Restrictive Relative Clauses

A clause is a group of words that has a subject and a predicate (a verb and its objects, etc.). Sentences are composed of one or more clauses. Simple sentences have only one clause.

A relative clause (also called a defining clause, a limiting clause, or an adjective clause) is a clause that begins with a relative pronoun or a relative adverb and which modifies the noun that it follows. A relative clause tells us which or what kind of person or thing we are talking about. It identifies the noun (describes it, makes it more specific). A relative clause comes immediately after the noun that it modifies.

The relative pronouns are who, whom, which, whose, what1, and that.

Formation of Relative Clauses

Perhaps the simplest way to view relative clauses is as a combination of two sentences joined by a relative pronoun that replaces part of the second sentence.

Consider the following two sentences:

Subject Verb Object Subject Verb Object
Mr. Greene bought a house. The house used to belong to Al Capone.

Since house is repeated in the second sentence, we can combine the two sentences by substituting that or which for the word house. This sounds much better than two separate sentences.

Subject Verb Object Subject Verb Object
Mr. Greene bought a house that
which
used to belong to Al Capone.

Notice that house is the object (O) of the first sentence and the subject (S) of the second sentence. We say our example sentence has the pattern OS (Object Subject) because we changed the subject of the second sentence to a relative pronoun and made a relative clause that modifies the object of the first sentence.

Notice also that the relative pronoun replaces the word it refers to. Look at the following example:

Mary spoke to the boy. She knew him.

We do not say "Mary spoke to the boy that she knew him," but rather "Mary spoke to the boy that she knew." The relative pronoun replaces the word him.

Patterns of Relative Clauses

There are four basic patterns of relative clauses:

OS (Object Subject)
OO (Object Object)
SS (Subject Subject)
SO (Subject Object)

Uses of the Relative Pronouns

Who and whom are used for people. In formal English, who is used for the subject and whom is used for the object. In informal English, who is used for both subject and object.

Which is used for things. Which tends to be more formal than that.

That is used for both people and things. It is much more common in speech than which.

OS Pattern with who, which, and that

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
I know a man. The man collects stamps.


Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
I know a man that
who
collects stamps.



Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
My friend Alex bought a car. The car has leather upholstery.


Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
My friend Alex bought a car that
which
has leather upholstery.


OO Pattern with who, whom, which, and that

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
I know the professor. The university hired him.


Subject Verb Object Object2 Subject2 Verb2
I know the professor that
who
whom

Ø3
the university hired.


Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
I bought the book. The professor wrote the book.


Subject Verb Object Object2 Subject2 Verb2
I bought the book that
which
Ø3
the professor wrote.


SS Pattern with who, which, and that

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
The woman bought a new house. The woman won the lottery.


Subject Subject2 Verb2 Object2 Verb Object
The woman that
who
won the lottery bought a new house.



Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
The dog destroyed my garden. The dog dug that hole.


Subject Subject2 Verb2 Object2 Verb Object
The dog that
which
dug that hole destroyed my garden.



SO Pattern with who, whom, which, and that

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
The doctor won the Nobel prize. You met the doctor.


Subject Object2 Subject2 Verb2 Verb Object
The doctor that
who
whom
Ø
3
you met won the Nobel prize.



Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
The dog destroyed my garden. Mr. Thomas bought the dog.


Subject Object2 Subject2 Verb2 Verb Object
The dog that
which
Ø
3
Mr. Thomas bought destroyed my garden.



Notice that we can omit the relative pronoun when it replaces the object, but not when it replaces the subject.

The Relative Pronoun whose

Formation of clauses with whose

1. Replace the possessive in the second sentence with whose.
2. Place whose + the following noun at the beginning of sentence two.
3. Place the modified sentence after the noun in sentence one that whose refers to.

The relative pronoun whose can never be omitted.

OS Pattern with whose

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
I met a man. His daughter translates medical textbooks.


Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
I met a man whose daughter translates medical textbooks.


OO Pattern with whose

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
Dr. Jones recommended a specialist. I trust the specialist's opinion.


Subject Verb Object Object2 Subject2 Verb2
Dr. Jones recommended a specialist whose opinion I trust.


SS Pattern with whose

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
The doctor received an award. Her son teaches French.


Subject Subject2 Verb2 Object2 Verb Object
The doctor whose son teaches French received an award.


SO Pattern with whose

Subject Verb Object Subject2 Verb2 Object2
The man won the lottery. I bought his house.


Subject Object2 Subject2 Verb2 Verb Object
The man whose house I bought won the lottery.


Whose is used for people, animals, and and often for things. Formal written English tends to prefer of which for things. Spoken English prefers whose. If we use of which, we have to use the before the noun.The pattern is:

Noun1 + the + Noun2 + of which + Verb etc.
A book the pages of which had turned brown with age lay open on the desk.
A book whose pages had turned brown with age lay open on the desk.

We can sometimes replace whose with the preposition with:
A book with brown pages lay open on the desk.

Examples

...we were near the top of a steep rising hill, on the summit of which [on whose summit] was such a castle....
...the very existence of which [whose very existence] I had never known.
...the very names of which [whose very names] I did not know at the time....

Of which does not always mean whose. It is sometimes simply the preposition of + which:
This is the book of which I spoke. = This is the book which I spoke of.

Omission of the Relative Pronoun

A mentioned above, the relative pronouns who, which, and that can be omitted in restrictive relative clauses if they replace the object [Patterns OO and SO]. If they replace the subject [Patterns OS and SS], they cannot be omitted.

If possible, we usually prefer to omit the relative pronoun in speech. But if the omission would cause confusion, we do not omit it. Formal English does not usually omit the relative pronoun.

I know the professor [that] the university hired. [OO]
The doctor [that] you met won the Nobel prize. [SO]

Reduction of Relative Clauses

We can omit that is/are and that was/were in restrictive relative clauses.

I have a teacher [that is] from Spain.
I have to return the books [that are] on the coffee table.
Professor Jenkins was a man [that was] known for his sense of humor.

The young man [that was] driving the car didn't have any insurance.
The bus [that was] carrying the musicians arrived an hour late.

I received a mysterious note [that was] written in pencil.
The museum exhibited a bird cage [that was] made of solid gold.

We can change that has/have/had to with in restrictive relative clauses.

My friend Alex bought a car that has leather upholstery.
My friend Alex bought a car with leather upholstery.

Professor Wilson collects books that have old maps.
Professor Wilson collects books with old maps.

Did you see the man that had the long beard?
Did you see the man with the long beard?

We sometimes change that is wearing to with in restrictive relative clauses.

Betty is the girl that is wearing sunglasses.
Betty is the girl with sunglasses.

If the person is wearing a suit, dress, sweater, etc., we often change that is wearing to in.

Who is the woman that is wearing the pink sweater?
Who is the woman in the pink sweater?

Do you know the man that is wearing the blue suit?
Do you know the man in the blue suit?

We sometimes change that is carrying to with in restrictive relative clauses.

Who is the man that is carrying the briefcase?
Who is the man with the briefcase?

Relative Adverbs

The relative adverbs are where, when, and why.

The relative adverbs are used to replace a preposition + the relative pronoun which.2


Relative Adverb

Replaces

Used for

when in which
on which

time
where in which
at which

place
why for which reasons

If you would like to practice relative clauses, click here.

1 What will be discussed separately.
2Table based on Thomson & Martinet, A Practical English Grammar, 2nd Edition, p. 37.
3Ø means we can omit the relative pronoun.

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This page was last modified on 06/15/10

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