Relative Clause

A relative clause is a dependent clause that is introduced by a relative pronoun (that, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whosever) or a relative adverb (where, when, why). Some examples of relative clauses are,

  • The concert will be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is the state’s second largest city.
  • I first learned to sail a boat on the East Coast, where I lived when I was a teenager.

There are two important features to all relative clauses:

  1. A relative clause will always contain a subject and a verb.
  2. A relative clause will always begin with a relative pronoun or relative adjective.

Avoiding Sentence Fragments

Relative clauses are dependent clauses, which means they rely on the context of the main clause (or independent clause) in order to make sense. Let’s take one of our above sentences as an example,

  • Where I lived when I was a teenager.

You see that, if we separate the relative clause from the main clause, it no longer makes sense as a sentence. This is because relative clauses cannot stand alone as a complete sentence.

Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses

Relative clauses can be both restrictive and nonrestrictive (see page for difference). A relative clause that is restrictive—one that is essential the meaning of the sentence—should neither be preceded nor followed by a comma. For example,

  • The book that your brother published was very well researched.

In this sentence, “that your brother published” is our relative clause, and, in this case, it is restrictive—or essential—to the meaning of our sentence. Without it it would not be clear to which book we were referring. We could be talking about any old book!

A relative clause that is nonrestrictive—one whose meaning is parenthetical or extra information—should be preceded and followed by a comma. For example,

  • The book, which was well researched, was published by your brother.

In this sentence, “which was well researched” is our relative clause, but this time it is nonrestrictive and not necessary to the essential meaning of our sentence. That is why commas surround it.

Things to Keep in Mind

One thing to keep in mind whenever dealing with relative clauses is that they always directly follow the word that they describe. This is very important to remember. Let’s again take our first two example sentences,

  • The concert will be in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is the state’s second largest city.
  • I first learned to sail a boat on the East Coast, where I lived when I was a teenager.

In this first example, “which” comes directly after the word the word that it is describing. Grand Rapids Michigan is Michigan’s second largest city.

In the second example, “where” also comes directly after the word that it describes. The East Coast is where I lived when I was a teenager.

Making sure that we don’t misplace our modifiers can avoid silly sentences like the following,

  • Entering the library, a desk was the first thing I noticed.

Obviously a desk isn’t what entered the library, I did. The sentence should appear as follows,

  • Entering the library, I noticed a desk.

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