Focus on Adjective Clause as Subordination

We have been examining English sentence types with a focus on complex sentences. In the previous post, we considered adverb clauses—clauses that are used as adverbs. This post will give attention to adjective clauses. As its name suggests, adjective clauses are clauses that are used as adjectives.

We have looked in a number of posts at adjectives and their function, including an overview of the parts of speech in Parsing the English Sentence and at individual adjectives in posts such as those on anxious vs eager and further vs farther.

An adjective modifies a noun or pronoun. In the sentence, I just read an interesting article, the word interesting is an adjective because it modifies the noun article. In the sentence, I just read an article which interested me, the clause which interested me does the same job as the adjective interesting in the previous sentence. It is therefore called an adjective clause.

Although the adjective clause has a subject and a verb, it does not make sense apart from the sentence, which makes it a dependent clause.

An adjective clause is useful in combining sentences that state an explanatory fact about a noun or pronoun in a previous sentence.

Our yearbook comes out in June.

It sells for one dollar.

We could combine it by using a compound sentence, which gives equal emphasis to the two facts that the coordinating conjunction and connects:

Our yearbook comes out in June, and it sells for one dollar.

However, a complex sentence (which uses subordinate clauses like adverb and adjective clauses) shows more specific relationships between ideas than a compound sentence does. Thus, we can combine these sentences by subordinating one, by putting it into a word group that is less than a sentence, in this cause a dependent adjective clause.

One year book, which sells for one dollar, comes out in June.

Placement of adjective clauses

Unlike most adverbial modifiers (single adverbs or adverb clauses) that are generally moveable, adjectival modifiers are not. In most cases, adjectives usually precede the nouns they modify, though sometimes they are placed after the noun for emphasis: the dark, deep forest vs the forest, dark and deep.

In our example sentences above, the adjective interesting comes before the noun it modifies, the word (article). The adjective clause which interested me, however, comes after the word article.

An adjective clause must always follow the noun or pronoun it modifies.

A tree surgeon removed the branches that were dead.

I have a friend who raises tropical fish.

Adjective Clause Signals

There are only a small number of clause signals that generally start adjective clauses: who (whose), whom, which, that.

These pronouns are called relative pronouns because they relate the adjective to the sentence. Adjective clauses are also known as relative clauses.

Adjective clauses can also begin with the clause signals where and when, which we saw are also used to begin adverb clauses. When they start adjective clauses, they are known as relative adverbs.

Compare these complex sentences.

Adverb clauses

Adjective clauses

I eat where I work.

I eat at the store where I work.

My friend telephoned when I was very busy.

My friend telephoned on a day when I was very busy.

Variations of the Adjective Clause
We sometimes use a preposition before the relative pronoun (with which, for which, to whom). In such cases, the preposition belongs to the adjective clause: The pen with which he wrote was scratchy. If you omit the adjective clause that begins with a prepositional phrase, it makes sense without it: The pen was scratchy.           

Although relative pronouns are usually a signal that an adjective clause is starting, the relative pronoun is sometimes omitted: Most of the things (that) we fear never happen. We can learn to recognize these “no signal” or zero clauses if we watch for a subject-verb combination right after a noun: Sue described the kind of bench she expects to build. A good test for a “no signal” adjective clause is to see whether we can insert a relative pronoun before it: Sue described the kind of bench (that) she expects to build.

Some rules for using relative pronouns

Who vs which vs that

Use who, whose, and whom to refer only to people.

Example: The clerk (who) took my order made a mistake in the bill.

Use which to refer only to things and animals.

Example: The store (which) sells these games is making a fortune.

Use that to refer to anything – people, things, or animals.

The main point to remember is never to use which to refer to people.

Who vs whom

Because relative pronouns – regardless of their function – occur at the beginning of the clause in what is usually the subject position, it can be difficult to decide between who and whom. Here are the rules according to traditional grammar.

Use who when the pronoun is the subject of the verb of the adjective clause.

Example: Any player who can beat Ross must be very good.

Use whom when it is the object of the verb or preposition.

Example: Any player whom Ross can beat must be very poor.

The object of the verb here is the player which the relative pronoun whom reflects.

When you see no other word before the verb that could possibly serve as its subject, then the relative pronoun, who, is its subject: who escaped; who were absent.

If the verb already has a subject, then the relative pronoun must be its object, and whom is correct: whom I admire; whom we invited.

When the relative pronoun is the object of a preposition, use the object form whom; for example, to whom, for whom, from whom.

Note: In sentences when a phrase, such as I think, I suppose, we hope, follows the relative pronoun, choose the same form of the pronoun you would choose if the phrase were not there: It is John who I think should apologize.

As we have stressed in the writingessentials blog, traditional grammar rules govern written communication, not speech. In a previous post which examined the issue of who vs whom, K. Barry in English Grammar writes, “we have to mentally ‘unravel’ the clause to see where the repeated noun phrase was before the clause became incorporated” (96). Of course, when we’re speaking, we don’t have time to do this since we’re usually not creating sentences in advance. For this reason, most grammarians and language mavens are more tolerant of “misuses” of who and whom in conversation and sometimes in writing since whom can sound formal, even stuffy.

Adjective clauses represent one subordinate clause that comprise the options for forming complex sentences. Complex sentences are one type available to the writer, but their advantage is expressing specific relationships between two ideas. Rather than giving equal emphasis to them, one is subordinated whether in an adjectival clause as we examine here, or in an adverb clause as examined in the previous post.  

(Examples adapted from Blumenthal’s English 3200.)

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