Thursday, April 20, 2017

ENGL 3663: Relative Clauses

Relative Clauses

We’ve also already talked about these clauses, which are have dependent clauses that are introduced by relative pronouns or relative adverbs.

Relative pronouns, you’ll remember, include the words who, whom, whose, which, that. Relative adverbs are words like when, where, why.

          I met my cousin who studies Russian.
                Take the phone which you found to the secretary.
                The town where we met is no longer there.

Relative clauses are always adjectival – that is, they are always modifying a noun. The words they modify will always be the antecedents of their relative words. The relative words which introduce these clauses are either relative pronouns or relative adverbs.

In the examples above, notice that relative words are who, which, and where, and that their antecedents are cousin, phone, and town – and that these are, indeed, the words that the relative clauses act as adjectives for.

Relative clauses differ from subordinating clauses because of these relative words, which (unlike subordinating conjunctions) serve a function within their clauses, and which also connect – act as conjunctions – their clauses to the main sentence.

        Though the fair is late this year, it will still be cool.
                (Subordinate clause – conjunction is though, which connects, and shows us how to read the subordinated clause in relation to the main sentence, but does not function grammatically or semantically in the subordinated clause)

        The rides which are planned look exciting.
                (Relative clause – relative pronoun is which. This word both connects the clause to the main sentence, and functions in its clause. Specifically, it is acting as the subject of the clause – {those} are planned.)

Relative clauses also differ from subordinating clauses because of their function. Subordinating clauses are almost always adverbial, modifying either the verb or (more rarely) the entire sentence. Relative clauses are always adjectival, modifying the noun which is the antecedent of their relative word.

Relative Clauses with Relative Word Omitted: In English, a common construction we find is the relative clause with the relative pronoun or adverb left out. For instance,
                That’s the book which we’re reading in American Lit.

is much more commonly stated or written this way:

                That’s the book we’re reading in American Lit.

                I like the new jacket that you wore last week.

sounds more natural to most of us this way:

                I like the new jacket you wore last week.

(See pages 318-319 for how to diagram clauses with the relative word omitted)

Relative Clauses as Objects of Prepositions: Sometimes relative clauses can occur as the objects of prepositions. When this happens, thanks to our friends the Augustan grammarians, who taught us that sentences should never end with prepositions, many writers and speakers of English tend to create tortuous grammatical constructions.

                We drove past the house which I was born in.
This becomes

                We drove past the house in which I was born.

                Oh! That’s the book the movie was made from!

                Oh! That’s the book from which the movie was made!

There is nothing wrong with writing this way. On the other hand, your textbook claims that writing this way adds clarity – that the second sentences in these examples are “easier to understand.” 

This is clearly not the case. Write this way if you like, but understand you are following an archaic rule that is based on an utter misunderstanding of how grammar – or logic, for that matter – functions.

Restrictive V. Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

So far we have been looking at restrictive relative clauses.
What does this mean – restrictive relative clauses? Think about the function of the relative clause. It is adjectival, which is to say it functions as an adjective. Adjectives, as we know, modify (or change) the meanings of nouns.

                Lily bought a truck.
                Lily bought that truck.
                Lily bought that red truck.
                Lily bought that red truck which is parked beside my Buick.

Each of these adjectives – that, red, which is parked beside my Buick – modifies truck. Each is also restrictive, in that it is necessary for us to know which truck we’re talking about.

A non-restrictive relative clause is one which is not necessary – one which can be left out, and have the meaning of the sentence be unchanged.


        Athletes who use drugs may lose their eligibility.
        Kids who have pets tend to learn responsibility.


Raisin bagels, which are my favorite, toast very well.
My cousin Emma, who studies plankton, lives in Maine.

Why does it matter whether a relative clause is restrictive or non-restrictive? Because of the commas. We put commas around non-restrictive clauses. Restrictive clauses do not take commas.

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