English relative clauses
Relative clauses in the English language are formed principally by means of relative pronouns. The basic relative pronouns are who, which, and that (who also has the derived forms whom and whose). Various grammatical and stylistic rules exist for determining which of the relative pronouns can be used in a given instance. In some cases (as in "This is the man [that] I saw"), it is possible to omit the relative pronoun entirely.
English also uses free relative clauses, which have no antecedent – these can be formed with the pronoun what (as in "I like what you've done"), as well as with certain other forms such as who and whoever.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Variables in the basic relative clause
- 3 Status of that
- 4 Free relative clauses
- 5 Non-finite relative clauses
- 6 Adverbial types
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- The basic relative pronouns are who, which and that (but see Status of that below).
- The relative pronoun comes at the very start of the relative clause, unless it is preceded by a fronted preposition: "The bed on which I was lying" (in informal English it is more normal to leave the preposition "stranded": "The bed which I was lying on"). More rarely the relative clause may start with a larger phrase containing the relative pronoun after a preposition: "The bed, the owner of which we had seen previously, ...", "The bed, lying on which was a small cat, ..."
- who can be used only with an antecedent referring to a person; which, referring to a thing; that, referring to either person or thing. ("The man who ..."; "The thing which ..."; "The man/thing that ...".)
- that can be used only in restrictive relative clauses, while who and which can be used in both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. ("The man that/who ..."; "The thing that/which ..."; "My friend, who ..."; "My car, which ...".) In some styles of formal English, particularly American, use of which in restrictive clauses is avoided where possible (see that or which below).
- whom is a variant of who normally used only in formal English, and only when the antecedent's role in the relative clause is as an object — not a subject. ("The man who saw me"; "The man who/whom I saw".)
- However, when a preposition in the relative clause is fronted, only whom (rarely who) and which can be used. ("The man who/whom/that I spoke to"; formal "The man to whom I spoke" — rarely *to who, not *to that; "The knife which/that I killed him with"; formal "The knife with which I killed him" — not *with that.)
- In the positions where that can be used as relative pronoun (namely in restrictive relative clauses without a fronted preposition), provided it is not the subject of the relative clause, it is also possible to omit the relative pronoun entirely. For example: "The man who(m)/that I saw" or "The man who(m)/that I spoke to" can also be rendered as simply "The man I saw" or "The man I spoke to". However such omission is not possible in "My friend, who I saw" (non-restrictive relative clause), "The man to whom I spoke" (fronted preposition), or "The man who/that saw me" (relative pronoun is the subject).
- The relative pronoun takes the number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, or third) of its antecedent: "The people who were present" (who takes the plural verb were because its antecedent is the plural people); "I, who am normally very tolerant, ..." (who takes the first-person singular verb am because its antecedent, the pronoun I, is first-person singular).
- whose indicates that the antecedent has a possessive role in the relative clause. ("The man whose daughter I married".) Unlike who, it can be used with antecedents referring to either persons or things ("I found a car whose battery was dead"), although its use referring to things is relatively uncommon in informal English (more natural might be, for example, "I found a car with a dead battery"). It can be used in both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses ("John, whose brother was recently married, ...") and with both fronted and stranded prepositions ("The man in whose car we arrived ...", "The man whose car we arrived in ...").
- Relative clauses whose antecedent is a whole proposition are formed with which: "The cake was burnt, which made me angry" (here which refers to the circumstance of the cake's being burnt).
- A less common, usually quite formal, use of which is as a relative determiner (adjective), as in "He painted a picture of the house, which painting I later destroyed." Here it can be used with nouns referring to either persons or things.
- Free relative clauses (which have no antecedent, but themselves take the role of an argument in the main clause) can be formed with who(m) or who(m)ever (referring to people), what or whatever (referring to things), whichever (referring to people or things from a known set). These can be called compound relative pronouns. For example, "I'll take who(m)(ever) you choose" (where the pronoun stands for "the person(s) who(m)"); "What I said annoyed her" (where the pronoun what stands for "the thing which" or "that which"). There are also determiner (adjectival) equivalents: which/what or more usually whichever/whatever: "I'll take whichever dish you choose."
