What is a relative clause?
You would have written sentences like these:
My neighbor has a yellow car.
The adjective yellow describes the noun car. Now, an adjective works fine for simple descriptions like color, but what if we need an elaborate description of the noun. What if, instead of color, we want to say that the car met with an accident last month and it required major repair? That’s also a description, like the yellow color.
Therein comes relative clause.
My neighbor has a car that met with an accident last month and required major repair.
Note: In the examples, relative clause has been underlined and noun (or noun phrase) being described by the relative clause has been shown in magenta font.
The relative clause describes car just like yellow did. Without the relative clause, we’ll need two sentences, which would rob our sentences of variety and leave our writing monotonous.
My neighbor has a car. It met with an accident last month and required major repair.
Through a relative clause, we’ve packed in far more information in a sentence, haven’t we? They function like adjectives in describing nouns, but they’re a superior tool to add elaborate information. Pick up any newspaper article, and you’ll find plenty of them.
A relative clause, one of the three dependent clauses, functions like an adjective in describing a noun or pronoun. It’s an important tool to pack in information about a noun or pronoun in a sentence.
Unlike an adjective though, it contains its own subject and verb. And unlike an adjective, which comes before the noun or after the linking verb, it is placed after the noun it describes, mostly immediately after but not always. Because it functions like an adjective, a relative clause is also called an adjective clause or adjectival clause.
Relative clause is one of the three dependent clauses. You may learn about the other two and how to identify the three dependent clauses here:
- Noun clause: A comprehensive guide
- Adverb clause: A comprehensive guide
- Identifying noun, relative, and adverb clause in a sentence simplified
Constituents of a relative clause
Certain marker (or trigger) words start a relative clause
In the examples we saw, the relative clauses start with that, who, and which. These are not the only marker words that start a relative clause. A relative clause can begin with a relative pronoun (who, whose, whom, which, and that) or with a relative adverb (where, when, and why). When these marker words come immediately after a noun, they signal a relative clause.
A relative clause is a dependent clause with its own subject and verb
Like all clauses, a relative clause too has its own subject and verb. In relative clause though, much like noun clause, some marker words (who, which, and that) can sometimes be the subject of the clause. In the following sentences, for example, marker words that and which are subject as well as not the subject of the clause.
I can’t find the watch that you bought last week. [you is subject and bought is verb of the clause.]
The heart that loves is always young. [that is subject and loves is verb of the clause.]
Don’t ask questions which people don’t want to answer. [people is subject and don’t want is verb of the clause.]
Participial phrases, which act adjectivally, too are pretty mobile. [which is subject and act is verb of the clause.]
He who hesitates is lost. [who is subject and hesitates is verb of the clause.]
You see only one example of who because if who begins a relative clause, nothing else can be the subject of the clause.
If you noticed, when the marker word is the subject of the clause, it is not followed by a noun or pronoun. And when the marker word is not the subject of the clause, it is followed by a noun or pronoun, which acts as the subject. This largely holds, with few exceptions. Learn more:
This is not a relative clause though
Which of these are relative clauses?
I don’t know who Tom is.
We’re unsure whose book is this.
Straws tell which way the wind blows.
The exam had already started when I reached the venue.
None. The first three are noun clauses and last is an adverb clause. The three dependent clauses – noun, relative, and adverb – have quite a few common marker words, which can confuse people about which clause is which. Here is a list of marker words common to two or more dependent clauses:
Restrictive vs. non-restrictive relative clauses
Let’s understand restrictive vs. non-restrictive through two examples (comments that go with examples are in square brackets):
The student who climbed his way up to college mainly through the support of scholarships is a role model for many students lacking resources. [Comment: Noun in magenta font and relative clause underlined]
Her father, who worked two jobs to finance her training as a tennis player, died recently of cancer.
In the first sentence, the relative clause helps us in narrowing down the noun student. Without the relative clause, we wouldn’t know which student is role model. But with the relative clause we know that the student who financed his education through scholarships is role model. Such relative clauses that narrow down the noun (makes it more specific, in other words) are called restrictive (or essential or defining) relative clauses, and they don’t take commas. They’re an integral part of the sentence and dropping them will bleed the sentence of its meaning.
