Definition and Examples of Relativization in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In transformational grammar, relativization is the process of forming a relative clause.

In Varieties of English (2013), Peter Siemund identifies three common strategies for forming relative clauses in English: (1) relative pronouns, (2) the subordinator (or relativizer) that, and (3) gapping.

Examples and Observations

  • "It was Mrs. Brennan, the director of Library Services. On this special day, she was dressed all in black—black shoes, black stockings, and black dress. It was an outfit that a Story Time witch might wear beneath a black pointed hat."
    (Edward Bloor, Story Time. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004)
  • "The ring that my father hid is still hidden. Unless, of course, someone has found it and never said anything. It has been almost twenty-five years."
    (Eric Berlin, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen. Putnam, 2007)
  • "In just a few weeks, they managed to find the ring that was hidden so cleverly by my father and helped bring my daughter and granddaughter—and this old coot, Malcolm—back into my life."
    (Michael D. Beil, The Red Blazer Girls: The Vanishing Violin. Knopf, 2010)
  • "The previous night, which Suri Feldman presumably passed in the woods, and which her parents presumably passed in living hell, had been cold; it rained several times before dawn."
    (Annie Dillard, For the Time Being. Knopf, 1999)
  • "Mrs. Marie Jencks (that was what the brass nameplate on her desk called her) worked in the Personal Injury Department for mild, short Len Lewis, who was head of the Personal Injury Department and who had fallen politely in love, romantically, sexually, idealistically, with my own incorrigible Virginia. (She encouraged him.)"
    (Joseph Heller, Something Happened. Knopf, 1974)
  • "I will take the coat from the boy whose coat is too big and give it to the boy with the coat that is too small. I will then take the coat from the boy whose coat is too small and give it to the boy with the coat that was too big."
    (Joseph C. Phillips, He Talk Like a White Boy. Running Press, 2006)
  • "I forgot that the man's hand on the table before me didn't belong to the man I was thinking about. I reached over and softly closed my hand over his."
    (Deirdre Madden, Molly Fox's Birthday. Picador, 2010)

The Syntactic Function of the Modified Noun Phrase

  • "[L]et us take a look at the syntactic function that the head noun plays in the relative clause (or the underlying non-relative clause). Put differently the question is which noun phrases in a clause can be relativized on."
    "On the face of it, there seem to be few restrictions on the functional properties of such noun phrases. The examples in (13) show that noun phrases in subject position, object position, and indirect-object position can be relativized on (13a-13c). Moreover, English allows us to relativize on obliques (13d), the modifier of a genitive construction (13e), and the object of a comparative construction (13f). As for relativization, English turns out to be a fairly flexible language.
    (13a) This is the girl who ___ wrote the book. (subject)
    (13b) This is the girl who the painter portrayed ___. (object)
    (13c) This is the girl on whom they bestowed a fortune ____. (indirect object)
    (13d) This is the girl who John would like to dance with ___. (oblique)
    (13e) This is the girl whose father ___ died. (genitive)
    (13f) This is the girl who Mary is taller than ___. (object of comparative)." (Peter Siemund, Varieties of English: A Typological Approach. Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Relativization Markers in Dialects of British English

"Features [46a through 46c] deal with three overt markers that introduce relative clauses: wh-relativization (see 46a), the relative particle what (see 46b), and the relative particle that (see 46c).

(46a) and it was the poor people who poached usually [SOM019]
(46b) He never had any of the money what he earned [KEN010]
(46c) The highest number that I can remember, I think, was fifty-two [CON007]

Historically, relative that and what are comparatively old forms while wh- relativization—especially who—is a relatively recent addition to the system (Herrmann 2003, chapter 4; Tagliamonte et al. 2005, 77-78). Today, regional variation in Great Britain is pervasive . . .."
(Benedikt Szmrecsanyi, Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects: A Study in Corpus-Based Dialectometry. Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Relative and Quasi-Relative Constructions in Irish English

"Like many other non-standard varieties, IrE dialects north (including Ulster Scots) and south are known for their avoidance of the so-called WH-relatives (who, whose, whom, which). Instead, the most commonly used means of relativization are that, the so-called zero relative construction (also known as the 'contact clause'), and the conjunction and. The last mentioned is particularly common in informal spoken language. It is sometimes labelled as a 'quasi-relative' construction, as it does not involve a 'proper' relative pronoun (see, e.g. Harris 1993: 149). The following examples illustrate the typical IrE usages:

(58) They don't take in boys that haven't got the eleven plus. (NITCS: MK76)
(59) . . . there's older people Ø tell me that they were 13 different families Ø lived in it. (NITCS: AM50)
(60) There was this man and he lived, himself and his wife, they lived, and they had only one son. (Clare: F.K.)

Of the WH-relatives, especially whose and whom are extremely rare in all dialects, while who and which are slightly more frequent. WH-forms do occur in written IrE, but even in that mode the Irish have a noticeable predilection for that at the expense of WH-forms. Ulster Scots generally follows the same patterns as the other Irish dialects, with at (a shortened form of that; possessive form ats) or the zero-relative being the most common means of relativization (Robinson 1997: 77-78)."
(Markku Filppula, "Irish-English: Morphology and Syntax." A Handbook of Varieties of English, Volume 2, ed. by Bernd Kortmann et al. Walter de Gruyter, 2004)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Relativization in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Relativization in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Relativization in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).