subordinate clause

Relative clause

A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun. For example, the noun phrase the man who wasn't there contains the noun man, which is modified by the relative clause who wasn't there. In many languages, relative clauses are introduced by a special class of pronouns called relative pronouns; in the previous example, who is a relative pronoun. In other languages, relative clauses may be marked in different ways: they may be introduced by a special class of conjunctions called relativizers; the main verb of the relative clause may appear in a special morphological variant; or a relative clause may be indicated by word order alone. In some languages, more than one of these mechanisms may be possible.

The antecedent of the relative clause (that is, the noun that is modified by it) can in theory be the subject of the main clause, or its object, or any other verb argument. However, many languages do not have the possibility, or a straightforward syntactic pattern, to relativise arguments other than the core ones (subject and direct object).


In English, a relative clause follows the noun it modifies. It is generally indicated by a relative pronoun at the start of the clause, although sometimes simply by word order. The choice of relative pronoun, or choice to omit one, can be affected by whether the clause modifies a human or non-human noun, by whether the clause is restrictive or not, and by the role (subject, direct object, or the like) of the relative pronoun in the relative clause. In English, as in some other languages (such as French; see below), non-restrictive relative clauses are set off with commas, but restrictive ones are not:

  • I met a man and a woman yesterday. The woman, who had a thick French accent, was very pretty.
  • I met two women yesterday, one with a thick French accent and one with a mild German one. The woman who had a thick French accent was very pretty.

As regards relative clauses, English has two particularities that are unique among the Germanic languages:

  1. In other Germanic languages, if a relative pronoun is the object of a preposition in the relative clause, then the preposition always appears at the start of the clause, before the relative pronoun. In English, the preposition will often appear where it would appear if the clause were an independent clause — in other words, the relative pronoun "strands" it when it moves to the start of the clause. It used to be common to regard this as a grammatical error (see: Linguistic prescription) but in fact it has been a standard feature of the language since Middle English times.
  2. In other Germanic languages, a relative pronoun is always necessary. In English, however, it may be suppressed in a restrictive clause (as in "The man we met was very friendly"), provided it would not serve as the subject of the main verb. When this is done, if the relative clause is the object of a preposition in the relative clause, then said preposition is always "stranded" in the manner described above; it is never moved to the start of the clause.


The system of relative pronouns in French is as complicated as, and similar in many ways to, the system in English.

When the pronoun is to act as the direct object of the relative clause, que is generally used, although lequel, which is inflected for grammatical gender and number, is sometimes used in order to give more precision. For example, any of the following is correct and would translate to "I talked to his/her father and mother, whom I already knew":

J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, laquelle (f. sing.) je connaissais déjà.
J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, lesquels (m. pl.) je connaissais déjà.
J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, que je connaissais déjà.

However, in the first sentence, "whom I already knew" refers only to the mother; in the second, it refers to both parents; and in the third, as in the English sentence, it could refer either only to the mother, or to both parents.

When the pronoun is to act as the subject of the relative clause, qui is generally used, though as before, lequel may be used instead for greater precision. (This is less common than the use of lequel with direct objects, however, since verbs in French often reflect the grammatical number of their subjects.)

When the pronoun is to act in a possessive sense, where the preposition de (of/from) would normally be used, the pronoun dont ("whose") is used, but does not act as a determiner for the noun "possessed":

J'ai parlé avec une femme dont je travaille avec le fils. ("I spoke with a woman whose son I work with." - lit., "I spoke with a woman of whom I work with the son.")

This construction is also used in non-possessive cases where the pronoun replaces an object marked by de:

C'est l'homme dont j'ai parlé. ("That's the man of whom I spoke.")

More generally, in modern French, dont can signal the topic of the following clause, without replacing anything in this clause:

C'est un homme dont je crois qu'il doit très bien gagner sa vie. ("That's a man about whom I believe that he must make a lot of money.")