Notice that all the words used as relative pronouns also have other uses in English grammar: that can be a demonstrative or a conjunction, while which, what, who, whom and whose can be interrogative words. For other uses of whoever etc., see -ever.
Variables in the basic relative clause
Human or non-human
As described above, the choice of relative pronoun often depends on whether the antecedent is human or non-human: who and its derivatives (apart from whose) are generally restricted to human antecedents, while which and what and their derivatives (in most uses) are restricted to non-human ones. Other Germanic languages do not make such a distinction among bound (non-free) relatives, although they may do so with free relatives (which are often more closely related to the interrogative pronouns, where the distinction is generally made): German distinguishes was/was(auch)immer (cf. English what/what(so)ever) from wer(auch)immer (cf. English who(so)ever).
The relative pronoun that, however, is used with both human and non-human antecedents. While some writers recommend reserving that for non-human cases, this does not reflect majority use. Counter-examples can be found in Shakespeare (the man that hath no music in himself, in The Merchant of Venice), Mark Twain (The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg), and Ira Gershwin (The Man that Got Away).
The possessive form whose is often used with non-human as well as human antecedents, since no analogous form exists for which or that. An alternative to the car whose engine blew up would have to use periphrasis, for example the car of which the engine blew up.
Restrictive or non-restrictive
The distinction between restrictive, or integrated, relative clauses and non-restrictive, or supplementary, relative clauses in English is marked by prosody (in speaking) and punctuation (in writing): a non-restrictive relative clause is typically 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:
- (1) The builder, who erects very fine houses, will make a large profit. (non-restrictive)
- (2) The builder who erects very fine houses will make a large profit. (restrictive)
The first expression refers to an individual builder (and it implies we know, or know of, the builder—the referent). It tells us that he builds "very fine" houses, and that he will make a large profit. It conveys these meanings by deploying a non-restrictive relative clause and three short intonation curves, marked-off by commas. The second expression refers not to a single builder but to a certain category of builders who meet a certain qualification: the one explained by the restrictive relative clause. Now the sentence means: it is the builder who builds "very fine" houses who will make a large profit. It conveys this very different meaning by providing a restrictive relative clause and only one intonation curve, and no commas normally.
Thus, in speaking or writing English prose, if it is desired to provide a restrictive rather than non-restrictive meaning (or vice-versa) to the referent, then the correct syntax must be provided—by choosing the appropriate relative clause (i.e., restrictive or non-restrictive) and the appropriate intonation and punctuation.
When analysing English usage, a simple test is to remove the relative clause from a sentence. If the underlying, or basic, meaning of the sentence is disturbed then the relative clause is restrictive. If the basic meaning of the sentence is not changed, then the relative clause is not essential to the basic meaning of the sentence, and it is a non-restrictive clause.
Restrictive relative clauses are also called integrated relative clauses, defining relative clauses, or identifying relative clauses. Similarly, non-restrictive relative clauses are called supplementary, appositive, non-defining or non-identifying relative clauses. For more information see restrictive clause and the relevant subsection of relative clause.
Semantic differences between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses
Though the term "restrictive" has become established, the difference in meaning between a so-called restrictive (or integrated) clause and a non-restrictive (or supplementary) clause is not necessarily that the restrictive clause expresses a distinguishing property as in the simple example given above. Examples given for integrated ("restrictive") relative clauses that are not truly restrictive in this sense include:
- "The father who had planned my life to the point of my unsought arrival in Brighton took it for granted that in the last three weeks of his legal guardianship I would still act as he directed." and
- "He sounded like the clergyman [that ] he was."
- [The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language]
That or which
The distinction between the relative pronouns that and which to introduce restrictive relative clauses with non-human antecedents is a frequent point of dispute.
