Free (Nominal) Relative Clause

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

U.S. Army Chief Of Staff General Creighton Abrams during a press conference, full color photograph.

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In English grammar, a free relative clause is a type of relative clause (that is, a word group beginning with a wh-word) that contains the antecedent within itself. Also called a nominal relative clause, a fused relative construction, an independent relative clause, or (in traditional grammar) a noun clause.

A free relative can refer to people or things, and it can function as a subject, a complement, or an object.
Examples and Observations

  • "Nobody knows it, because nobody knows what really happened."
    (Donald E. Westlake, The Hook. Mysterious Press, 2000)
  • "We want to make sure that what we're doing is really what we ought to be doing."
    (General Abrams in Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, ed. by Lewis Sorley. Texas Tech University Press, 2004)
  • "You can say what you please. I burnt my English books and I didn't get a degree. All I'm saying now, if I'm allowed, is that Willie should get a degree."  (V.S. Naipaul, Half a Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
  • "A man wearing the uniform of the Military Police had stepped into the unit and was just turning toward where she was standing." (Michael Palmer, The Fifth Vial. St. Martin's Press, 2007)
  • "Look, Cynthia--you have a perfect right to disapprove. You go ahead and think whatever you want. Even if you want to be angry, then you be angry."  (Philip Roth, Letting Go. Random House, 1962)
  • "'The way I hear it you can really put it away.'
    "'Whoever told you that is a liar.' Bledsoe straightened away from the rail, started toward the barn." (Michael Joens, Blood Reins. Thomas Dunne Books, 2005)

Antecedents in Free Relative Clauses

"The relative word in the nominal relative clause has no antecedent since the antecedent is fused with the relative: I found what (that which; the thing that) you were looking for; He says whatever (anything that) he likes. Because they are free of antecedents, such clauses are sometimes called independent or free relative clauses." (Tom McArthur, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2005)

A Headless Relative

"A relative clause which apparently lacks a head is called a free relative clause, also sometimes called a headless relative (though some argue that the head is present syntactically but phonologically empty, and hence that this is a misleading term)." (R.E. Asher and ‎J.M.Y. Simpson, The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Pergamon Press, 1994)

Characteristics of Free Relative Clauses

"[The] free relative clauses . . . [are] italicised in:

(117a) What you say is true
(117b) I will go where you go
(117c) I don't like how he behaved toward her

They are characterised by the fact that the wh-pronoun what/where/how appears to be antecedentless, in that it doesn't refer back to any other constituent in the sentence. Moreover, the set of relative pronouns found in free relative clauses is slightly different from that found in restrictives or appositives: e.g. what and how can serve as free relative pronouns, but not as appositive or restrictive pronouns; and conversely, which can serve as a restrictive or appositive relative pronoun but not as a free relative pronoun." (Andrew Radford, Analysing English Sentences: A Minimalist Approach. Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Two Types of Free Relative Clauses: Definite and Indefinite

"The first type of free relative clause, the definite free relative clause, is introduced by a wh- word such as what, where, or when, as shown in (64).

(64) Mark eats what he orders.

. . . [V]erbs that are followed by definite free relatives beginning with what must be capable of being followed by nonhuman NPs. What Jim chose in (65a), a free relative, passes this test, as shown by (65b).

(65a) Sally ordered what Jim chose.
(65b) Sally ordered a hamburger/coffee/a piece of pie.

Another test for definite free relatives is substituting that (thing) which for what, as shown in (66).

(66) Sally ordered that (thing) which Jim chose.

" . . . The second type of free relative clause is an indefinite free relative clause, also called a conditional free relative clause because the words that introduce the clause (who(m)ever, whatever, whichever, whenever, and however) can be paraphrased with if, as show by (68a) and (68b), or regardless of, as shown by (68c) and (68d).

(68a) Joan dances with whoever asks her to dance.
(68b) If someone asks Joan to dance with him, she dances with him.
(68c) Fred eats whatever Alice offers him.
(68d) Regardless of whatever Alice offers Fred, he eats it."

(Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Free (Nominal) Relative Clause." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Free (Nominal) Relative Clause. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Free (Nominal) Relative Clause." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).