When the pronoun is to act as the object of a preposition (other than when dont is used), lequel is generally used, though qui can be used if the antecedent is human. The preposition always appears before the pronoun, and the prepositions de and à (at/to) contract with lequel to form duquel and auquel, or with lesquel(le)s to form desquel(le)s and auxquel(le)s.


Aside from their highly inflected forms, German relative pronouns are less complicated than English. There are two varieties. The more common one is based on the definite article der, die, das, but with distinctive forms in the genitive (dessen, deren) and in the dative plural (denen). Historically this is related to English that. The second, which is more literary and used for emphasis, is the relative use of welcher, welche, welches, comparable with English which. As in most Germanic languages, including Old English, both of these inflect according to gender, case and number. They take their gender and number from the noun they modify, but the case from their function in their own clause.

Das Haus, in dem ich wohne, ist sehr alt.
The house in which I live is very old.

The relative pronoun dem is neuter singular to agree with Haus, but dative because it follows a preposition in its own clause. On the same basis, it would be possible to substitute the pronoun welchem.

However, German uses the uninflecting was ('what') as a relative pronoun when the antecedent is alles, etwas or nichts ('everything', 'something', 'nothing'.).

Alles, was Jack macht, gelingt ihm.
Everything that Jack does is a success.

In German, all relative clauses are marked with commas.


In Biblical Hebrew, relative clauses were headed with the word asher, which could be either a relative pronoun or a relativizer. In later times, asher became interchangeable with the prefix she- (which is also used as a conjunction, with the sense of English that), and in Modern Hebrew, this use of she- is much more common than asher, except in some formal, archaic, or poetic writing. In meaning, the two are interchangeable; they are used regardless of whether the clause is modifying a human, regardless of their grammatical case in the relative clause, and regardless of whether the clause is restrictive.

Further, because Hebrew does not generally use its word for is, she- is used to distinguish adjective phrases used in epithet from adjective phrases used in attribution:

Ha-kise l'-yad-kha. ("The chair is next to you." - lit., "The-chair [is] to-hand-your.")
Ha-kise she-l'-yad-kha shavur. ("The chair next to you is broken." - lit., "The-chair that-[is]-to-hand-your [is] broken.")

(This use of she- does not occur with simple adjectives, as Hebrew has a different way of making that distinction. For example, Ha-kise adom means "The chair [is] red," while Ha-kise ha-adom shavur means "The red chair is broken" - literally, "The chair the red [is] broken.")

Since 1994, the official rules of Modern Hebrew (as determined by the Academy of the Hebrew Language) have stated that relative clauses are to be punctuated in Hebrew the same way as in English (described above). That is, non-restrictive clauses are to be set off with commas, while restrictive clauses are not:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. ("The chair, which you are sitting on, is broken.")
Ha-kise she-ata yoshev alav shavur. ("The chair that you are sitting on is broken.")

Nonetheless, many, perhaps most, speakers of Modern Hebrew still use the pre-1994 rules, which were based on the German rules (described above). Except for the simple adjective-phrase clauses described above, these speakers set off all relative clauses, restrictive or not, with commas:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. ("The chair that you are sitting on is broken," or "The chair, which you are sitting on, is broken.")

One major difference between relative clauses in Hebrew and those in (for example) English is that in Hebrew, what might be called the "regular" pronoun is not always suppressed in the relative clause. To reuse the prior example:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. (lit., "The chair, which you are sitting on it, [is] broken.")

More specifically, if this pronoun is the subject of the relative clause, it is always suppressed. If it is the direct object, then it is usually suppressed, though it is also correct to leave it in. (If it is suppressed, then the special preposition et, used to mark the direct object, is suppressed as well.) If it is the object of a preposition, it must be left in, because in Hebrew - unlike in English - a preposition cannot appear without its object. When the pronoun is left in, she- might more properly be called a relativizer than a relative pronoun.

