Relative clause

From Academic Kids

A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun. For example, the noun phrase the man who wasn't there contains the noun man, which is modified by the relative clause who wasn't there. In many languages, relative clauses are introduced by a special class of pronouns called relative pronouns; in the previous example, who is a relative pronoun. In other languages, relative clauses may be marked in different ways: they may be introduced by a special class of conjunctions called relativizers; the main verb of the relative clause may appear in a special morphological variant; or a relative clause may be indicated by word order alone. In some languages, more than one of these mechanisms may be possible.

The antecedent of the relative clause (that is, the noun that is modified by it) can in theory be the subject of the main clause, or its object, or any other verb argument. However, many languages do not have the possibility, or a straightforward syntactic pattern, to relativise arguments other than the core ones (subject and direct object).


Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses

Relative clauses can be divided in two types depending on whether they restrict the referent of the noun they modify in the main statement, or simply describe the noun.

Restrictive clauses, as their name indicates, restrict the reference of the main noun, that is, they make it definite, for which reason they are also called defining clauses. Their function is to provide information to identify the concrete instance of the noun.

Non-restrictive clauses do not serve to identify the antecedent; instead, they provide further, incidental information about it. They are also called descriptive clauses.

(1) Jack built the house that stands on the corner of our street.
(2) Jack built a big house, which stood for many years.

The relative clause in (1) defines the antecedent (the house); it tells the hearer which house is meant ((the one which) stands on the corner of our street). It is a restrictive clause.

The relative clause in (2) modifies an indefinite antecedent (a house); it does not help to make it definite, but gives extra information describing it ((it) stood for many years).

The main clause in (2) could stand by itself and convey the most important part of the meaning to the hearer. The main clause in (1) cannot stand by itself and give the same information, since the point of the relative clause is precisely to define the antecedent.

Relative clauses in various languages


In English, a relative clause follows the noun it modifies. It is generally indicated by a relative pronoun at the start of the clause, although sometimes simply by word order. The choice of relative pronoun, or choice to omit one, can be affected by whether the clause modifies a human or non-human noun, by whether the clause is restrictive or not, and by the role (noun, direct object, or the like) of the relative pronoun in the relative clause; see English relative clauses for details on this.

In English, as in some other languages (such as French; see below), non-restrictive relative clauses are set off with commas, but restrictive ones are not.

As regards relative clauses, English has two particularities that are unique among the Germanic languages:

  1. In other Germanic languages, if a relative pronoun is the object of a preposition in the relative clause, then the preposition always appears at the start of the clause, before the relative pronoun. In English, the preposition will often appear where it would appear if the clause were an independent clause - in other words, the relative pronoun "strands" it when it moves to the start of the clause. Some prescriptive grammars do not allow this, arguing that in terms of meaning, a preposition is very tightly bound to its object, and that they therefore should not be separated in this way; nonetheless, this alternative construction has been very common for centuries.
  2. In other Germanic languages, a relative pronoun is always necessary. In English, however, it may be suppressed in a restrictive clause, provided it would not serve as the subject of the main verb. When this is done, if the relative clause is the object of a preposition in the relative clause, then said preposition is always "stranded" in the manner described above; it is never moved to the start of the clause.

See English relative clauses for a more detailed survey, including a detailed explanation of the choice of relative pronoun or choice to omit one.


The system of relative pronouns in French is as complicated as, and similar in many ways to, the system in English.

When the pronoun is to act as the direct object of the relative clause, que is generally used, although lequel, which is inflected for grammatical gender and number, is sometimes used in order to give more precision. For example, any of the following is correct and would translate to "I talked to his/her father and mother, whom I already knew":

J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, laquelle (f. sing.) je connaissais déjà.
J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, lesquels (m. pl.) je connaissais déjà.
J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, que je connaissais déjà.

However, in the first sentence, "whom I already knew" refers only to the mother; in the second, it refers to both parents; and in the third, as in the English sentence, it could refer either only to the mother, or to both parents.

