a singular noun representing a collective idea, and a plural verb for a plural noun that indicates an element of a larger set.

By being mindful of subject-verb agreement in relative clauses, your English grammar skills will significantly improve, leading to clearer and more accurate communication. Pay attention to singular and plural antecedents and be vigilant about applying proper agreement in complex sentences, ensuring your writing is not only informative but also grammatically sound.

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