Relative Clauses
with a little information about appositive clauses


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Relative Clause Defined

Relative clauses are subordinate clauses that attach to nouns.  Because they add information to a noun, some grammarians and ESL/EFL teachers call them adjective clauses
 
 

Examples of Sentences with Relative Clauses
"Societies to Social Networks"
Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach


 


 

Relative Clause Structure

To make a relative clause, we take a sentence, turn it into a subordinate clause, and attach that clause to a noun.  For this process to occur, the two sentences must share the same noun.  Look at the following two sentences.  What noun is shared by both sentences? 

#A1.  I read a book.

#A2. The book explains the differences between clauses and phrases.

To use the second sentence as a relative clause, it has to be changed by adding the appropriate relative pronoun--who, whom, that, which, or whose--selected on the basis of a combination of meaning and syntax.  For example, whom is used to refer to people (or animals closely associated with people) and it must be the object of a verb or preposition.

The relative pronoun serves two functions--it is a subordinating conjunction and it is a part of the syntax of the clause.  In this example, the relative pronoun that is added.  It is a connecting word--but it is also the subject of sentence #2 and of the new relative clause:

Relative clause:  that explains the differences between clauses and phrases
 

New sentence: I read a book that explains the differences between clauses and phrases.

subject: I
verb: read
direct object: a book that explains the differences between clauses and phrases
In the following example, the internal structure of the relative clause is more complicated because the noun that is the focus of the clause is not the subject of the clause.  The relative pronoun is a connecting word and it is also the direct object 
#B1. I read a book.
#B2. I bought the book to help me prepare for class.
Relative clause process step 1--insert the relative pronoun:  I bought that to help me prepare for class
Relative clause process step 2--move the relative pronoun to the front of the clause: that I bought to help me prepare for class
Relative clause process step 3--attach the relative clause to its noun 
#B3: I read a book that I bought to help me prepare for class.
subject: I
verb: read
direct object: a book that I bought to help me prepare for class
Relative Clause Types

Like wh-questions, relative clauses come in two major types:  (1) those that have the relative pronoun as the subject of the clause and (2) those that have the relative pronoun as something other than the subject of the clause (object or complement or object of a preposition). 

In addition, relative clauses can be added to nouns in just about any part of a sentence--at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of sentences.  Let's analyze the location and type of relative clause in each of the following sentences:

#1. I bought a book that was highly recommended by my sister.
#2. I bought a book that my sister recommended.
#3. The book that is required for this workshop comes highly recommended.
#4. The book that my sister recommended was quite useful.
 
#1 I bought a book that was highly recommended by my sister.
Core sentence I bought a book.
Sentence that became the relative clause The book was highly recommended by my sister.
Relative Pronoun Function subject of the relative clause
Location of the relative clause it's at the end of the sentence--attached to the noun that's the direct object--part of the large noun phrase that is the direct object
   

 
 
#2 I bought a book that my sister recommended.
Core sentence I bought a book.
Sentence that became the relative clause My sister recommended the book.
Relative Pronoun Function direct object of the relative clause
Location of the relative clause it's at the end of the sentence--attached to the noun that's the direct object--part of the large noun phrase that is the direct object
   

 
 
#3 The book that is required for this workshop comes highly recommended.
Core sentence The book comes highly recommended.
Sentence that became the relative clause The book is required for this workshop.
Relative Pronoun Function subject of the relative clause
Location of the relative clause it's at the beginning of the sentence--attached to the noun that's the subject--part of the large noun phrase that is the subject of the sentence
   

 
 
 
#4 The book that my sister recommended was quite useful.
Core sentence The book was quite useful.
Sentence that became the relative clause My sister recommended the book.
Relative Pronoun Function direct object of the relative clause
Location of the relative clause it's at the beginning of the sentence--attached to the noun that's the subject--part of the large noun phrase that is the subject of the sentence
   

Restrictive vs. Non-restrictive Relative Pronouns

Relative clauses are also classified depending on their relationship with the noun they modify.  A restrictive relative pronoun identifies its noun--and divides the world into categories.  Look at our book example: The book that my sister recommended was quite useful.  The relative clause points to a particular book--and also means that there are books that my sister did not recommend. 

A non-restrictive relative clause is used to give additional information about the noun but not to identify it or to create categories.  Look at this example:

The Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, which was published in 2002, is based on the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.

The relative clause--which was published in 2002--gives additional information about the book but it doesn't say that there are two Student Grammars--one published in 2002 and another at some other date. 

Let's try this definition again by analyzing these two sentences.  How many groups of students is each sentence talking about?

1. The students who turned their papers in early went to a party.

2. The students, who want to teach ESL/EFL, try to get a lot of classroom experience.

What do you think?  #1--there are two groups of students.  Those who turned in their papers early and those who didn't. So, the relative clause in #1 is a restrictive relative clause. 

#2--that's about all of the students. It's non-restrictive.  Notice that the old definition about non-restrictives adding unimportant information is not true.  It's even silly.  Why would you provide un-important information?!  A non-restrictive provides information that the writer wants you to have but it is attached to a noun that is already identified and doesn't need anything else to make you know which one you are talking about.