When the pronoun is to act as the subject of the relative clause, qui is generally used, though as before, lequel may be used instead for greater precision. (This is less common than lequel's use with direct objects, however, since verbs in French often reflect their subjects' grammatical number.)

When the pronoun is to act in a possessive sense, where the preposition de (of/from) would normally be used, the pronoun dont ("whose") is used, but does not act as a determiner for the noun "possessed":

J'ai parlé avec une femme dont je travaille avec le fils. ("I spoke with a woman whose son I work with." - lit., "I spoke with a woman dont I work with the son.")

In modern French, this construction is also used even in non-possessive cases where the pronoun is to act as the object of de; hence, dont can mean "of/from which/who(m)" in modern French:

C'est un homme dont je pense mal. ("That's a man of whom I think ill.")

When the pronoun is to act as the object of a preposition (other than when dont is used), lequel is generally used, though recently it has become common to use qui if the antecedent is a human. The preposition always appears before the pronoun, and the prepositions de and à (at/to) contract with lequel to form duquel and auquel, or with lesquel(le)s to form desquel(le)s and auxquel(le)s.


Despite their highly inflected forms, German relative pronouns are less complicated than English. There are two varieties. The more common one is based on the definite article der, die, das, but with distinctive forms in the genitive (dessen, deren) and in the dative plural (denen). Historically this is related to English that. The second, which is more literary and used for emphasis, is the relative use of welcher, welche, welches, comparable with English which. As in most Germanic languages, including Old English, both of these inflect according to gender, case and number. They take their gender and number from the noun they modify, but the case from their function in their own clause.

Das Haus, in dem ich wohne, ist sehr alt.
The house in which I live is very old.

The relative pronoun dem is neuter singular to agree with Haus, but dative because it follows a preposition in its own clause. On the same basis, it would be possible to substitute the pronoun welchem.

However, German uses the uninflecting was ('what') as a relative pronoun when the antecedent is alles, etwas or nichts ('everything', 'something', 'nothing'.).

Alles, was Jack macht, ist erfolgreich.
Everything that Jack does is successful.

In German, all relative clauses are marked with commas.


In Biblical Hebrew, relative clauses were headed with the word asher, which could be either a relative pronoun or a relativizer. In later times, asher became interchangeable with the prefix she- (which is also used as a conjunction, with the sense of English that), and in Modern Hebrew, this use of she- is much more common than asher, except in some formal, archaic, or poetic writing. In meaning, the two are interchangeable; they are used regardless of whether the clause is modifying a human, regardless of their grammatical case in the relative clause, and regardless of whether the clause is restrictive.

Further, because Hebrew does not generally use its word for is, she- is used to distinguish adjective phrases used in epithet from adjective phrases used in attribution:

Ha-kise l'-yad-kha. ("The chair is next to you." - lit., "The-chair [is] to-hand-your.")
Ha-kise she-l'-yad-kha shavur. ("The chair next to you is broken." - lit., "The-chair that-[is]-to-hand-your [is] broken.")

(This use of she- does not occur with simple adjectives, as Hebrew has a different way of making that distinction. For example, Ha-kise adom means "The chair [is] red," while Ha-kise ha-adom shavur means "The red chair is broken" - literally, "The chair the red [is] broken.")

Since 1994, the official rules of Modern Hebrew (as determined by the Academy of the Hebrew Language) have stated that relative clauses are to be punctuated in Hebrew the same way as in English (described above). That is, non-restrictive clauses are to be set off with commas, while restrictive clauses are not:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. ("The chair, which you are sitting on, is broken.")
Ha-kise she-ata yoshev alav shavur. ("The chair that you are sitting on is broken.")

Nonetheless, many, perhaps most, speakers of Modern Hebrew still use the pre-1994 rules, which were based on German (described above). Except for the simple adjective-phrase clauses described above, these speakers set off all relative clauses, restrictive or not, with commas:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. ("The chair that you are sitting on is broken," or "The chair, which you are sitting on, is broken.")

