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Encyclopedia > English relative clauses
English grammar series

English grammar The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... For the topic in theoretical computer science, see Formal grammar Grammar is the study of rules governing the use of language. ... English grammar is a body of rules specifying how meanings are created in English. ...

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This article is focused mainly on usage of English relative clauses. For theoretical background on the subject, see the main article on relative clauses.

The relative pronouns in English include who, whom, whose, which, and that. (Note: Not all modern syntacticians agree that that is a relative pronoun.) What is a compound relative, including both the antecedent and the relative, and is equivalent to that which; for example, "I did what he desired" means the same as, "I did that which he desired." Disputed English grammar denotes disagreement about whether given constructions constitute correct English. ... This article does not cite any references or sources. ... This is a paradigm of English verbs, that is, a set of conjugation tables, for the model regular verbs and for some of the most common irregular verbs. ... English has a large number of irregular verbs. ... In the English language, a modal auxiliary verb is an auxiliary verb (or helping verb) that can modify the grammatical mood (or mode) of a verb. ... In English as in many other languages, the passive voice is the form of a transitive verb whose grammatical subject serves as the patient, receiving the action of the verb. ... The English language once had an extensive declension system similar to modern German or Icelandic. ... The English personal pronouns are classified as follows: First person refers to the speaker(s). ... Note: This page or section contains IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. ... A compound is a word composed of more than one free morphemes. ... An honorific is something that is attached to the name but is not normally used elsewhere, e. ... Look up gender in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun. ... A relative pronoun is a pronoun that marks a relative clause within a larger sentence. ... The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ...

In some contexts, there may be a choice between two or more of these forms. The choice of relative pronoun may carry additional meaning or draw a number of distinctions.


Variables in the basic relative clause

Human or non-human

In their choice of relative pronoun, English-speakers will often distinguish between an antecedent that is a human — who(m) — and an antecedent which is a non-human — which. In this regard, English is unique among the Germanic languages; this distinction may be due to French influence, and is clearly related to the distinction between the interrogative words who(m) and which and that between the (s)he pronouns and it(s). Note that whose, while sometimes reserved for human antecedents, is commonly found also with nonhuman ones; and that that, while reserved for nonhuman antecedents by some writers, is also often found with human ones. This article does not cite any references or sources. ...

Restrictive or non-restrictive

Restrictiveness is more clearly marked in English than in most languages: prosody (in speaking) and punctuation (in writing) serve this purpose. An English non-restrictive relative clause is preceded by a pause in speech or a comma in writing, whereas a restrictive clause normally is not. Compare the following sentences, which have two quite different meanings, and correspondingly two clearly distinguished intonation patterns, depending on whether the commas are inserted: In semantics, a modifier is said to be restrictive if it restricts the reference of its head. ... In linguistics, prosody refers to intonation, rhythm, and vocal stress in speech. ...

(1) The builder, who erects very fine houses, will make a large profit.
(2) The builder who erects very fine houses will make a large profit.

The first example, with commas, and with three short intonation curves, contains a non-restrictive relative clause. It refers to a specific builder, and assumes we know which builder is intended. It tells us firstly about his houses, then about his profits. The second example uses a restrictive relative clause. Without the commas, and with a single intonation curve, the sentence states that any builder who builds such houses will make profits.

For non-human antecedents, a distinction is also sometimes drawn between that (restrictive) and which (non-restrictive); see "That and which" below.

Restrictive relative clauses are also called defining relative clauses, or identifying relative clauses. Similarly, non-restrictive relative clauses are called non-defining or non-identifying relative clauses. For more information see restrictive clause and the relevant subsection of relative clause. In syntax, the concept of restrictiveness applies to a variety of syntactical constructions. ... A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun. ...

Grammatical case

In the Germanic languages, the case of a relative pronoun is generally marked in its form. In English, this survives only in who, which has a possessive case form whose and an objective case form whom. But the form whom is in decline and is now often restricted to formal use. In grammar, the case of a noun or pronoun indicates its grammatical function in a greater phrase or clause; such as the role of subject, of direct object, or of possessor. ... Possessive case is a case that exists in some languages used for possession. ... The accusative case of a noun is, generally, the case used to mark the direct object of a verb. ...

Since which and that have no possessive forms, whose is now also used for the possessive form of these, or periphrasis is sometimes employed: Periphrasis, like its Latin counterpart circumlocution, is a figure of speech where the meaning of a word or phrase is indirectly expressed through several or many words. ...

There is an old house in our street, whose roof Jack fixed.
There is an old house in our street, the roof of which Jack fixed.

The zero relative pronoun

English, unlike most other Germanic languages, has a zero relative pronoun. It is an alternative to that in a restrictive relative clause, except that it cannot be the subject of the clause's main verb. A zero, in linguistics, is a constituent needed in an analysis but not realized in speech. ...

Jack built the house that I was born in.
Jack built the house Ø I was born in.

Relative clauses headed by zeros are frequently called contact clauses in TEFL contexts. TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language – is an industry catering for students studying English in non-English speaking countries (see EFL). ...

Use with preposition

Traditionally, following the pattern of Germanic, a preposition in a relative clause appears together with the relative pronoun. In this case the pronoun must be either whom or which; never that, and since this is now formal usage, it would be unusual to use who.

Jack is the boy with whom Jenny fell in love.
Jack built the house in which I grew up.

