Grammar Basics: Relative Clauses

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A relative clause can be introduced by the relative pronouns who, whom, which or whose, by the subordinator that and by the relative adverbs where, why and when. In some cases the relative pronoun can be omitted, and in some cases it is preceded by a preposition. For the sake of simplicity, in this post I ignore clauses beginning with relative adverbs.

English relative clauses are of two kinds, known traditionally as defining and non-defining or restrictive and non-restrictive, but I use here the terms given in ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, integrated and supplementary.

An integrated relative clause is an essential part of the meaning of a sentence. This is the house that Jack built is an example. It is true that This is the house on its own is a grammatical sentence and that it has a meaning. But if what we have in mind is a particular house and we want to relate it to its builder, we have to add the words that Jack built. Those words define the kind of house it is. An integrated relative clause can be introduced by both that and which. As well as This is the house that Jack built we can say This is the house which Jack built. Some argue that an integrated relative clause must be introduced only by that and not by which, but they  do so in the face of the evidence. We can also leave out the relative pronoun altogether and say This is the house Jack built.

By contrast, in the sentence Jack, whom my sister married three years ago, built that house, the relative clause, whom my sister married three years ago, is supplementary. The information which it provides is incidental to the matter of who built the house. In writing, it is the convention to place a supplementary relative clause between commas, and that can provide a ready way of identifying it as such.  That is not normally used to introduce a supplementary relative clause, so we wouldn’t say or write *Jack, that my sister married three years ago, built that house. And we can’t omit the relative pronoun in a supplementary relative clause, so we can’t say or write *Jack, my sister married three years ago, built that house.

In an integrated relative clause in which the relative pronoun is the subject of the clause, the relative pronoun must be used. It’s who for a human referent, which for a non-human referent, but that can also be used for both instead. When it is the object of the clause, the relative pronoun may, as we have seen, be omitted, but, if it is used, it is whom for a human referent, which for a non-human referent and that for either, with the provision that who can be, and in practice usually is, used for human referents in all but the most formal contexts. Some commentators think that a clause introduced by that cannot have a human referent. They are wrong. Irving Berlin wrote:

The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery

and Shakespeare had Hamlet say:

By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me

In a supplementary relative clause, the relative pronoun is always present, whether it is the subject or the object of the relative clause. When it’s the subject, it’s who for a human referent, which for a non-human referent. When it’s the object of the clause, it’s who for human referents, with whom again being used in formal contexts, and which for non-human referents.

It follows that these sentences are all permissible.

INTEGRATED

I. Relative pronoun as subject

Human Referent

1a. He’s the journalist who spoke to me last week.
1b. He’s the journalist that spoke to me last week.

Non-human Referent

1c. That’s the tree which was blown down in the storm.
1d. That’s the tree that was blown down in the storm.

II. Relative pronoun as object

Human Referent

2a. He’s the journalist whom I met last week.
2b. He’s the journalist who I met last week.
2c. He’s the journalist that I met last week.
2d. He’s the journalist I met last week.

Non-human Referent

2e. That’s the tree which the storm blew down.
2f. That’s the tree that the storm blew down.
2g. That’s the tree the storm blew down.

III. Relative pronoun as possessive

Human Referent

3a. A president whose record in office is unblemished will not necessarily be remembered for it.

Non-human Referent

3b. A tree whose branches are frequently cut will produce more growth.
3c. A tree of which the branches are frequently cut will produce more growth.

IV. Relative pronoun as a preposition complement

Human Referent

4a. Those to whom we normally look for guidance have failed us.
4b. Those who we normally look to for guidance have failed us.
4c. Those that we normally look to for guidance have failed us.
4d. Those we normally look to for guidance have failed us.

Non-human Referent

4e. The tree about which I’m talking about has been blown over.
4f. The tree that I’m talking about has been blown over.
4g. The tree I’m talking about has been blown over.

SUPPLEMENTARY

V. Relative pronoun as subject

 Human Referent

5a. John, who was a brilliant rugby player, has now turned to cricket.

Non-human Referent

5b. That box, which just contains a lot of old junk, should be thrown out.

VI. Relative pronoun as object

 Human Referent

6a. The president, whom I had last seen in 1992, had aged considerably.
6b. The president, who I had last seen in 1992, had aged considerably.

Non-human Referent

6c. The old oak tree, which the storm had blown down ten years previously, was starting to decay.

VII. Relative pronoun as possessive

 Human Referent

7a. The president, whose term of office has now ended, will be retiring to his home in the country.

 Non-human Referent

7b. The tree, of which the branches need cutting, gives too much shade.
7c. The tree, whose branches need cutting, gives too much shade.

VIII. Relative pronoun as a preposition complement

Human Referent

8a. The client, for whom we have worked for three years, has thanked us for our dedication to his account.
8b. The client, who we have worked for for three years, has thanked us for our dedication to his account.
8c. The client, whom we have worked for for three years, has thanked us for our dedication to his account.

Non-human Referent

8d. The tree, for which we had a great deal of irrational affection, was finally dying.
8e. The tree, which we had a great deal of irrational affetion for, was finally dying.

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5 Comments

Filed under Grammar Basics

5 responses to “Grammar Basics: Relative Clauses

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Conditional Sentences | Caxton

  2. There are also fused relative clauses, which use what in the sense ‘that which’ or ‘something which’: I don’t know what you mean.

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  3. Just to clarify, what John Cowan calls fused relative clauses (as in the subject of the main clause in this sentence) are usually called nominal relative clauses in EFL (and elsewhere, I believe).

    There are also sentential relative clauses – ‘We’ve got a day off today, which is nice’, and what have been called coordinating relative clauses – ‘She gave the book to Alan, who then lent it to Stephanie.’

    We also teach that the only time you need ‘whom’ (apart from deliberately being formal and avoiding preposition stranding) is after constructions like ‘many of, half of’ etc in non-defining relative clauses – ‘The students, many of whom had come a long way, were feeling rather tired.’

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