One major difference between relative clauses in Hebrew and those in (for example) English is that in Hebrew, what might be called the "regular" pronoun is not always suppressed in the relative clause. To reuse the prior example:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. (lit., "The chair, which you are sitting on it, [is] broken.")

Indeed, this pronoun is only suppressed when it is the subject or direct object of the relative clause; and even in these cases, the pronoun is sometimes left in for emphasis or other reasons. When the pronoun is left in, she- might more properly be called a relativizer than a relative pronoun.


In Literary Arabic there is a relative pronoun alladhi (masculine singular), feminine singular allati, masculine plural alladhīna, feminine plural allawāti, masculine dual alladhāni (nominative) / alladhaini (accusative and genitive), feminine dual allatāni (nom.) / allataini (acc. and gen.).

Its usage has two specific rules: it agrees with the antecedent in gender, number and case, and it is used only if the antecedent is definite. If the antecedent is indefinite, no relative pronoun is used. The former is called jumlat sila (conjuctive sentence) while the latter is called jumlat sifa (descriptive sentence).

  • alwaladu (a)lladhi ra'aituhu fi (a)ssaffi amsi ghā'ibun alyauma - "The boy I saw in class yesterday is missing today". (relative pronoun present)
  • hādha waladun ra'aituhu fi (a)ssaffi amsi - "This is a boy I saw in class yesterday". (relative pronoun absent)

In Demotic Arabic the multiple forms of the relative pronoun have been levelled in favour of a single form, a simple conjunction, which in most dialects is illi, and is never omitted. So in Palestinian Arabic the above sentences would be:

  • alwalad illi shuftō fi (a)ssaff embārih ghāyeb alyōm
  • hāda walad illi shuftō fi (a)ssaff embārih

As in Hebrew, the regular pronoun referring to the antecedent is repeated in the relative clause - literally, "the boy whom I saw him in class..." (the -hu in ra'aituhu and the in shuftō). Arabic is even stricter than Hebrew in this regard, not allowing the suppression of the regular pronoun even when it refers to the direct object.


Japanese does not employ relative pronouns to relate relative clauses to their antecedents. Instead, the relative clause directly modifies the noun phrase, occupying the same syntactic space as an adjective (before the noun phrase).

kono oishii tempura
"this delicious tempura"
ane ga tsukutta tempura
sister (SUBJECT) make-PAST tempura
"the tempura [that] my sister made"
tempura o tabeta hito
tempura (OBJECT) eat-PAST person
"the person who ate the tempura"

In fact, since so-called i-adjectives in Japanese are technically intransitive stative verbs, it can be argued that the structure of the first example (with an adjective) is the same as the others. A number of "adjectival" meanings, in Japanese, are customarily shown with relative clauses consisting solely of a verb or a verb complex:

hikatte-iru biru
lit-be building
"an illuminated building"
nurete-iru inu
be_wet-be dog
"a wet dog"


See Relative pronouns in the Spanish grammar article.


In Georgian, relative clauses are generally marked both with a particle outside the clause, which is declined to indicate the relative clause's role within the larger sentence, and with a relative pronoun, which is declined to indicate its own role within the relative clause. The relative pronouns are formed by adding -ts to the corresponding interrogative pronouns. For example:

Es is otakhia, romelshits gedzineba. ("This is the room where (lit., in which) you will sleep.")

In this example, the particle is is the head of the relative clause, corresponding in this case to the English definite article (the). Inside the relative clause, romelshits is the relative pronoun: it is formed by taking the interrogative pronoun romel- ("which?"), adding the postposition -shi ("in") - producing the interrogative pronoun romelshi ("in which?") - and finally adding the suffix -ts to obtain the relative pronoun romelshits ("in which").


  • Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
  • A.J.Thomson & A.V.Martinet (4th edition 1986). A Practical English Grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-431342-5. §72-85. (For the basic "rules" of the English relative pronoun in a presentation suitable for foreign learners.)

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