How to Reduce Relative Clause?

Reduction of a dependent clause is its shortening to a phrase to bring conciseness in writing. Since a dependent clause contains a subject-verb unit, reduction results in losing this combination. In this post, we’ll dig into how relative clauses, the most commonly reduced of the three clauses, are reduced.

Learn why professional writers reduce dependent clauses to the extent possible:

For the uninitiated, a relative clause, also known as adjective clause, is a dependent clause that functions like an adjective in describing nouns. It starts with marker words known as relative pronouns and relative adverbs.

With step-wise process and several examples, learn how the other two dependent clauses are reduced and when they should not be reduced:

When can a relative clause be reduced?

A relative clause can be reduced only if the relative pronoun is subject of the clause. (This condition holds whether the relative clause is restrictive or non-restrictive.)

John, who is our neighbor, wants to become a writer. [The relative pronoun who is subject of the clause. Hence, the clause can be reduced.]

She may be assigned the project that she worked on last year. [The relative pronoun that is not subject of the clause (she is). Hence, the clause can’t be reduced. Note that dropping that alone isn’t reduction of clause. More on this later.]

Identifying subject in a dependent clause can be tricky, with both relative pronoun as well as regular noun or pronoun playing the role:

The above condition implies that relative clauses beginning with only who, which, and that can be reduced as only these three relative pronouns can be the subject of a relative clause. Relative clauses with other five marker words (whose, whom, when, where, and why) can’t be reduced.

If a relative clause meets the above condition, we can reduce it through following three standard methods.

1. Reduction when relative pronoun is followed by be verb

When relative pronoun is followed by be verb (or sometimes seem or appear or look, which too are linking verbs like be), drop the relative pronoun and the be verb. Such reductions result in one of these phrases (examples of each follow):

  • adjective
  • adjective phrase
  • present or past participial phrase
  • prepositional phrase
  • appositive phrase

They inherit adjectival property of relative clauses, which, as we know, function as adjective in a sentence.

In each of these examples, relative pronoun is subject of the clause and is followed by a be verb. The type of phrase resulting from reduction is mentioned in square brackets.

Roger Federer, who seemed tired, sank in his chair after the set. [Adjective]

Roger Federer, who is fit as ever, will play his first match tomorrow. [Adjective phrase]

Roger Federer, who is eyeing another title, will play his first match tomorrow. [Present Participial phrase]

Roger Federer, who looks rejuvenated after the forced break from tennis, will play his first match tomorrow. [Past Participial phrase]

Roger Federer, who is on a comeback trail after recovering from a knee injury, will play his first match tomorrow. [Prepositional phrase]

Roger Federer, who is the top-ranked player in the tournament, will play his first match tomorrow. [Appositive phrase]

This is an easy rule to apply, isn’t it? Just drop the relative pronoun and the be verb. This also happens to be the most commonly used method of reduction in writing, not just among relative clauses but all three dependent clauses.

If reduction leads to one-word adjective

If reduction leads to one-word adjective, bring it in front of the noun. However, leaving it as it is may also work sometimes.

Roger Federer, who seemed tired, sank in his chair after the set.

A tired Roger Federer sank in his chair after the set. [Adjective brought in front of the noun]

2. Reduction when relative pronoun is followed by has, have, or had

If the relative clause has a perfect tense, ‘relative pronoun + has/have/had’ is replaced by having.

(Words inserted as part of reduction have been shown in magenta font.)

Roger Federer, who has having fully recovered from knee injury, is looking forward to come back to professional tennis.

Rafael Nadal, who has having not been beaten in this tournament in nine years, starts as hot favorite.

Rafael Nadal, who had having not been beaten in this tournament in nine years, finally lost.

3. Reduction when relative pronoun is followed by an active verb

When relative pronoun is followed by an active verb (or a non-be verb), drop the relative pronoun and convert the verb into present participle form. Such reductions obviously result in present participial phrase. Note the contrast with the first method, where reduction results in quite a few types of phrases. Examples:

Grand Slams, which carry carrying maximum 2,000 ranking points, are the most coveted tournaments in tennis.

My organization donates to a charity that provides providing shelter to homeless during winter.

This isn’t reduction of relative clause

Can you tell in which of the two sentences a clause has been reduced?

The laptop that was gifted by my grandfather is still functioning.

The laptop that my grandfather gifted is still functioning.

In the first, the relative clause that was gifted by my grandfather has been reduced to the phrase gifted by my grandfather as it no longer has a subject (that). In the second though, dropping the marker word that doesn’t reduce the clause to a phrase. It still is a clause as it has a subject (my grandfather) and a verb (gifted). Omitting the marker word and reducing the clause, both, are instruments of conciseness, but they’re fundamentally different.

Dropping marker words in relative clauses is a topic in itself. Learn more:

If you can reduce a relative clause doesn’t mean you should

If the condition for reduction is met – relative pronoun is the subject of the clause – you can reduce a relative clause, but that doesn’t mean you should. If reduction results in an awkward sentence and/or loss of meaning, don’t reduce. And this mostly happens with the third method we just saw.

Third method resulting in awkward reductions

Reduction of relative clauses with the third method results in awkward constructions mostly when:

1. the relative clause describes a completed event rather than a continuing action. This isn’t surprising because present participial phrases (that’s what third method leads to) are best used for ongoing action. In both the sentences below, relative clause describes a past event, and hence its reduction leads to an avoidable sentence.