The Hebrew relativizer she- ‘that’ "might be a shortened form of the Hebrew relativizer ‘asher ‘that’, which is related to Akkadian ‘ashru ‘place’ (cf. Semitic *‘athar) Alternatively, Hebrew ‘asher derived from she-, or it was a convergence of Proto-Semitic dhu (cf. Aramaic ) and ‘asher [...] Whereas Israeli she- functions both as complementizer and relativizer, ashér can only function as a relativizer.


In Literary Arabic there is a relative pronoun alladhi (masculine singular), feminine singular allati, masculine plural alladhīna, feminine plural allawāti, masculine dual alladhāni (nominative) / alladhaini (accusative and genitive), feminine dual allatāni (nom.) / allataini (acc. and gen.).

Its usage has two specific rules: it agrees with the antecedent in gender, number and case, and it is used only if the antecedent is definite. If the antecedent is indefinite, no relative pronoun is used. The former is called jumlat sila (conjunctive sentence) while the latter is called jumlat sifa (descriptive sentence).

  • الوَلَدُ الذي رَأيْتُهُ في الصفِ أمس غائبٌ اليَوْمَ

alwaladu (a)lladhi ra'aituhu fi (a)ssaffi amsi ghā'ibun alyauma - "The boy I saw in class yesterday is missing today". (relative pronoun present)

  • هذا وَلَدٌ رَأيْتُهُ في الصفِ أمس

hādha waladun ra'aituhu fi (a)ssaffi amsi - "This is a boy I saw in class yesterday". (relative pronoun absent)

In Demotic Arabic the multiple forms of the relative pronoun have been levelled in favour of a single form, a simple conjunction, which in most dialects is illi, and is never omitted. So in Palestinian Arabic the above sentences would be:

  • alwalad illi shuftō fi (a)ssaff embārih ghāyeb alyōm
  • hāda walad illi shuftō fi (a)ssaff embārih

As in Hebrew, the regular pronoun referring to the antecedent is repeated in the relative clause - literally, "the boy whom I saw him in class..." (the -hu in ra'aituhu and the in shuftō). The rules of suppression in Arabic are identical to those of Hebrew: obligatory suppression in the case that the pronoun is the subject of the relative clause, obligatory retention in the case that the pronoun is the object of a preposition, and at the discretion of the speaker if the pronoun is the direct object. The only difference from Hebrew is that, in the case of the direct object, it is preferable to retain the pronoun rather than suppress it.


Japanese does not employ relative pronouns to relate relative clauses to their antecedents. Instead, the relative clause directly modifies the noun phrase, occupying the same syntactic space as an adjective (before the noun phrase).

この おいしい 天ぷら
kono oishii tempura
"this delicious tempura"

姉が 作った 天ぷら
ane-ga tsukutta tempura
sister-SUBJ make-PAST tempura
"the tempura [that] my sister made"

天ぷらを 食べた 人
tempura-o tabeta hito
tempura-OBJ eat-PAST person
"the person who ate the tempura"

In fact, since so-called i-adjectives in Japanese are technically intransitive stative verbs, it can be argued that the structure of the first example (with an adjective) is the same as the others. A number of "adjectival" meanings, in Japanese, are customarily shown with relative clauses consisting solely of a verb or a verb complex:

光っている ビル
hikatte-iru biru
lit-be building
"an illuminated building"

濡れている 犬
nurete-iru inu
be_wet-be dog
"a wet dog"

Often confusing to speakers of languages which use relative pronouns are relative clauses which would in their own languages require a preposition with the pronoun to indicate the semantic relationship among the constituent parts of the phrase.

紅茶を 淹れる ために お湯を 沸かした やかん
kōcha-o ireru tame ni oyu-o wakashita yakan
tea-OBJ make purpose for hot-water-OBJ boiled kettle
"the kettle I boiled water in for tea"

Here, the preposition "in" is missing from the Japanese ("missing" in the sense that the corresponding postposition would be used with the main clause verb in Japanese) Common sense indicates what the meaning is in this case, but the "missing preposition" can sometimes create ambiguity.

