An Introduction to Relative Clauses


How to construct relative clauses

To construct a relative clause, replace a noun, usually the subject, of a main clause with a relative pronoun and then re-insert the noun in a new main clause.

Relative Pronouns:

who, whom, whose which, that, (somethimes where)
Who, whom and whose refer to humans; the others refer to animals or things.

May, who never misses class, came in ten minutes late.
My dog, which likes to chew paper products, ate my homework.
That rock, which divides the bay from the lake, is a local landmark.

In the following examples, the subjects of the main clauses (Dogs and the book) are replaced with the relative pronoun "which" and then the original subject is put back in as the subject of a new main clause.
Dogs are mammals.
which are mammals
Dogs, which are mammals, make good pets.

The book was given to Mary.
which was given to Mary
The book, which was given to Mary, contained here life story.

Distinguishing between bound and free relative clauses

Relative clauses may be either bound or free. If they are essential to the meaning of the sentence, they are bound and are NOT set off with commas. If they can be removed without interfering with the meaning of the sentence, they are free, and are set off with commas.

Another way of distinguishing bound from free relative clauses is to ask yourself if the clause contains information that is used to identify the preceding noun, or if it contains information that simply expands the idea. If the information identifies a noun, the clause is bound and does not receive commas. If the information only expands the information, the clause is free and should be set off with commas.

Most free relative clauses referring to non persons are signaled with the pronoun "which." Most bound relative clauses referring to non persons are signaled with the pronoun "that."

The annual report, which was written in only one day, caused a disturbance in administration.

The report that is over there was written yesterday.

Distinguishing between subject, object, and possessive forms of relative pronouns

All of the examples given so far have been relative clauses in which the subject of the original main clause was replaced with a relative pronoun. But it is possible to replace the object of a sentence or of a prepositional phrase, or to replace a possessive noun, with a relative pronouon. When that happens, the personal relative pronoun changes form and is moved to the front of the relative clause, as in the following examples:
Jack sent the E-Mail message to Jill yesterday.
Jack sent the E-Mail message to whom yesterday. (Whom is the objective form of the personal pronoun, who.)
to whom Jack sent the E-Mail message yesterday (The preposition and its object are moved to the front of the clause.)
Jill, to whom Jack sent the E-Mail message yesterday, claims she hasn't heard a word from any of her relatives. (Jill is reinserted as the subject of a new main claluse.)

Jill's pail is over there.
whose pail is over there.
Jill, whose pail is over there, has grown tired of of fetching water.

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