In the second sentence, we don’t need to narrow down her father further because she has just one father. In other words, he is already identified. Here, the relative clause merely adds extra information about the noun. Such relative clauses that only add extra information about a noun without narrowing them down are called non-restrictive (or non-essential or non-defining) relative clauses, and they take a pair of commas. However, if the relative clause comes at the end of the sentence, it’ll take just one comma. They’re not an integral part of the sentence and dropping them won’t change the meaning of the sentence. Example:
We should first vaccinate Tom, who has comorbidities.
Although comma is used to separate relative clause from the main clause, you may occasionally see a dash, after all both fundamentally do the separation job.
We should first vaccinate Tom – who has comorbidities. [Dash can be used, but you should stick to comma as it is far more commonplace.]
Note that Tom doesn’t need to be narrowed down any further because he has already been identified. This, in fact, holds for all proper nouns, and hence they take only non-restrictive clause. We looked at restrictive and non-restrictive property for who, but the same applies for other relative pronouns and relative adverbs. The only exception is that, which starts only restrictive clauses.
Restrictive vs. non-restrictive is a topic in itself, and the limited space here can’t do justice to it. Learn more:
How to join a relative clause to an independent clause?
Relative clause is a dependent clause, and hence it needs the support of an independent clause to survive. So, how do we incorporate a relative clause into a sentence?
We earlier learnt that a relative clause is placed after the noun it describes (that’s why a relative clause can never start a sentence), mostly immediately after but not always. We’ll apply this here.
Let’s say this is your main idea (or independent clause).
Siberian tiger can survive in -40 degrees Celsius. [Main idea]
And you want to add this information about Siberian tiger to the main idea.
Siberian tiger is the largest cat in the world. [Extra information]
Because the two sentences share the same noun Siberian tiger, you can shift the extra information immediately after the shared noun in the independent clause.
Siberian tiger, which is the largest cat in the world, can survive in -40 degrees Celsius. [Relative clause describes the noun Siberian tiger.]
This is like putting a small box into a large box.
Note that we’ve converted the extra information into a relative clause by replacing the noun Siberian tiger with the relative pronoun which. (Who and whom are generally used for humans, which and that are generally used for non-humans, and whose is used for both. More on this later.) Also, because we don’t need to narrow down Siberian tiger to identify it, we’ve used a non-restrictive clause, which comes with pair of commas.
1. The dog was the first to chase the thief. [Main idea]
The dog’s one ear was partly damaged.
The dog whose one ear was partly damaged was the first to chase the thief. [The information here isn’t extra; it helps us to identify the dog. Second, we’ve used a possessive relative pronoun whose to replace a possessive noun dog’s.]
2. John wants to write, but he is not sure what to write about. [Main idea]
He is our neighbor.
John – who is our neighbor – wants to write, but he is not sure what to write about. [If you had confusion about multiple commas in such sentences, it’ll probably be clear now.]
3. The protesters blocked the road for more than a week. [Main idea]
This affected supply of essential items to the national capital. The protesters were mainly from northern states.
The protesters, who were mainly from northern states, blocked the road for more than a week, which affected supply of essential items to the national capital. [Note that which here doesn’t refer to a noun; it refers to the entire thing that comes before it. This use is unique to which and is covered later in the post.]
Relative clause may occasionally not come immediately after the noun
If you notice the examples in this post, relative clause has come immediately after the noun it describes. On rare occasions though, it may be placed few words apart. Example:
Russia has the highest number of Siberian tigers in the wild, which are the largest members of tiger family. [Noun in magenta font and relative clause underlined]
If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones because others too may throw stones at you, which may shatter your glass house.
This sounds smoother than the sentence with the relative clause immediately after Siberian tigers and stones.
But this is a problem
Can you tell what’s the problem with the relative clause here?