For clarity, we can look at a slightly modified version of the example above:
- (1) The building company, which erects very fine houses, will make a large profit. (non-restrictive)
- (2) The building company that/which erects very fine houses will make a large profit. (restrictive)
Of the two, only which is commonly used in non-restrictive clauses. The dispute concerns restrictive clauses: in informal American speech and in formal and informal British English that or which are both commonly used in these clauses, but in formal American English, references generally specify only that, or reduction to a zero relative pronoun (see below). This rule was proposed as early as 1851 by Goold Brown. It was championed in 1926 by H.W. Fowler, who said, "If writers would agree to regard that as the defining [restrictive] relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. 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." Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky claims that it is generally considered "a really silly idea" among linguists. In the U.S., the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, states it as a rule[need quotation to verify], and the rule is often—though not generally—observed in copy-edited prose in other publications.
Which cannot correctly be replaced by that in a restrictive relative clause when the relative pronoun is the object of a non-stranded preposition; in this case which is used, as in "We admired the skill with which she handled the situation."[the example is also taken from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language].
Zero relative pronoun
English, unlike other West Germanic languages, has a zero relative pronoun (denoted below as Ø) — that is, the relative pronoun is only implied and is not explicitly present. It is an alternative to that, which or who(m) in a restrictive relative clause:
- Jack built the house that I was born in.
- Jack built the house Ø I was born in.
- He is the person who(m) I saw.
- He is the person Ø I saw.
Relative clauses headed by zeros are frequently called contact clauses in TEFL contexts, and may also be called "zero clauses".
Note that if that is analyzed as a complementizer rather than as a relative pronoun (see Status of that below), the above sentences would be represented differently: Jack built the house that I was born in Ø; Jack built the house I was born in Ø; He is the person I saw Ø.
The zero relative pronoun cannot be the subject of the verb in the relative clause (or on the alternative analysis: that cannot be omitted when the zero relative pronoun is the subject). Thus one must say:
- Jack built the house that sits on the hill.
- Jack built the house that was damaged by the tornado.
- *Jack built the house Ø sits on the hill.
- *Jack built the house Ø was damaged by the tornado.
Neither that nor the zero pronoun can be used in non-restrictive relative clauses, or in relative clauses with a fronted preposition ("Jack built the house in which we now live"), although they can be used when the preposition is stranded: "Jack built the house (that) we now live in."
Use with preposition
In formal writing, a relative pronoun often appears as the object of a preposition at the beginning of a relative clause. In this case the pronoun will be whom, whose, or which, never that. Since this usage is formal and since the objective case form whom formally serves as the object of a preposition, 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.
Most Germanic languages require this syntax. However, in modern English it is rather more common to place the preposition where the prepositional phrase would be if the clause were an independent clause (usually at the end of the clause), while placing the relative pronoun at the beginning of the clause or omitting it entirely. Various grammarians over the last several hundred years have declared that this preposition-stranding is not considered correct; hence formal language tends to avoid it. However, it has been in widespread use since Old English times, and is normal in colloquial speech. Therefore any of the following might be heard in ordinary speech:
- 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.
Note that, as mentioned above, in a dependent-clause-initial prepositional phrase the relative pronoun serving as the object of the preposition can never be that. However, the relative pronoun in the role of object of the preposition can indeed be that if it is placed at the start of the dependent clause while the preposition is detached from it and located at the end of the clause, as in the above example Jack is the boy that Jenny fell in love with.
Variations may be heard, but the most common distribution of the forms is as follows:
|Subject||who, that||which, that||who||which|
|Object of verb||who, whom, that, Ø||which, that, Ø||who, whom||which|
|Attached object of preposition||whom||which||whom||which|
|Detached object of preposition||who, whom, that, Ø||which, that, Ø||who, whom||which|
|Possessive||whose, of whom||whose, of which||whose, of whom||whose, of which|
Status of that
The word that in the uses described above has traditionally been regarded as a relative pronoun; however, according to some linguists it ought to be analyzed instead as a subordinating conjunction or relativizer. This would be consistent with the use of that as a conjunction in such sentences as I said that I was tired. According to Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, that is not a relative pronoun but a subordinator, and its analysis requires a relativized symbol R: "The film that I needed [R] is not obtainable," where R is the covert object of "needed" and has "the film" as an antecedent. This is the same type of analysis as would be required if that were omitted, which is possible in this case.
