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Syntactic Theory

Relative Clauses

Many languages, like English, German, French, Spanish, Georgian, Arabic and Japanese, have a major syntactic structure in common: the relative clause. But what exactly are relative clauses? They are embedded sentences that modify phrasal categories. If that sounds difficult to you let us give you an example:

             relative clause

A woman [ who I know] got hit by a car.

relative pronoun

The part in italice, whom I know, is a relative clause. It starts with a relative pronoun, who.

Basic Terminology

Let's look at our example sentence in more detail. We follow the terminology in Huddleston and Pullum 2002, Chapter 12.

A woman [who I know] got hit by a car.

  • Antecedent: The expression in an upper clause that is modified by the relative clause.
    In our example, the noun woman is the antecedent.

  • Relativized element: The element inside the relative clause that refers to the antecedent. If there is a relative pronoun then the relativized element corresponds to the relative pronoun. We usually characterize the relativized element by its function in the relative clause.
    In our example, the relativized element is the direct object of the verb know.

  • Relative pronoun: The wh-word who is the relative pronoun in our example. The relative pronoun refers to the antecedent. English relative clauses need not contain a relative pronoun, as the following variant of our example shows:

A woman [I know] got hit by a car.

  • Relative phrase: The phrase that contains the relative pronoun is the relative phrase. In our example this phrase consists only of the relative pronoun, but there are more complicated cases. In the following examples, the relative phrase is underlined, the relative pronoun in bold face.

A woman [whose husband I know] got hit by a car.
A woman [to whom I talked yesterday] got hit by a car.

The Form of Relative Clauses

English has three forms of relative clauses:

  1. A woman [who I know] got hit by a car. (wh relative)
  2. A woman [that I know] got hit by a car. (that relative)
  3. A woman [I know] got hit by a car. (bare relative)

  • Wh relatives: A wh relative contains a wh-word that functions as relative pronoun. The other two types, that-relatives and bare relatives, are so-called non-wh relatives. Since only wh relatives contain a relative pronoun, only those relatives contain a relative phrase.

  • Non-wh relatives:
    In non-wh relatives there is no wh-relative pronoun. It is important that in these cases there is still something 'missing' in the relative clause, i.e., there is still a relativized element, even though this element is not expressed overtly.
    • that relatives: The relative clause starts with that. It is not fully clear whether that is a relative pronoun or a complementizer in these cases. We will look at this problem later.
    • bare relatives: The relative contains neither a relative phrase nor does it start with that.

The Function of Relative Clauses

English has four main functions of relative clauses.

  1. A woman [who I know] got hit by a car. (integrated, or restrictive relative)
  2. My mother, [whom you met at my wedding], got hit by a car. (supplementary, non-restrictive, or appositive relative)
  3. It was my mother [who got hit by a car]. (cleft relative)
  4. I liked [what you presented at the conference]. (fused or free relative)

  • Integrated (restrictive) relative: The relative provides information that helps identify the referent of the antecedent further.

  • Supplementary (appositive, non-restrictive) relative: Adds information on the antecedent that is not required to identify it.

  • Cleft relative: Only occurs in the special cleft construction.

  • Fused relative: In such relatives there is no explicit antecedent. Instead the relative phrase is at the same time the antecedent.


English has finite, infinitival, and participial relatives.

  1. I found a great place [to meet].
  2. Some of the students sitting in the cafeteria complained about the loud music.
  3. The passengers hurt in the accident have all been hospitalized.

Related Material

  • A podcast that illustrates the main properties of English relative clauses.
    Based on the following example sentence:
    There was a young lady from Riga who smiled as she rode on a tiger
                    /       \
                   /      ___VP___
                  /      /        \
                 /      /    ______NP_______
                /      /    /               \
               /      /    /                _S_
              /      /    /                /   \
             /      /    /                /    _VP_
            /      /    /                /    /    \
           /      /  _NP                /    /     CP
          /      /  /   \              /    /     /  \ 
         /      /  /    N'            /    /     /  _S_  
        /      /  /    /  \          /    /     /  /   \
       /      /  /    /    PP       /    /     /  /   _VP_
      /      /  /    /     | \     /    /     /  /   /    \
     NP     /  /   _N'     |  NP  NP    VP   /  NP  VP   _PP
      |    /  /   /   \    |  |   |     |   /   |   |   /   \
    Pron Aux Det AP   N    P  N RelPron V Conj Pron V   P   NP
      |    |  | /_\   |    |  |   |     |   |   |   |   |  /__\
    There was a  y. lady from R. who   sm.  as she rode on a  t.

You can start the podcast here:

Related exercises

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