In this chapter we learn about another kind of dependent clause, the relative clause. There are two kinds of relative clauses. The first that we’ll examine is based on the relative pronouns; the second is based on the relative adverbs.



The relative pronouns are


who whom whose which that


(Whom is the objective form of who; whose is the possessive.)

Committing these five relative pronouns to memory will help you recognize relative clauses.

As you’ll see in the examples below, relative pronouns begin relative clauses. The relative clauses are underlined:


The man who spoke to you is my uncle. My uncle is the man whom you saw.



The woman whose car you hit is my neighbor. The car, which is a total wreck, is a Chevrolet. The car that you hit is a Chevrolet.


Relative clauses modify nouns in a sentence. They cannot be moved around like subordinate clauses, but always appear after the nouns they modify.

Relative pronouns play two roles in a sentence. First, relative pronouns connect their own clause to another clause, which is usually independent. Second, as pronouns, they stand in for nouns. The relative pronoun appears in the relative clause, and the antecedent of the pronoun is in the independent clause.

Here’s an important point: The antecedent of the relative pronoun is always the noun modified by the relative clause.

To examine relative clauses further (or even farther), let’s begin with two brief independent clauses:


  • The job is part-time.
  • You want the job.


With a relative pronoun, we can replace the words the job in Sentence 2 with the relative pronoun that to create (with a bit of rearranging) a relative clause: that you want. Then we can embed that clause into the middle of Sentence 1:



1. The job that you want is part-time.


The words that you want make up the relative clause, which is now part of Sentence 1, the independent clause.

As you’ve just seen, with relative pronouns we can combine two independent clauses into one complex sentence. The resulting sentence has one independent clause and one relative clause embedded inside the independent clause. And, of course, the sentence may contain more than two clauses.



As the example above shows, the relative clause is adjectival: the relative clause modifies job. Relative clauses are always adjec- tival and always follow the nouns they modify.

The word order often changes in the relative clause because the relative pronoun must appear early in the clause.

Here’s another example, using who. We’ll begin with two independent clauses:


  • That man is my uncle.
  • That man talked to you.


Now, we use who to replace that man in Sentence 2. Then we embed the resulting relative clause into the middle of Sentence 1:



1. That man who talked to you is my uncle.


Here’s another example, using whom:


  • The man is my uncle.
  • You saw the man.


Again we replace the man in Sentence 2 with whom, move the relative pronoun to the beginning of the clause, and combine the clauses:



1. The man whom you saw is my uncle.

Here are more sentences with relative clauses: I got the job, which is part-time.

I borrowed the broom from the woman whose house I rent.



Relative pronouns can be the objects of prepositions. In that case, the relative pronoun appears just after the preposition in the relative clause:


There is the man to whom you must speak.


In all of these examples, and any others we might find, we see the same features of the relative clause built with relative pronouns:


  • The relative pronoun appears at or near the beginning of the relative clause.
  • In its clause, the relative pronoun stands in for the modified noun, which is always the antecedent of the relative pronoun.
  • The relative clause follows the antecedent—that is, it follows the modified noun. This means that relative clauses cannot appear at the beginning of a sentence, as subordinate clauses can, but only in the middle or at the end.



There are just two relative adverbs, when and where, and, like the relative pronouns, they help us form relative clauses that are adjectival. Yes, it seems odd that an adverb is the basis of an adjectival clause, but wait and see.

The relative adverbs when and where are like relative pronouns in other ways: They seem to refer back to a noun earlier in the sentence, and they begin the clause they introduce.

We use when to begin a relative clause that modifies a noun that names times:


I have to finish this paper by noon, when it is due.

The year 1929, when the stock market crashed, is the subject of this new book.


In each case, the relative clauses are underlined, and when



is an adverb in the relative clause. When refers to the time noun (noon, the year 1929) that is modified by the relative clause.

We use where in relative clauses that modify nouns that name places:


Her favorite city is Atlanta, where she was born.


Marshfield, Missouri, where astronomer Edwin Hubble grew up, is a pleasant little town.


In each sentence, the relative clause modifies the place word (Atlanta and Marshfield, Missouri) that precedes the relative adverb.

Here are some more examples:


This is a month when temperatures are low. I know a store where we will find that book.

This is the time of year when days get shorter.


I know of a spooky abandoned house where ghosts, were- wolves, and my old high school teachers have been seen.


(That last sentence is not true. There are no such things as werewolves.)

In this chapter, all the sentences containing relative clauses are complex sentences, with one independent clause and one de- pendent clause. But relative clauses can also appear in sentences with more clauses.

In sentences built with relative adverbs, we all find the same features:


  • The relative adverb appears at the beginning of the relative




  • The relative adverb is selected on the basis of the word that will be modified by the relative clause: when to modify time words, and where to modify place words.
  • The relative clause follows the modified word. This means that relative adverb clauses cannot appear at the beginning of a sentence, as subordinate clauses can, but only in the middle or at the end.