An innovation of English among the Germanic languages, however, is the option of leaving the preposition where it would be if the clause were an independent clause. Though John Dryden raised in 1672 the possibility that this preposition-stranding should not be considered correct (from a prescriptive standpoint), it was already in widespread use by that time, and is now the preferred usage of most English speakers, especially in colloquial situations. Therefore, although a traditional grammarian might insist upon the sentence, "Jack is the boy with whom Jenny fell in love", any of the following might be heard instead: John Dryden John Dryden (August 19 {August 9 O.S.}, 1631 - May 12 {May 1 O.S.}, 1700) was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator and playwright, who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles... Events England, France, Munster and Cologne invade the United Provinces, therefore this name is know as ´het rampjaar´ (the disaster year) in the Netherlands. ... Preposition stranding, sometimes called P-stranding, is the syntactic construction in which a preposition appears without an object. ... In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for the use of a language. ...

Jack is the boy whom Jenny fell in love with.
Jack is the boy who Jenny fell in love with.
Jack is the boy that Jenny fell in love with.
Jack is the boy Jenny fell in love with.

That and which

The distinction between the relative pronouns that and which, which are both used to introduce relative clauses with non-human antecedents, is a frequent point of dispute. A case of disputed English grammar arises when there is disagreement about whether a given construction constitutes correct English. ...

Of the two, only which is at all common in non-restrictive clauses.[1] Problems arise in restrictive clauses, where traditionally either that or which could be used. This is still the case in normal speech and in British English, but in formal American English it is generally recommended to use only that for restrictive clauses.[2] British English (BrE, BE, en-GB) is the broad term used to distinguish the forms of the English language used in the United Kingdom from forms used elsewhere in the Anglophone world. ... For other uses, see American English (disambiguation). ...

This latter rule was recommended in 1926 by H.W. Fowler, who observed that "Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers."[3] Henry Watson Fowler (10 March 1858 - 26 December 1933) was an English schoolmaster, lexicographer and commentator on usage, notable for both Fowlers Modern English Usage (first published 1926) and his work on the Concise Oxford Dictionary. ...


The most common distribution of the forms is therefore as follows (though variations may be heard).

Restrictive Nonrestrictive
Human Nonhuman Human Nonhuman
Subject that, who that, which, who which
Object that, who, whom, Ø that, which, Ø who, whom which
After preposition whom which whom which
Possessive whose, of whom whose, of which whose, of whom whose, of which

Special types and variants

Nominal relative clauses

English allows what is called a fused or nominal relative clause — a relative clause that does not modify an external noun phrase, and instead has a nominal function fused into it. For example:

What he did is clearly impossible, but I saw him do it.

Here, what he did has the sense of that which he did, i.e. the thing that he did, and functions as the subject of the verb is. Nominal relative clauses are inherently restrictive.

English has a number of fused relative pronouns, such as what, whatever, and whoever, but all can introduce other kinds of clauses as well; what can also introduce interrogative content clauses ("I don't know what he did"), for example, and both whatever and whoever can introduce adverbials ("Whatever he did, he doesn't deserve this"). In grammar, a content clause is a subordinate clause that provides content implied by, or commented upon by, its main clause. ... This article or section does not adequately cite its references or sources. ...

Adverbial relative clauses

Much as a relative clause can modify a noun phrase, it can modify an entire clause. This makes sense when examined from a sentence-combination standpoint:

He designed a beautiful house. I plan to build it.He designed a beautiful house, which I plan to build. (modifying a noun phrase)
He designed a beautiful house. I think that's very impressive.He designed a beautiful house, which I think is very impressive. (modifying an entire clause)

Such a relative clause is called an adverbial relative clause. Only non-restrictive relative clauses can be used adverbially. This article or section does not adequately cite its references or sources. ...

Disjointed relative clauses

A relatively common phenomenon in speech, though generally seen as ungrammatical or bad style, is a sentence like the following:

  • Portman, who I wonder if she’ll ever better her role in Leon, is good here also, […][1]
  • The second message comes from a person who I don't know if the military is the right thing for them because they […][2]

Here the speaker appears to change in mid-track: having begun to utter a relative clause he realises that the pronoun can be neither its subject nor object, and attempts a repair "on the hoof". These sentences could be turned into standard relative clauses by omitting the intruding verbs of speech (Portman, who will never better...; a person for whom the military is not...), or the need for the relative could be eliminated by beginning with this verb (I wonder if Portman will...; I don't know if the military is...). In writing, most people would choose one of these alternatives, but in speech the hybrid is not unusual.

See also

English grammar is a body of rules specifying how meanings are created in English. ...


  1. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey K. Language Log: An ivory-billed relative clause. 1 December 2005.
  2. ^ New Hart's Rules (Oxford University Press: 2005), p.68
  3. ^ Language Log: Don't do this at home, kiddies! (retrieved 2006-07-25)

  Results from FactBites:
Relative clause - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2413 words)
A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun.
Relative clauses can be divided in two types depending on whether they restrict the referent of the noun they modify in the main statement, or simply describe the noun.
In Georgian, relative clauses are generally marked both with a particle outside the clause, which is declined to indicate the relative clause's role within the larger sentence, and with a relative pronoun, which is declined to indicate its own role within the relative clause.
Supporting English Acquisition (517 words)
In grammatical terms, the noun phrase modified by the relative clause is sometimes called “the head noun phrase” or “the head” of the relative clause.
Research on the acquisition of English relative clauses has often focused on the relationship between the head noun phrase of the relative clause and the relativized position within the relative clause.
For example, is the head noun phrase the subject or the object within the main clause, and is the relativized position the subject or the object within the relative clause.
  More results at FactBites »



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