Restrictive Relative Clause

Definition of Restrictive Relative Clause
Restrictive Relative Clause. CC0 Public Domain

A relative clause (also called an adjective clause) that limits--or provides essential information about--the noun or noun phrase it modifies. Also called a defining relative clause.

Understanding Relative Clauses

In contrast to nonrestrictive relative clauses, restrictive relative clauses are usually not marked by pauses in speech, and they are not set off by commas in writing. See Examples and Observations, below.

Examples of Restrictive Elements

  • "A restrictive relative clause is one that serves to restrict the reference of the noun phrase modified. In (3), the restrictive relative clause who lives in Canada restricts my sister by specifying the sister in Canada. The sentence implies that the speaker has more than one sister, but only one sister in Canada is a biologist. It could be an answer to the question Which of your sisters is a biologist? The information added to the relative clause identifies the sister.
    (3) My sister who lives in Canada is a biologist.
    " . . . There is no pause at the beginning or end of a restrictive relative clause."
    (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • The woman who lives next door claims to be a Martian.
  • For a balloon to float, it must be filled with a gas that is lighter than the air around it.
  • "In Davis School days, there lived a little boy two or three streets over from ours who was home sick in bed, and when the circus came to town that year, someone got the parade to march up a different street from the usual way to the Fairgrounds, to go past his house."
    (Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings. Harvard University Press, 1984)
  • "This was the man who entered the art gallery on that February day in 1908--a successful businessman, a person interested in the art world, a collector of manuscripts, and a man who was already thinking about public economic issues." (Katharine Graham, Personal History. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
  • "In the days before Christmas the lights on the tree were not plugged in. Only the candle that my father kept in the window of his den burned." (Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones. Little, Brown, 2002)
  • "There's a nice little new shop now near Perley, past that submarine place that used to be Chinese." (John Updike, Rabbit Redux. Random House, 1971)
  • "Those hairstyled anchormen who learned everything they know in a communications course--it's true they draw down staggering salaries, but I'd just as soon marry my daughter to a slice of quiche." (Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak. William Morrow, 1987)

The Difference Between Restrictive Clauses and Nonrestrictive Clauses

  • "To make this as short and brutal an explanation as possible, think of a restrictive clause as a liver: a vital organ of the sentence that cannot be removed without killing it. A nonrestrictive clause, however, is more like the appendix or tonsils of a sentence: It may be desirable to have but can be removed without dying (so long as one does so carefully)." (Ammon Shea, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Perigee, 2014)

Head Nouns and Relativizers in Restrictive Relative Clauses

  • "(35) [The woman [that I love]] is moving to Argentina.

This example illustrates the three basic parts of a relative clause construction: the head noun (woman), the modifying clause (I love), and the relativizer (that) which links the modifying clause to the head.

. . .

"In (35) the head of the relative clause (woman) is a common noun which could refer to any one of a few billion individuals. The function of the modifying clause is to identify (uniquely, one would hope) which particular woman the speaker is referring to. This is a typical example of a restrictive relative clause. In this construction, the reference of the NP as a whole is determined in two stages: the head noun designates a class which the referent must belong to; and the modifying clause restricts (or narrows) the identity of the referent to a specific member of that class." (Paul R. Kroeger, Analyzing Grammar: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Reducing Restrictive Relative Clauses

  • "When can we delete the relative pronoun? Reduction is possible in a restrictive relative clause (but not non-restrictive) in which the relative pronoun is followed by the subject of the dependent clause.


    "We need some examples.

    Full relative clause: The picture that Billie painted was in the Cubist style.

    We can also say

    Reduced relative clause: The picture Billie painted was in the Cubist style.

    The full relative clause is that Billie painted. Relative pronoun that is followed by Billie, and she is the subject of the relative clause, so we can drop the that. (Notice that the relative clause being reduced is restrictive. If the sentence was The picture, which Billie painted, was in the Cubist style, we couldn't delete the relative pronoun.)" (Susan J. Behrens, Grammar: A Pocket Guide. Routledge, 2010)

    Markers in Restrictive Relative Clauses

    • "Ordinarily, the conjunction 'that' would introduce a restrictive clause. Nonrestrictive: This is a baseball, which is spherical and white. Restrictive: This is the baseball that Babe Ruth hit out of the park after pointing at the fence in Chicago. The first ball is unspecific, and that sentence requires a comma if the writer wishes to digress into its shape and color. The second ball is very specific, and the sentence repels commas."(John McPhee, "The Writing Life: Draft No. 4." The New Yorker, April 29, 2013)
    • "There are various formal differences between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses in English. One is . . . the choice of marker: non-restrictive clauses require relative pronouns, restrictive relative clauses also allow the relativizer that (compare The man that sported a chequered felt hat spoke to me with *The man, that sported a chequered felt hat, spoke to me) or a gap (compare, for example, The man _____ I spoke to yesterday came to my house with *The man, _____ I spoke to yesterday, came to my house)." (Viveka Velupillai, An Introduction to Linguistic Typology. John Benjamins, 2013)

      * In linguistics, an asterisk indicates an ungrammatical sentence.

      See also:

      Also Known As: defining relative clause, essential adjective clause