These features are noticeably similar to the features of the relative clauses built with pronouns. (You did notice that, didn’t you? Didn’t you?)



Omitted relative adverbs.

Sometimes in casual writing and conversation, the relative adverbs when and where are left out:


This is the time of year days get shorter. This is the month temperatures are low.

I know a place we can find that new book.


Generally ignored in conversation, these omissions sometimes seem odd in writing. Don’t do this in your formal writing.


Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Consider these two sentences, both of them containing the same relative clause. Do you see the differences in the meaning of these two sentences?


All politicians who are crooks should go to jail.



All politicians, who are crooks, should go to jail.


The commas make a big difference. In the first sentence, we’re told that only those politicians who are crooks should go to jail.

In the second, we’re told parenthetically that all politicians are crooks, and they all should go to the hoosegow.

We’re comparing restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses here. In the first sentence, the restrictive clause restricts the meaning of all politicians to include only those who are crooks. The non-restrictive clause in the second sentence informs us that all politicians are crooks.

The pair of commas in the second sentence (known as paren- thetical commas) make the enclosed information supplemental, so that the relative clause does not modify or restrict the words all politicians.

Here are some more examples:


It’s fun to watch magicians who are clever. It’s fun to watch magicians, who are clever.


The first sentence tells us that only some magicians (those who are clever) are fun. The second sentence gives us some supplemen- tary information about all magicians.

Notice that the non-restrictive clauses could be enclosed in parentheses instead of commas.

In some sentences, the commas don’t seem to make much difference:


I dislike those baseball fans who are rude. I dislike those baseball fans, who are rude.


In both cases, we’re speaking about a particular group of fans, although the first sentence seems to be about all rude fans; the second, about a particular group of rude fans.



Troublesome relatives.

Some grammar books include why among the relative adverbs: I know the reason why he left.

But sentences like this are considered redundant, because we can usually delete the modified noun (reason) without losing any information:


I know why he left.


In this new sentence, why he left is not a relative clause, but a

nominal clause, which we’ll learn about in Chapter 12.


More troublesome relatives.

(You know, it’s hard to avoid troublesome relatives.) Notice the ambiguous use of which in this sentence:


The senator said he believed that the general will resign, and the newspaper published an editorial agreeing with what the senator said, which disappointed me.


Using pronouns near the end of long sentences can confuse readers, who may not be able to tell what the precise antecedent is. (In the example above, what does which refer to?) This is an important point because clarity is always important. Make sure antecedents are clear.

To improve a sentence like the one above, you may need to break it up into two or more sentences, and you certainly want to make clear what disappointed you:


The senator disappointed me when he said . . .

I was disappointed to hear that the general will resign . . . The newspaper editorial disappointed me when . . .



Who or that?

Compare these sentences:


I’ll speak with the man who runs this place. I’ll speak with the man that runs this place.


We use both versions in informal communication, and few people notice or care. In formal writing, however, many writers and editors prefer to use only who (and whom) to refer to people.


Who or whom?

Because a relative pronoun always has a grammatical function in its relative clause, sometimes we have to decide when to use who or whom. Who is the nominative form of the pronoun, used for subjects; whom is the objective. Compare:


I’ll speak with the man who runs this place. That is the man with whom I spoke.


Writers and speakers are often uncertain about when to use whom, which may be one reason many people prefer that instead. Let’s sort some matters out.

When the pronoun follows a preposition (as in the second example above), the grammatically correct choice is whom: With whom I spoke.

Sometimes rearranging the sentence, or part of it, makes the choice easier. If we’re ending a sentence with a preposition (as in He is the person who I spoke with), putting the preposition before the pronoun makes it more obvious that we need the objective case:


He is the person with whom I spoke.



Suppose we have a question like this:


Who do you trust?


Who may sound right because we’re accustomed to putting a nominative-case pronoun at the beginning of a sentence. But try to answer the question using either he or him:


I trust him.


The answer to the question is him (an objective case pronoun) because it’s the direct object of trust. In the question above, the pronoun is also the direct object, so use whom:


Whom do you trust?

Try out the same procedures with these two questions: Is that the man who danced with her?

Do you know the man who she danced with?


In the first case, it’s possible to revise the relative clause into a sentence using he or him (He danced with her) which indicates that we need the nominative pronoun, who, in the question.

In the second example, rephrasing the sentence by moving the preposition gives us Do you know the man with who she danced? It’s now obvious that we need whom:


Do you know the man whom she danced with? Do you know the man with whom she danced?


In casual conversation, we’ll all misuse who or whom some- times. But in our formal professional writing, this is often a matter we want to get right—or that an editor or co-author wants right. The he/him test can help us work out these things.



In contexts in which you aim for a more conversational style, a more informal tone, using who instead of whom can contribute to that effect.







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Interactive Grammar Book by Sushumna Rao Tadinada; Professor Moustapha Diack; and Diola Bagayoko, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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