English Grammar

Adjective (Relative) Clauses

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. An adjective clause is a clause that modifies a noun or any word or words that substitute for a noun. There are two kinds of adjective clauses: those introduced by a relative pronoun and those introduced by a relative adverb. Adjective clauses introduced by relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which, and that, among other words) are called relative clauses. Every relative pronoun has an antecedent, i.e., a preceding word or words to which the relative pronoun refers. A relative pronoun agrees with its antecedent in number and gender but not in case. It takes its case from its use in its own clause. A good understanding of this allows one to choose confidently between who and whom. Here are some sentences with relative clauses:

- That is the man whom (or that) we saw at the game. The relative pronoun whom (or that) is the direct object in its clause. Man, the antecedent, is a predicate nominative. Careful speakers and writers do not use who in the objective case.

- Do you know the person who (or that) wrote this book? The relative pronoun who (or that) is the subject of its clause. Its antecedent, person, is a direct object. One never uses whom in the nominative case.

- They are the neighbors whose cat was stolen. Neighbors, a predicate nominative, is the antecedent of whose, a relative pronoun in the possessive case.

- Distracted, Joe nearly pulled out in front of a fast-moving truck, which made him look twice at the next intersection. The antecedent of the relative pronoun which is not truck but the entire clause he nearly pulled out in front of a fast-moving truck. Not the truck but his having nearly pulled out in front of it made him look twice at the next intersection. Which is the subject of the relative clause.

Often, when the relative pronoun whom or that is a direct object or the object of a preposition, we omit it. Of the previous examples, only the first can be expressed without an expressed relative pronoun: That is the man we saw at the game. Another example would be Those are the tools I work with every day (the relative pronoun that, the object of the preposition with, is unexpressed).

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2. The indefinite relative pronouns whoever, whomever, whosever, whichever, and whatever (along with those with an inserted so, such as whosoever) ordinarily do not have expressed antecedents. Examples:

- "Iíll give a bonus point to whoever can tell me what page weíre on," said the frustrated French teacher. Many people, even many educated people, would say whomever here, thinking (incorrectly) that the indefinite relative pronoun is the object of the preposition to. It isnít. The unexpressed antecedent anyone is the object of the preposition; whoever is the subject of the relative clause.

- They plan to give the money to whomever they find in the shelter. This time whomever is correct because it is the direct object in its own clause. The object of the preposition to is the unexpressed antecedent anyone.

The word what can mean that which. When it does, it is considered a relative pronoun. Example: They did what the lieutenant ordered. In this sentence, an unexpressed that, the direct object of the verb did, is the antecedent of what, a relative pronoun. What is the direct object of the verb ordered.

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3. Some adjective clauses are introduced not by relative pronouns but by relative adverbs. Here are three examples:

- That is the reason why I was late. Since why is equivalent here to the prepositional phrase for which, it is called a relative adverb. Notice that this sentence can be expressed without an expressed why: That is the reason I was late.

- From here you can see the hospital where our children were born. Where, a relative adverb, is equivalent to in which.

- Clayton remembers a time when candy bars cost five cents. The relative adverb when is equivalent to at which.

 

4. Relative pronouns also agree with their antecedents in person. Notice the subject-verb agreement in this sentence: You, who are my child, love me, and I, who am your father, love you.

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5. The relative pronouns who, whom, whoever, and whomever (the latter two are called indefinite relative pronouns) give most of us problems. What do you think of these sentences?

- Thatís the person who I was talking about.

- Thatís the contractor who we want to hire?

- Whoever I find will have to help with dishes.

- He doesnít need to do what whoever he is with does.

If there were a rigid logic to grammar, each who and each whoever in the previous sentences would have to be changed to whom and whomever, respectively. After all, who and whoever are in the nominative case, which is used for subjects and predicate nominatives, whereas whom and whomever are in the objective case, used for objects (direct objects and objects of prepositions). But, honestly, how many educated people do you know who would express themselves informally as follows?

