Relative Clause (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A relative clause is a clause that usually modifies a noun or noun phrase and is introduced by a relative pronoun (which, that, who, whom, whose), a relative adverb (where, when, why), or a zero relative. Also known as an adjective clause, an adjectival clause, and a relative construction.

A relative clause is a postmodifier--that is, it follows the noun or noun phrase it modifies.

Relative clauses are traditionally divided into two types: restrictive and nonrestrictive.

See Examples and Observations below.

Examples and Observations

  • "It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages."
  • "100% of the people who give 110% do not understand math."
  • "More than 840,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers left the Communist regime and arrived in the countries of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. These people, who came to be known as the 'boat people,' risked their lives at sea in search for freedom."
  • "She had plenty of acquaintances, but no friends. Very few people whom she met were significant to her. They seemed part of a herd, undistinguished."
  • "Occasionally Mother, whom we seldom saw in the house, had us meet her at Louie's. It was a long dark tavern at the end of the bridge near our school."
  • "The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us."
  • "Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal."
  • Positioning Relative Clauses
    "Unlike prepositional phrases, restrictive relative clauses . . . always modify noun phrases. However, a relative clause doesn't always immediately follow the noun phrase that it modifies. For example, if two relative clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, or but), then the second one doesn't immediately follow the noun phrase that it modifies:
    • This article describes features that facilitate collaboration but that are not intended to increase security.
  • Anaphoric Elements in Relative Clauses
    "Relative clauses are so called because they are related by their form to an antecedent. They contain within their structure an anaphoric element whose interpretation is determined by the antecedent. This anaphoric element may be overt or covert. In the overt case the relative clause is marked by the presence of one of the relative words who, whom, whose, which, etc., as or within the initial constituent: clauses of this type we call wh relatives. In non-wh relatives the anaphoric element is covert, a gap; this class is then subdivided into that relatives and bare relatives depending on the presence or absence of that."
  • Sentence Relative Clauses
    "Sentence relative clauses refer back to the whole clause or sentence, not just to one noun.
    • They always go at the end of the clause or sentence.
    • Tina admires the Prime Minister, which surprises me. (= 'and this surprises me')

      He never admits his mistakes, which is extremely annoying. (= 'and this is extremely annoying')"

Sources

Henry Ford

Demtri Martin, This Is a Book. Grand Central, 2011

Tai Van Nguyen, The Storm of Our Lives: A Vietnamese Family's Boat Journey to Freedom. McFarland, 2009

D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, 1915

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969

G.K. Chesterton, "The Romance of Rhyme," 1920

Martin Luther King, Jr.

John R. Kohl, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. SAS Institute, 2008

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002

Geoffrey Leech, Benita Cruickshank, and Roz Ivanic, An A-Z of English Grammar & Usage, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2001