Section 4: Relatives

Relatives are the KEY MARKERS for relative clauses (a type of dependent clause). In English, the prototypical relatives are who, whom, whose, which, and that. These protypical relatives are also called pronomial relatives because even though the relative clause is adjectival, the relative itself, as a word, functions nominally as a kind of "pronoun."

While subordinate clauses normally function adverbially, relative clauses function adjectivally within a sentence. Like adjectives, they modify a nominal (word, phrase, or clause), which is their antecedent.

The car that hit me was changing lanes.

  • That refers to the car. It introduces a relative clause (that hit me) which modifies the car.

The professor whose schedule was changed threatened to quit.

  • Whose refers to the professor. It introduces a relative clause (whose schedule was changed) to modify (specify) which professor.

The other relatives (sometimes referred to as adverbial relatives) are where, when, and why. Like the prototypical relatives, these relatives also mark dependent clauses that function adjectively within a sentence by modifying a nominal (word, phrase, or clause).

These other relatives are called adverbial relatives because even though the relative clause is adjectival, the relative itself, as a word, functions adverbially by providing information about time, manner, and place. Their clauses can be restated as independent sentences with the relative replaced by an adverb:

Our great-grandparents lived in a time when the environment was less polluted.

  • Time: The environment was less polluted then.

Please explain the reason why you can’t turn in the assignment.

  • Manner: You can’t turn in the assignment for some reason.

We visited the place where the Vikings landed.

  • Place: The Vikings landed there.

Relatives always have an antecedent, or a preceding nominal (word, phrase, or clause) to which they refer and which they modify. Keep in mind when analyzing for relatives that these same words can also serve as interrogatives, and even as subordinators.

NOTE: Another special consideration is the word THAT, which can serve as a relative, a marker for a nominal clause, a pronoun, or a demonstrative determiner. As we will discuss in Section 6, THAT can even be deleted and still function in a sentence! It's VERY important to analyze this word in the context of its sentence every time.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Brothers Karamazov for relatives.

He lived for many years afterwards abroad, but was at that time quite a young man that had bold ideas, and distinguished himself among the Miüsovs as a man of enlightened ideas and of European culture, who had been in the capitals and abroad.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the RELATIVE SAMPLES ANALYSES page.