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Relative Clauses

Understanding and using relative clauses

Using relative clauses often causes considerable concern for non-native speakers of English ¡V so much so that they are often avoided completely. But they exist for an important reason; in English you cannot pre-modify important nouns very much ¡V that is, you cannot place complex modifications before the noun. You have to put such modifications after the noun ¡V and that is what relative clauses are for. In some languages, and Chinese is one, you can pre-modify a noun in an extensive and complex way but this is not possible in English as the following example shows:

Key noun

relative clause

main clause

People

who live in downtown areas

are often very poor.

The Chinese transliteration of this would be:

Adjectival clause

key noun

complement

Live in downtown areas

people

often very poor.

 

Avoiding the use of relative clauses in your writing will limit you to simple structures which are unlikely to be adequate to express complex ideas and which will detract from the overall style of your writing.

Relative clauses usually begin with the pronouns who, that, and which. These pronouns refer back to the key noun in a sentence. Look at the example:

Standard sentence: We call this fruit a lemon

Sentence with relative clause: This is the fruit that we call a lemon.

However, when the relative noun is not the subject of the relative clause, the pronoun is normally omitted. You can see that we is the subject of the relative clause, so it¡¦s possible to omit the pronoun:

This is the fruit we call a lemon.

A clause with a deleted relative pronoun is known as a ¡¥contact¡¦ clause.

'That' is usually less formal than who, which, etc.

For more information on relative clauses, see Murphy, R. (1988). English Grammar in Use. Cambridge: C.U.P. Look in Units 88 - 92. This book is available in CILL on the Grammar Shelf at Intermediate level.

 

There are 10 questions. After you finish them, click the 'Check All Answers' button to see the answers and feedback.

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Answer Key

Here are the answers:

1. Your answer is:

The correct answers are:
'Students who enter tertiary institutions may face a number of problems.' or
'Students that enter tertiary institutions may face a number of problems.'

'Enter tertiary institutions' is the type of student, so this information should go in a relative clause.

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2. Your answer is:

 

The correct answers are:
'May Wong was angry that she had been given a book which was badly damaged.' or
'May Wong was angry that she had been given a book that was badly damaged.'

You can also change the sentence structure and write 'May Wong was angry that she had been given a badly damaged book'.

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3. Your answer is:

The correct answer is:
'A fellow student who saw this felt sorry for Ms Wong and offered her his own book.'

 

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4. Your answer is:

'The correct answer is:
'Professor Chan gave the student a book which was written twenty years ago.'

This clause gives extra information about the book. It is a non-defining relative clause.

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5. Your answer is:

The correct answers are:
'Experts all agree that dreams which cause great anxiety and stress are called nightmares.' or
'Experts all agree that dreams that cause great anxiety and stress are called nightmares.'

This clause defines which type of dreams, so it is a defining relative clause.

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6. Your answer is:

The correct answers are:
'There are other authorities who consider any dream which is sad and upsetting to be a nightmare.' or
'There are other authorities who consider any dream that is sad and upsetting to be a nightmare.'

This clause defines which type of dreams, so it is a defining relative clause.

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7. Your answer is:

The correct answer is:
'The restaurant, which was spacious and clean, was in the centre of the city.'

This is a non-defining relative clause, as it gives extra information about the restaurant. You can miss out non-defining relative clauses and the sentence will still make sense and be grammatically correct, although it will have less meaning because it has less information. The two commas are necessary to show the relative clause, and to show where the main verb in the sentence ('was') is.

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8. Your answer is:

The correct answer is:
'There were three teachers at my school who were dismissed for unprofessional conduct.'

This is a passive voice, so it need the verb 'to be', in this case in the past tense and plural.

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9. Your answer is:

The correct answer is:
'Kwok Mei Ling works for a large company which repairs computers.'

This is a non-defining, extra information clause.

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10. Your answer is:

The correct answers are:
'Who was that girl who you were talking to at the meeting of the youth committee?' or
'Who was that girl that you were talking to at the meeting of the youth committee?' or
'Who was that girl you were talking to at the meeting of the youth committee?'

This can be a contact clause, as the 'who' or 'that' refers to the girl, who is the subject of the sentence.

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  Click here for more information on relative clauses.

 

Last updated on: Friday, March 23, 2012