Probably for teaching purposes, the clearest examples of non-restrictive relative clauses are those that go with proper nouns:

Douglas Biber, who is a well-known corpus linguist, teaches at the University of Northern Arizona.

At TESOL, I attended a lecture by Diane Larsen-Freeman, who is one of the co-authors of the Grammar Book.

Better examples for use in our ESL/EFL classes would be something from a textbook they are using like this example I found in my sociology source:
A classic example of an early woman sociologist is Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), who was born into a wealthy English family.
This non-restrictive relative clause gives important information that adds to our understanding of Harriet Martineau but is not needed to define who she was.
 

Relative Pronoun Reduction

Relative pronouns can sometimes be left out; they are understood but not given in the sentence as in the following examples:

I bought a book my sister recommended.

The book my sister recommended was quite useful.

If the relative pronoun is the subject of its clause, then it must be kept.  Otherwise, the relative pronoun can generally be dropped.  In which of these sentences, can the relative pronoun be left out?  Where is it required?
 
 
 
#1. I bought a book that was highly recommended by my sister. required, it's the subject of the relative clause
#2. I bought a book that my sister recommended. not required, it's the direct object of the relative clause
#3. The book that is required for this workshop comes highly recommended. required, it's the subject of the relative clause
#4. The book that my sister recommended was quite useful. not required, it's the direct object of the relative clause
   

Relative Clauses & Prepositions

Relative clause structure gets more complicated when a prepositional phrase is involved.  The basic problem is deciding what to do with the preposition--where does it go when the clause is put into the sentence.  Here's an example:

#1: At TESOL, I bought a book.

#2: I got new ideas about teaching from the book.

Relative clause creation step #1--insert the pronoun as the object of the preposition: I got new ideas about teaching from that

Relative clause creation step #2--front the pronoun: but....what to front?  Where does the preposition go? Actually, you have two choices:

Choice #1: Leave the preposition at the end:  that I got new ideas about teaching from...

At TESOL, I bought a book that I got new ideas about teaching grammar from.

Choice #2: Move the preposition with its object to the front.  But notice that if you use this approach, you cannot use that.  You have to use which

*At TESOL, I bought a book from that I got new ideas about teaching grammar.

At TESOL, I bought a book from which I got new ideas about teaching grammar.

As our students struggle with making this type of combination, you'll find students leaving the preposition out altogether:
*At TESOL, I bought a book that I got new ideas about teaching grammar.
Relative Clauses vs. Appositive Clauses

Appositive clauses look a great deal like relative clauses.  Analyze the following examples: what kind of word is the clause attached to?  what is the original sentence that the clause was created from?
 

#1: appositive clause:  I like the idea that students can become independent learners.
1. The clause is attached to a noun--the idea.

2. The underlying sentence is: Students can become independent learners.

#2: relative clause:  Students who become independent learners can continue to learn after they leave our classes.
1. The clause is attached to a noun--students

2. The underlying sentence is: Students become independent learners.

Based on that analysis, how are these two subordinate clause types different? 
A relative clause includes in its internal structure the same noun that it attaches to.  The relative pronoun means the same thing as the noun that the clause is attached to; the relative pronoun has a grammatical role that combines being a connector with a role in the syntax of its clause.

An appositive clause does not include the noun that it attaches to; the appositive clause is like a linking verb--or an equal sign:  the idea = students can become independent learners.  The connector that just connects the clause to the noun without playing any internal role in the clause.


Appositive clauses can be related to particulate verbs and their noun clause direct objects:

I believe that students can become independent learners. 
The belief that students can become independent learners is common among teachers.

I know that students can become independent learners.
Our knowledge that students can become independent learners drives our work.

I feel that students can become independent learners.
My feeling that students can become independent learners is shared by many other teachers.

Grammarians and linguists refer to this process of changing a verb to a noun as nominalization.  Notice how the nominalized version has the same grammatical feature as the verb version--the noun clause of the verb version becomes the appositive clause of the noun version.

When analyzing authentic samples, just be careful not to jump to the conclusion that every noun + that combination is a relative clause.  Nouns like idea, belief, thought, knowledge, and a few others are often followed by appositive clauses.

Test your knowledge by deciding which of these sentences has an appositive clause and which has a relative clause.

The idea that I shared with my students comes from many years of teaching experience.

The idea that we must work together as a team guides our department's work.

Click here for my analysis.

Analyzing Authentic Examples

At the beginning of this lecture, I listed some examples from the sociology textbook that I'm using for examples.  Here's that list again.  Try analyzing these: what's the core sentence?  What sentence was changed to make the relative clause?  What's the grammatical function of the relative pronoun in its clause?  Where in the sentence does the relative clause come? 
 
 

Examples of Sentences with Relative Clauses
"Societies to Social Networks"
Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach


 


After you have completed your analysis, click here to see mine.

Please let me know your questions and/or comments. Thanks.


References

        Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited.

        Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher's course.  (2nd ed.)  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.