- Thatís the person whom I was talking about.

- Thatís the contractor whom we want to hire.

- Whomever I find will have to help with dishes.

- He doesnít need to do what whomever he is with does.

If one can speak of a consensus of grammarians on this matter--and Iím not sure one can--the first set of sentences above are acceptable (perhaps even preferable) informally, but problematic formally. For formal occasions, I recommend the second set of sentences.

There are times, to be sure, when who is just plain wrong, as it would be in Thatís the person about who I was talking and With who are they going? Of course, there are two additional options for sentences 1 and 2:

(1) One can use that as the relative pronoun, as follows:

- Thatís the person that I was talking about.

- Thatís the contractor that we want to hire.

(2) One can omit the relative pronoun:

- Thatís the person I was talking about.

- Thatís the contractor we want to hire.

When you choose either of these options, you donít have to worry about who and whom. And, presto, everyone is happy.

Itís always a little sad when someone uses whom where who is required. You know the person is trying; people who donít care just who who their way through everything. What do you think of the following sentences?

- His friend was the poet whom, as you know, was honored with an invitation to the While House. 

- The hostess saved several pieces of cake for whomever arrived late.

- Dewey was the candidate whom most people thought would win the election.

Each whom should be changed to who, as follows:

- His friend was the poet who, as you know, was honored with an invitation to the White House. The relative pronoun is not the object of know but the subject of was honored.

- The hostess saved several pieces of cake for whoever arrived late. The indefinite relative pronoun is not the object of for but the subject of arrived.

- Dewey was the candidate who most people thought would win the election. The relative pronoun is not the object of thought but the subject of would win.

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6. The relative pronouns who and whom are used mostly with personal antecedents; occasionally, their antecedents are animals. In contrast, antecedents of the possessive relative pronoun whose run the gamut from personal to inanimate; moreover, whose can introduce both restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses. Here are a few examples:

- Will the person whose car is parked in the fire lane please move it. (personal antecedent, restrictive relative clause)

- The Donahues, whose son is in Kellyís class, have offered us a ride to the meeting. (personal antecedent, nonrestrictive relative clause)

- They agreed to bid only on dressers whose mirrors, knobs, and handles were all intact. (inanimate antecedent, restrictive relative clause)

- She began to dislike the new car, whose most attractive feature was its color. (inanimate antecedent, nonrestrictive relative clause)

Sometimes, of which can be used instead of whose, as follows:

- She began to dislike the new car, the most attractive feature of which was its color.

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7. The relative pronoun that can replace who, whom, or which in restrictive relative clauses.

- I know the man that won the race. (that replaces who)

- She wondered how well she knew the person that she had married. (that replaces whom)

- Is this the house that your father built? (that replaces which)

That cannot introduce nonrestrictive relative clauses.

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8. In my opinion, the expression one of those who should always be used with a plural verb. Fowler III allows for the use of a singular verb in the exceptional case in which one and not those is emphasized. I donít like it, do you? If it is important to use a singular verb, why not go with an expression such as someone who or a person who instead of one of those who?

- I am one of those who prefer logic to illogic.

- I am someone who prefers logic to illogic.

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9. Whatís wrong with the following sentence? They serve free soup with every meal, which I like that? Itís grammatically redundant. Donít use a demonstrative pronoun when a relative pronoun has already done the job.

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10. Relative clauses beginning with who is (are), which is (are), and that is (are), can be and often ought to be reduced to adjectival modifiers such as participles, appositives, and prepositional phrases. This is accomplished simply by dropping the relative pronoun and the be-verb. Here are three examples:

- The fellow who is standing at the head of the line has waited all night. Change the relative clause to a participial phrase: The fellow standing at the head of the line has waited all night.

- You canít miss our house, which is the last one on the left. Change the relative clause to an appositive: You canít miss our house, the last one on the left.

- Everything thatís on the floor must be picked up immediately. Change the relative clause to a prepositional phrase: Everything on the floor must be picked up immediately.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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