I met Dr Johnson, who attended attending the same school as I did.

John, who gifted gifting me a phone on my birthday, wants to become a writer.

2. the relative clause describes a regular event. In all the three sentences below, the relative clause describes a regular event, but the reduced clause implies that the event is happening now.

The family that eats eating together stays together.

Someone who gossips gossiping to you about someone else will, sooner or later, gossip about you to others.

My dog, who greets greeting me enthusiastically when I return home, was uncharacteristically silent today.

The other two methods too result in awkward constructions, though less commonly. Here are few from the first.

First method resulting in awkward reductions

Reduction of relative clauses with the first method too sometimes results in awkward constructions mostly when:

1. the relative clause describes an event that belongs to a time period different from that in the independent clause.

I’m meeting Ted today, who was my roommate in college. [Is Ted my roommate now, implying that both of us are in college? Meaning is clearly lost as we reduced a past event when the independent clause refers to present.]

2. non-restrictive relative clause comes at the end.

Tomorrow, I’m meeting Ted, who is in London these days. [Awkward]

Ted, who is in London these days, will meet me tomorrow. [This still works]

The fielder dived and caught the ball, which was hit hard. [Awkward]

The ball, which was hit hard, landed in the neighbouring building. [This still works]

In writing, avoid not just awkward but even remotely awkward reductions

The above four categories of reductions clearly look bad, but you should avoid reductions in writing even if the resulting sentence is remotely awkward. (Pore over any professional writing, and you’ll find most reductions belonging to the first method. That’s because they’re least prone to awkwardness. Professional writers don’t reduce if the result reads unnatural, even remotely.)

Your purpose is to convey meaning without awkwardness, and if your reduction creates even slightest of awkwardness, your sentence will be frowned upon – and not applauded for a reduction masterpiece. Reduction shouldn’t come at the cost of disturbing the natural flow of a sentence. For this reason, these sentences should best be left unreduced as their reduced versions sound tiny bit less natural.

The man who has having a scar on his face is a dreaded criminal.

A person who depends depending on others for financial or other assistance cannot offend them by speaking impolitely.

Among relative clauses, those starting with ‘relative pronoun + be verb’ are most commonly reduced (first method) in professional writing. Open webpages of any reputed news daily or other professional writing, and search (do a ‘control + F’) for that, who, and which. You’ll rarely find them followed by a be verb, implying that most relative clauses of this form have been reduced to phrases. On the rare occasion you find one, check if it’s part of a quotation because in quotations you write what someone said as it is.

If you’re compelled to reduce difficult-to-reduce relative clauses

As we saw, many relative clauses can’t be reduced through standard methods because they don’t meet the required condition. Even among those who meet the condition, many result in awkward reductions, and hence they’re best left unreduced.

What if you want to reduce such relative clauses?

You can always use non-standard, freestyle methods. Few examples:

Is this a service that you can trust? [Relative clause]

Is this a trustworthy service? [Reduced]

He who hesitates is lost. [Relative clause]

A hesitant person loses. [Reduced]

Mr. Rawnson is the only teacher who appreciates me. [Relative clause]

Mr. Rawnson is the only teacher to appreciate me. [Reduced]

Note that such reductions aren’t a necessity. As said before, reduce only if reductions read smoothly. Here, they do.

Exercises: Reduce relative clause

Reduce relative clauses that can be.

Exercise 1

1. I chatted with my colleague, who is going through tough time after loss of a family member, to divert his attention and cheer him up.

2. He is a person whom you can disagree with, and he won’t mind.

3. The product, which seemed perfect in many ways, failed to succeed in the market.

4. I joined the weight-loss program that promised reduction of 10 kgs in a month.

5. Participial phrases, which act adjectivally, too are pretty mobile.

Answers to Exercise 1

1. I chatted with my colleague, going through tough time after loss of a family member, to divert his attention and cheer him up.

2. It can’t be reduced because the relative pronoun whom can never be the subject of a relative clause. Only whothat, and which can be.

3. The product, perfect in many ways, failed to succeed in the market. [seem is treated like a be verb]

4. I joined the weight-loss program promising reduction of 10 kgs in a month.

5. Although it fulfils the condition for reduction, it shouldn’t be reduced because it leads to an awkward construction.

Exercise 2

1. Diamond, which is extremely hard and expensive, is produced by intense heat and under great pressure.

2. You can combine multiple activities that are similar to avoid switching back and forth.

3. I can’t find the watch that you bought last week.

4. The municipal council passed the resolution to demolish the old building, which was close to collapsing.

5. The library, which had been in a state of neglect for long, finally received funds from the municipal council.

Answers to Exercise 2

1. Diamond, extremely hard and expensive, is produced by intense heat and under great pressure.

2. You can combine multiple similar activities to avoid switching back and forth. [Reduction results in an adjective, which is then brought in front of the noun.]

3. It can’t be reduced because that is not the subject of the relative clause; you is. You can though drop that, but that’s not reduction of clause.

4. Although it fulfils the condition for reduction, it shouldn’t be reduced because it leads to an awkward construction.

5. The library, having been in a state of neglect for long, finally received funds from the municipal council.

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