天ぷらを 作った 人
tempura-o tsukutta hito
tempura-OBJ made person
(1) "the person who made the tempura"
(2) "the person [someone] made the tempura for"

In this case, (1) is the context-free interpretation of choice, but (2) is possible with the proper context.

僕が 記事を 書いた レストラン
boku-ga kiji-o kaita resutoran
I-SUBJ article-OBJ wrote restaurant
(1) "a restaurant about which I wrote an article"
(2) "a restaurant in which I wrote an article"

Without more context, both (1) and (2) are equally viable interpretations of the Japanese.

Note: Spaces are not ordinarily used in Japanese, but they are supplemented here to facilitate parsing by non-speakers of the language.


See Relative pronouns in the Spanish grammar article.


In Georgian, relative clauses are generally marked both with a particle outside the clause, which is declined to indicate the relative clause's role within the larger sentence, and with a relative pronoun, which is declined to indicate its own role within the relative clause. The relative pronouns are formed by adding -ts to the corresponding interrogative pronouns. For example:

Es is otakhia, romelshits gedzineba. ("This is the room where (lit., in which) you will sleep.")

In this example, the particle is is the head of the relative clause, corresponding in this case to the English definite article (the). Inside the relative clause, romelshits is the relative pronoun: it is formed by taking the interrogative pronoun romel- ("which?"), adding the postposition -shi ("in") — producing the interrogative pronoun romelshi ("in which?") — and finally adding the suffix -ts to obtain the relative pronoun romelshits ("in which").


In Latin, relative clauses follow the noun phrases they modify, and are always introduced using relative pronouns. Relative pronouns, like other pronouns in Latin, agree with their antecedents in gender and number, but not in case: a relative pronoun's case reflects its role in the relative clause it introduces, while its antecedent's case reflects the antecedent's role in the clause that contains the relative clause. (Nonetheless, it is possible for the pronoun and antecedent to be in the same case.) For example:

Urbēs, quae sunt magnae, videntur. (The cities, which are large, are being seen.'')
Urbēs, quās vīdī, erant magnae. (The cities, which I saw, were large.)

In the former example, urbēs and quae both function as subjects in their respective clauses, so both are in the nominative case; and due to gender and number agreement, both are feminine and plural. In the latter example, both are still feminine and plural, and urbēs is still in the nominative case, but quae has been replaced by quās, its accusative-case counterpart, to reflect its role as the direct object of vīdī.

For more information on the forms of Latin relative pronouns, see the section on relative pronouns in the article on Latin declension.


The Celtic languages (at least the modern Insular Celtic languages) distinguish two types of relative clause: direct relative clauses and indirect relative clauses. A direct relative clause is used where the relativized element is the subject or the direct object of its clause (e.g. "the man who saw me", "the man whom I saw"), while an indirect relative clause is used where the relativized element is a genitival (e.g. "the man whose daughter is in the hospital") or is the object of a preposition (e.g. "the man to whom I gave the book"). Direct relative clauses are formed with a relative pronoun (unmarked for case) at the beginning; a gap (in terms of syntactic theory, a trace, indicated by t in the examples below) is left in the relative clause at the pronoun's expected position.Irish
an fear a chonaic t
the man DIR-REL saw me
"the man who saw me"
y dyn a welais t
the man DIR-REL I saw
"the man whom I saw"

Indirect relative clauses are formed with a relativizer at the beginning; the relativized element remains in situ in the relative clause.Irish

an fear a bhfuil a iníon san ospidéal
the man IND-REL is his daughter in the hospital
"the man whose daughter is in the hospital"
y dyn y rhois y llyfr iddo
the man IND-REL I gave the book to him
"the man to whom I gave the book"

See also


  • Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
  • A.J.Thomson & A.V.Martinet (4th edition 1986). A Practical English Grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-431342-5. §72-85. (For the basic "rules" of the English relative pronoun in a presentation suitable for foreign learners.)

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