I bought the chocolate fudge from the shop down the street, which is really yummy. [Incorrect]
Is the street yummy? The relative clause has been pulled too far away from the noun phrase it is describing. This is better:
I bought the chocolate fudge, which is really yummy, from the shop down the street. [Correct]
Examples of relative clause
Here are few examples of relative clauses categorized under relative pronouns and relative adverbs along with information on where they’re used.
To get the most out of these examples, notice two things: first, the noun or noun phrase that is being described by the relative clause; second, why is the relative clause restrictive or non-restrictive.
Relative pronoun who is used to refer to people and sometimes pets. Although who can also be used to refer to group of people such as team, committee, group, council, and fire brigade, which is a better alternative. Examples:
We should first vaccinate those who are old and have comorbidities.
I care for my old friends, who’ve stood by me in thick and thin.
When the plane landed, police arrested the man who raised false alarm of a bomb on the plane.
Relative pronoun whom, which is often preceded by a preposition, is also used to refer to people. Both who and whom refer to people, but whereas the former always takes the subject position, the latter always takes the object position. If you’ve any confusion in this regard, learn:
I’ll vote for Mr. Davis, whom I consider energetic and level-headed.
Moreover, when you compare, you may seek happiness in misfortunes of the person whom you compare yourself with.
Should I trust the person whom I’ve never met or heard of?
Relative pronoun whose is used to express possession for anything (people, animals, and things). Such relative clauses, therefore, are also called possessive relative clause. Examples:
Building on existing innovations can take you even further than those whose innovation you’re building on.
Small and Medium Businesses, whose poor access to capital is well documented, is finding hope in start-ups with new business models.
I use a computer whose storage capacity is a meagre 32 GB.
Relative pronoun that is used to refer to animals and things. It can sometimes be used to refer to people, but prefer who or whom, which are specifically meant for people. Unlike other relative pronouns though, that takes only restrictive clauses. Examples:
Don’t stress too much thinking over things that haven’t yet happened.
My organization donates to a charity that provides shelter to homeless during winter.
Don’t fear the enemy that attacks you, but the fake friend that hugs you.
See more examples of that relative clauses:
Relative pronoun which is used to refer to animals and things. Since both which and that are used for non-humans, people sometimes get confused about which of the two to use. If you’ve any confusion in this regard, learn:
You own quite a comfortable car, which is adequate for you.
We’re already seeing the adverse effect, which seems to intensify every year, of untold exploitation of nature.
The city which has the best infrastructure won the bid for next edition of the games.
Which is usually used for non-restrictive clauses, but it can be used for restrictive clauses (see third example).
Which can play another role. It can head a relative clause that describes the preceding clause and not just a noun. That’s why this relative clause is also called sentential relative clause. In this use, which is always preceded by a comma. Some use sentential which intuitively, which they’ve absorbed through reading, but without full understanding of it, they use it hesitatingly.
I scored low in GRE, which means I’ll have to retake the test. [Note that here the which clause doesn’t describe the noun GRE but describes the entire clause that comes before comma. After all, GRE is not responsible for retaking the test; low score in GRE is. This is in contrast to I scored low in GRE, which is a tough test. Here, which belongs to the category we covered earlier; it describes GRE.]
He is slogging hard to bag few more deals for his division, which is clearly affecting his wellbeing.
In Maharashtra, cases have gone up 69% from their recent low, which hasn’t come as a surprise for the experts. [This is different from In Maharashtra, which leads the country with more than two million infections as of Wednesday, cases have gone up 69% from their recent low that we saw earlier.]
Relative clauses starting with which are arguably the most common relative clauses in writing. See more examples of them (both 5A and 5B):
Next up are the three most common relative adverbs.
Relative adverb where is used to refer to location, implying that the noun preceding where will represent some location such as a country, state, city, building, and stadium. However, modern usage has expanded the definition of location, and where is now used beyond referring to just physical locations. Examples:
On our trip to Grand Canyon, we passed through Flagstaff, where a meteorite made a large crater more than fifty thousand years ago.
We’ve now ventured into a territory where even GPS doesn’t work.
When they do, they will find a job market where employers hold a decided power advantage… The New York Times [Job market isn’t a physical location.]
