Relative Clauses, it's all relative!
Two simple sentences. Grammatically, they are absolutely correct, but using them in this way identifies us immediately as not natural, native speakers of the language. That is where the wonderful relative clauses come in. It turns boring, straightforward sentences into complex ones. It adds flavour to the mundane. It is the peppercorn sauce on the medium rare steak coming to your table. By telling us more about the subject in hand, it brings language to life.
It might seem a touch strange to become passionate about a grammatical tool, but the relative clause can change our language learning lives.
Subordinate, But Important
Like a fine garlic sauce (food is another joy in life, so it features heavily in this!), the relative clause adds to the quality of our sentence meals, without providing full sustenance by itself.
This is because a relative clause is a type of subordinate clause, one that adds information but does not make sense as a sentence in itself.
Consider the sentence below, the relative clause is in bold and is clearly subordinate in the sentence:
‘John, who had just passed his driving test, made his way to the car showroom.’
While the main clause – ‘John made his way to the car showroom’ can stand alone as a sentence, the subordinate part – ‘who had just passed his driving test’ makes no sense without the context of John heading off to get himself some new wheels. By the way, he needed them to get to his favourite restaurant!
Information About the Noun
The relative clause begins with a relative pronoun. A pronoun being an alternative for a noun, it then gives extra information about the noun in the sentence.
‘Jill, whose experience as a chef made her house a favourite destination for her friends, cooked a glorious chilli.’
In the sentence above the relative clause is in italics, and the relative pronoun is underlined. There are a limited number of words in English that act as a relative pronoun. These include:
Who – The waitress, who was a bit disorganised, forgot the customer’s order and delivered pizza instead of paella.
Whose – The parents, whose children were fond of fast food, took their family to MacDonald’s.
Whom – The cook, whom we will tell tomorrow, must remember his cookbook.
Whomever – “My sandwich, whomever borrowed it, needs to be returned forthwith,” announced the pompous office manager.
These four tend to relate to people, individuals or groups. It is worth noting that ‘whom’ is rarely used in American English. It is not wrong to use it, and when writing it makes our pieces grammatically correct, but the relative pronoun ‘who’ tends to replace it. ‘Whomever’ is quite an old word, and is rarely used in English unless a particularly formal effect is required.
(The difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ is that ‘who’ is the subject of the verb, while ‘whom’ is the object. If that is a little complex, then a good trick is to try replacing the words with ‘he/him’ or ‘they/them’ and see which one fits best. If the replacement ends with ‘m’, then it is ‘whom’ that should be used.)
That – ‘The chicken Kiev that I ordered was perfect’. (Note, in this sentence the relative clause specifies the noun rather than describes it, so does not need to be enclosed by commas.)
Which – ‘Pasta, which we eat most days, is both healthy and filling (especially covered in tomato sauce.)
These two relative pronouns tend to relate to objects.
Where – This word is sometimes used as a relative pronoun, if so, it will refer to location: ‘China, where there is a Great Wall, is home to the world’s finest food.’
When – Again, this can be used to perform the function required and introduce a relative clause. It will relate to time. For example: ‘The Neolithic period, when mankind began to develop tools for cooking, is one of the most interesting in history.’
Relative and Non-relative clauses
Time to Practise: Exercise One
Here are some exercises we can use to practise our use of relative clauses. Fill in the gaps:
The music event, ____ lasted for a week, served the best street food.
A. Whom B. Which C. What D. Whose
I am looking for a person ____ can make a brilliant hummus and honey sandwich to be my personal assistant.
A. Which B. Where C. When D. Who
The chef needed someone with ___ he could work.
A. Who B. Whose C. That D. Whom
In the dining room, ___ the lunch was held, the guests ate and drank with gusto.
A. When B. Where C. Whomever D. Which
This café, ___ employs the best barista, serves the top coffee in town.
A. Who B. Whom C. Which D. Where
You can pick a friend, ___ you wish, to go out to dinner with you.
A. Whomever B. That C. Where D. Whose
The asparagus ___ you paid £5 for last week now only cost £3.
A. Where B. Which C. Who D. Whom
The winner of the raffle, ___ it is drawn, will get a meal at the local curry house.
A. Who B. When C. That D. Whomever
The restaurant ___ we met closed down last week.
A. That B. Which C. When D. Where
My boss, ___ lunch was interrupted sacked eight staff that afternoon.
A. Whose B. Whomever C. When D. Where
**B Which / D Who / D Whom / B Where / C Which / A Whomever / B Which / B When / D Where / A Whose
And just to prove that not every sentence that uses a relative clause needs to be about food, here are a few questions where flavour some sustenance plays no part. Add the relative clauses below to the sentences at the bottom.
‘who looks great in green’
‘which kicks off each August’
‘which are located off the coast of Cornwall’
The Premier League Football season will see a new winner, Arsenal, this year.
The Isles of Scilly are England’s most amazing islands.
Lilly bought a lime coloured hat. Lovely.
**A-3: Lilly, who looks great in green, bought a lime coloured hat. Lovely.
B-1: The Premier League Football season, which kicks off each August, will see a new winner, Arsenal, this year.
C-2: The Isles of Scilly, which are located off the coast of Cornwall, are England’s most amazing islands.
Here’s hoping that the relative clause will become your new best friend, grammatically speaking at least.