Syntactic Theory


Relative Clauses vs. Complement Clauses

Relative clauses sometimes are similar to complement clauses. There are two instances to pay attention:

  1. that relatives vs. finite complement clauses.
  2. fused relatives vs. embedded interrogatives.

That Clauses: Relatives or Argument Clauses?

That clauses occur in the argument positions of verbs, as subjects or complements:

  1. [That politicians donít always say the whole truth] is understood by most people. (subject clause)
  2. It is understood by most people [that politicians not always say the whole truth]. (complement clause)
  3. Most people despise [that politicians not always say the whole truth]. (complement clause)

That clauses can also occur as complements to nouns. In these cases they are very similar to that relatives. There are three distinctions between these two constructions:

1. that complement clauses are only possible with a small number of nouns such as idea, fact, possibility, assumption, or proof. Relatives can attach to any noun.

  1. the idea [that politicians donít always say the whole truth]
  2. the fact [that China is a dictatorship]
  3. the possibility [that the western world might loose the 'war on terrorism']
  4. the proof for the assumption [that democracies are morally superior].

2. that relatives contain a gap, i.e. there is something missing inside the relative.

  1. The match [that we won ____ ] was broadcasted on tv.
  2. The car [that he crashed into the shop with ____ ] belonged to his father.

Note that there is no such gap in the examples for complement clauses above.

3. that relatives usually alternate with bare relatives, i.e. the clause initial that can be left out in relatives but not in complement clauses.

  1. that relatives:
    The match [(that) we won ____ ] was broadcasted on tv.
    The car [(that) he crashed into the shop with ____ ] belonged to his father.
  2. that complement clauses:
    The assumption [*(that) noone can fail the class] is a clear mistake.

Fused Relatives vs. Embedded Interrogatives

Embedded wh clauses can have the function of fused relatives and embedded interrogatives.

  1. I enjoyed [what I read in the book]. (fused relative)
  2. I know [what you are looking for]. (embedded interrogative)

The diagnostics to distinquish these two types of clauses are similar to those for the different types of that clauses.

1. Embedded interrogatives only combine with a small group of predicates, such as wonder, know, be unclear.

  1. I know [what you are looking for].
  2. I wonder [what you are talking about].

2. Fused relatives alternate with a paraphrase the thing which, the person who, the place where, etc.

  1. I enjoyed [what/the things which I read in the book].
  2. [Who/The people who wrote this] must be a genius.

3. The relative pronoun in fused relatives can usually be expanded with -ever

  1. I enjoyed [whatever I read in the book].
  2. [Whoever wrote this] must be a genius.