Relative adverb when is used to refer to time, implying that the noun preceding when will represent some measurement of time such as moment, minute, hour, day, week, month, and era. Examples:
This proverb has been written in the times when wars were common.
If you depend on others for money and other resources, the day is not far when you’ll get step-brotherly treatment. [The relative clause doesn’t come immediately after the noun phrase.]
The two days at the reunion, when we reminisced the years gone by, were so blissful.
Relative adverb why is used to refer to reason (for something). In this role, it modifies noun phrases containing the noun reason. Examples:
The reason why some people with HIV live longer are not understood well.
That’s the main reason why he has risen fast in the organization.
There is no reason why we should finish last in the competition.
Here is a brief summary of the eight marker words that begin a relative clause:
Dropping of marker words and reduction of relative clause
Relative pronouns and relative adverbs can be omitted under some conditions, a common practice to make sentences more concise. Even a word saved matters. Another tool to bring conciseness is reduction of relative clause to a phrase. Let’s touch upon both briefly.
Dropping of marker words
In these two sentences, for example, we can omit whom and why.
Should I trust the person (whom) I’ve never met or heard of?
The reason (why) some people with HIV live longer are not understood well.
Even after omission, the clause remains a relative clause, with the relative pronoun or relative adverb implied. Learn more:
A relative clause with its dropped relative pronoun or relative adverb is called a zero relative clause or a contact clause.
Reduction of relative clause
When we drop relative pronoun or relative adverb, the remainder is still a relative clause. But when we reduce a relative clause, the result is a phrase. Examples:
Roger Federer, who is on a comeback trail after recovering from a knee injury, will play his first match tomorrow. [Relative clause]
Roger Federer, on a comeback trail after recovering from a knee injury, will play his first match tomorrow. [Reduced relative clause]
Grand Slams, which carry maximum 2,000 ranking points, are the most coveted tournaments in tennis. [Relative clause]
Grand Slams, carrying maximum 2,000 ranking points, are the most coveted tournaments in tennis. [Reduced relative clause]
A relative clause though can be reduced only under certain conditions.
Common errors in writing relative clauses
After some practice in inserting a relative clause immediately after a noun, relative clauses may look a piece of cake, but there are nuances to them. Here are few dos and don’ts from the errors I’ve seen.
1. Don’t subordinate the main information
What’s the problem with this sentence?
Mr. Polar Bear, who is angry with Dr. Frost, is the new character in the game.
Mr. Polar Bear’s anger towards Dr. Frost is the main idea in the sentence, and therefore it should form the main clause (or independent clause). But in the above sentence, a less-important information forms the main clause. A better sentence would be:
Mr. Polar Bear, who is the new character in the game, is angry with Dr. Frost.
2. Don’t use one comma and leave the other
“When tragedy happens in people’s lives and things are left unsaid, it can be very unsettling. The lack of closure can linger.” Michael Pitt
Lack of closure can also linger if one of the pair of commas is left out.
The national lockdown, which came into effect on March 25 had a major impact on the economy.
After speeding past the first comma, the reader will look for a closure but none will come in the above sentence. When punctuated correctly, it’ll read:
The national lockdown, which came into effect on March 25, had a major impact on the economy.
This is a common mistake, and it happens because people put comma where they feel like taking a pause. Unfortunately, commas are governed by certain rules and comma-by-pause can lead to mistakes.
Your turn now. Do you see any issue with these sentences from a popular English daily?
The mishap, which happened at around 11.45 pm has been captured on a CCTV camera installed outside a shop in the market. Source
After the debacle in Adelaide where they were dismissed for just 36, many former players predicted a 4-0 thrashing of India in the four-match Test series. Source
Relative clauses in the above sentences have only one comma. They too demand closure: either two or none. Since both the relative clauses are non-restrictive, they need another comma to complete the pair. A comma is required after 11.45 pm in the first sentence and after Adelaide in the second.
Note that these sentences are from a leading English daily, which goes on to show how common this error is. The error is likely a result of oversight in this case, but quite often such errors result from lack of understanding of relative clauses, leading to putting comma by pause (or gut feel).
