Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A world without relative clauses

When I was struggling with relative clauses in the fourth or fifth grade, trying to diagram them with the help of J. Martyn Walsh’s Plain English Handbook, I wondered why they were even necessary. All those whos and whiches and whats and thats. Where did the relative clause begin and the main clause end? Why did the teacher sometimes call them adjective clauses? Should I use that or which or who? And what was the story with restrictive and non-restrictive?

If you had asked me then to imagine a world without relative clauses, I would have said “Fine. Who needs them?” But it turns out that relative clauses are supremely useful and not that hard to understand.

Take a look at the fairly mundane paragraph that follows:

Harry put down his coffee, which he had just finished. The stray dog which had appeared the night before needed to go out. As they walked to the park, which was only a block away, the dog stopped at a tree which stood on a neighbor’s lawn. The neighbor, who always seemed irritated about something, scowled and told them, “Get off my lawn.” Harry retrieved the plastic bag which he had remembered to bring and took care of business.

There are a bunch of relative clauses, six by my count. Without them, the paragraph is even more mundane, a series of short sentences and repeated noun phrases.

Harry put down his coffee. He had just finished his coffee. The stray dog needed to go out. The stray dog had appeared the night before. As they walked to the park, the dog stopped at a tree. The park was only a block away. The tree stood on a neighbor’s lawn. The neighbor scowled and shouted, “Get off my lawn.” The neighbor always seemed irritated about something. Harry retrieved the plastic bag and took care of business. He had remembered to bring the plastic bag.

You can punch it up, I imagine, maybe shifting the order of things and adding some conjunctions. But getting rid of the relative clauses alerts us to why they are so useful: they allow us to combine simpler sentences into more complex ones in which some information is more prominent and other information less so.

In a sentence with a relative clause, one clause modifies a noun phrase in the other. That’s why they are sometimes called adjective clauses. The modifying sentence undergoes a slight mutation to make it less repetitive and to signal the connection, then you glue them together.

To combine the simple sentences Harry put down his coffee and He had just finished his coffee, first you replace his coffee with which in the second sentence, then you move which to the front of that sentence and use it to glue the two together:

Harry put down his coffee. He had just finished his coffee.

Harry put down the coffee, which he had just finished.

The which introduces the relative clause and points to the missing direct object of finished.  

The second example is similar but slightly more complicated. Here you replace the stray dog in the second sentence with which (you could have chosen that or even who if you are a dog lover). The which is already at the front, so you don’t even need to move it there. Then you plop the whole clause after the stray dog in the first sentence to make the new complex sentence:

The stray dog needed to go out. The stray dog had appeared the night before.

The stray dog which had appeared the night before needed to go out.

Notice that relative clauses can be added to direct objects (his coffee) or subjects (the stray dog) or any noun phrase. What’s more, a sentence can have more than one relative clause—any number really. We can combine all three of the following sentences into one.

As they walked to the park, the dog stopped at a tree. The park was only a block away. The tree stood on a neighbor’s lawn.

Replacing the park and the tree with which you get two relative clauses: which was only a block away and which was located on a neighbor’s lawn. Since the park and the tree are already at the front of their sentences, they do not need to be moved when you replace them with which, and you just position the relative clauses after the nouns they go with.

As they walked to the park, which was only a block away, the dog stopped at a tree which stood on a neighbor’s lawn.

By now you probably get the idea. Relative clauses didn’t come to me immediately. But I finally made my peace with them, even coming to love relative infinitives, like something with which to write, free relatives like whatever you decide is fine with me, and sentence-modifying relatives like Everything turned out perfectly, which I hadn’t expected.

Featured image: “Empty Turkish coffee cup” by Arne Krueger. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard

    Which or That?
    As they walked to the park, which was only a block away,

    As they walked to the park, that was only a block away,

    Is there a rule for this, or is it a matter of style and personal choice?

    R

  2. N. Hendershot

    But what about the commas?

  3. craig fritch

    I vividly recall sentence diagramming back ( almost 60 years) in Grade 8. I am tempted to relearn how its done.
    As a currently practicind sub teacher, I see how much more valuable it is than all the worksheets.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *