Section 6: Relative Clauses

The next dependent clause form is the relative clause, which is formed when a relative (either relative pronoun or relative adverb) introduces a clause by serving as the subject of the clause or preceding the clause. This relative refers to (relates to) or provides additional information about a preceding nominal; therefore, relative clauses always function adjectivally. In English, the five prototypical relatives are who, whom, whose, which, and that (not to be confused with the nominal-that).

Functioning adjectivally means that the relative clause provides extra information that either defines something or provides non-essential, but interesting, added information. Like adjectives, they modify nominals, which will be 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 specifies which professor: the one whose schedule was changed.

Relatives always have an antecedent, or a preceding nominal to which they refer and which they modify.

While called adverbial relatives, where, when, and why create relative clauses that function adjectively within a sentence by modifying a nominal.

Within their own clauses, however, if we were analyzing at the word level, adverbial relatives function adverbially by providing information about time, manner, and place.

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

  • Relative clause functions adjectivally, modifying TIME.
  • Relative WHEN functions adverbially in its clause: The environment was less polluted then.

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

  • Relative clause functions adjectivally, modifying REASON
  • Relative WHY functions adverbially in its clause: You can’t turn in the assignment for some reason.

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 passage for relative clauses.

Margot's mind reeled. She could hear the listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door, which grated behind her eyes. It haunted her to consider the sea of faces outside. They were faces she once knew in a different light, but now they were putrid reflections of squalor and decay. There was nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except the grim reminder that she was alone. She tried to ignore the thought, but she was the last bastion of humanity. Death awaited her outside.

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