Here is a simile for commas in relative clauses.
Pair of commas in relative clauses is like pair of socks; you use both or none.
Note that if the relative clause comes at the end of the sentence, it takes only one comma as the second is merged with the period.
3. Don’t stuff too many relative clauses
Theoretically, you can have as many relative clauses as nouns in a sentence, but too many relative clauses break the rhythm of a sentence. Avoid more than two. One is even better. For example, this sentence is bad even if you’re a Federer fan:
Standing far behind the baseline, which had almost disappeared through constant skids of the players, Federer, who had strolled through his first four matches, glided to the left and unleashed a running backhand that kissed the left corner, leaving his opponent awestruck.
4. Relative clauses are different from appositives
I’ve seen people confusing appositive phrases with relative clauses. They’re different.
Siberian tiger, which is the largest cat in the world, is a gravely endangered species. [Relative clause]
Siberian tiger, the largest cat in the world, is a gravely endangered species. [Appositive phrase]
A relative clause always starts with a relative pronoun (who, whose, whom, which, and that) or a relative adverb (where, when, and why), but an appositive phrase is just a noun phrase.
Advanced relative clauses
So far, you’ve seen relative clauses starting with a relative pronoun (who, whose, whom, which, and that) or a relative adverb (where, when, and why). Those are the constructions you’ll see most often, but relative pronouns may be preceded by prepositions or quantifiers.
Violent protests erupted at few places in the city, after which police had to be called in. [A preposition precedes which. Note that this is sentential which; it refers to the entire preceding clause. Look at 5B, covered earlier.]
Good bargains can be tempting and entice people into buying unnecessary items, most of which can go unused. [A ‘quantifier + of’ precedes which.]
More examples of advanced relative clauses:
How relative clauses help your writing?
1. They’re a great tool to pack in extra information
Non-restrictive relative clauses are a great tool to pack in information in the same sentence. That’s why they’re abundantly used in writing, particularly in newspapers. See how much information the two back-to-back relative clauses in this sentence contain. Out of 59 words in the sentence, the relative clause alone contains 48.
Sunao Tsuboi, who as a 20-year-old engineering student found himself less than a mile from the center of the atomic blast at Hiroshima and somehow survived, and who went on to devote himself to the cause of nuclear disarmament, including in a much-publicized meeting with President Barack Obama in 2016, died on Oct 24 at a hospital in Hiroshima. The New York Times
Beginner readers who aren’t used to relative clauses can lose a sentence while reading if a relative clause, especially a long one like the above, gate-crashes a sentence.
This short sentence too packs in some extra information.
Travel & tourism, which contributes 10.4 percent to global GDP, suffered huge losses due to the pandemic.
Without the relative clause, you would need two sentences or an awkward and construction to convey the same message, both of which are poor choices.
Travel & tourism suffered huge losses due to the pandemic. It contributes 10.4 percent to global GDP.
Travel & tourism suffered huge losses due to the pandemic, and it contributes 10.4 percent to global GDP.
2. They make writing smoother and precise
Why prefer the sentence with relative clause over the above two?
First, the above two constructions give equal emphasis to both the information, confusing readers as to which of the two is more important. The relative clause, in contrast, subordinates the side information (contribution to global GDP) to the main information (losses due to pandemic), thereby leaving no ambiguity and making reading smoother.
Second, the sentence with relative clause provides another variation to sentences, making writing less monotonous.
3. They help you avoid common mistakes like these
Understanding the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses will help you avoid mistakes like these.
My father who has been working two jobs to support the family is planning to quit one. [Incorrect: This would imply that the person has more than one father.]
My father, who has been working two jobs to support the family, is planning to quit one. [Correct]
They’re essentially words and phrases added to gerunds that we covered earlier. [Incorrect: This would imply that there are more than one type of gerunds, which isn’t true.]
They’re essentially words and phrases added to gerunds, which we covered earlier. [Correct]
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a relative clause modify a pronoun?
He who hesitates is lost. [Personal pronoun]
Anything that crosses into a black hole’s event horizon gets sucked in. [Indefinite pronoun]