Differences between that and the other basic relative pronouns (which, who) include the restriction of that to restrictive relative clauses, and the impossibility of preceding it with a preposition. Similarities between relative that and the ordinary conjunction that include the almost invariable use of the weak pronunciation /ðət/, and the frequent possibility of omission.
Free relative clauses
English allows what is called a free, fused or nominal relative construction—a relative construction 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. Free relative constructions 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 do not know what he did"), for example, and both whatever and whoever can introduce adverbials ("Whatever he did, he does not deserve this"). See -ever.
Non-finite relative clauses
Certain non-finite clauses (also called infinitive or participial clauses or phrases) can be classified as relative clauses. These include:
- infinitive clauses with an explicit relative pronoun (generally used with a fronted preposition): She is the woman on whom to rely.
- infinitive clauses qualifying an element that is understood as the subject of the infinitive verb: She is the person to save the company.
- infinitive clauses having a zero object argument and qualifying an element that serves as the antecedent of that argument: He is the man to beat Ø; She is the woman to rely on Ø.
- past participle clauses having a zero object argument and qualifying an element that serves as the antecedent of that argument: The body found Ø here yesterday has now been identified. These have been called "reduced object relative passive clauses", and have been an object of psycholinguistic research in the area of sentence processing; see Reduced relative clause: Non-finite types.
- present participle clauses having a zero subject argument and qualifying an element that serves as the antecedent of that argument: The man Ø sitting on the bank was fishing. These are least likely to be classified as relative clauses.
For further examples see Uses of English verb forms: Uses of non-finite verbs.
Certain clauses of adverbial character are also sometimes classed as relative clauses:
- those qualifying a noun, normally replaceable by a similar standard relative clause: the place (where) I live (i.e. "at/in which I live"); the reason (why) we did it (i.e. "for which we did it").
- those functioning analogously to free relative clauses, but in an adverbial role: I won't hide where you hide; I'll do it how(ever) you do it.
- These rules refer to actual usage, as described in standard books on grammar, such as Huddleston, Rodney; Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8. and Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman. ISBN 0-582-51734-6. Some prescriptivist style guides, such as Strunk, Jr., William; E.B. White (1999) . The Elements of Style (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 978-0-205-31342-6. propose additional rules concerning which relative pronouns should be used in which circumstances.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 1058. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1064–1065. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. Language Log: An ivory-billed relative clause, Language Log. 1 December 2005.
- New Hart's Rules (Oxford University Press: 2005), p.68.
- Brown, Goold (1851). The Grammar of English Grammars. Samuel S. and William Wood. pp. 291–293. Retrieved 2012-12-26.
- Fowler, H.W. (1965) . Sir Ernest Gowers, ed. Fowler's Modern English Usage (second ed.). Oxford University Press.
- Zwicky, Arnold (May 3, 2005). "Don't do this at home, kiddies!". Retrieved December 6, 2008. "Most linguists—especially sociolinguists—think this a really silly idea, but some people, like Safire, seem to have never met a rule they didn't like, especially if the rule would bring order into apparent chaos."
- Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage (2 ed.). Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1995. p. 895. ISBN 978-0-87779-132-4. ". . . the facts of usage are quite simple. Virginia McDavid's 1977 study shows that about 75 percent of the instances of which in edited prose introduce restrictive clauses; about 25 percent nonrestrictive ones. We conclude that at the end of the 20th century, the usage of which and that—at least in prose— has settled down. You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause— the grounds for your choice should be stylistic—and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause."
- Huddleston, Rodney; Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 1039. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2005). A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge UP. pp. 183â85. ISBN 978-0-521-61288-3.
- The term relative clause is avoided here because the construction can be considered a noun phrase consisting of relative clause fused with the antecedent (for example, what can be considered equivalent to that which) and thus is more than a relative clause.
Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1068–1070. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0.