Level Up Your Descriptive Game With Relative Clauses

by | May 13, 2022 | GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 1 comment

Winning a baseball game is impossible with only one type of player, and articulate writing is impossible with only one part of speech. Nouns are nuanced but one-dimensional, strings of adjectives are colorful but tedious, and prepositional phrases paint a picture but lack a certain je ne sais quoi. Winning writers need a full lineup of descriptive devices, and like baseball has five-tool position players, grammar has relative clauses.

relative clauses


What Is a Relative Clause?

Also known as adjectival clauses, relative clauses are noun modifiers that contain a subject and an action, combining grammar tools such as adjectives and prepositions with verbs to form a comprehensive description.

Relative Clause Definition

Use this relative clause definition as a different way to look at this concept:

relative clause (noun): A subordinate clause that adds crucial or supplementary information by functioning as an adjective that modifies a noun or a noun phrase in a sentence


How Are Relative Clauses Identified?

Relative clauses are subordinate (dependent) clauses, which means that although they have a subject and a predicate, they don’t have the structure necessary to function alone as a complete sentence. They act like adjectives and will always follow the noun that they describe.

There are two types of signal words that mark the start of relative clauses:

  • Relative pronouns: Thatwhichwhowhom, and whose are the subject of the relative clause and add information about who or what the sentence is about.
  • Relative adverbs: These modify the verb in the predicate of the relative clause and tell us whenwhere or why something took place.


How Do Relative Clauses Function in a Sentence?

A simple sentence is one independent clause. An independent clause has a subject and a predicate. An independent clause can function alone. We could converse in simple sentences. We would sound like robots.

One method of breaking verbal monotony is to add descriptive relative clauses that have the necessary structure to convey broad, active and complex ideas.

1. Relative Clause Examples: Adding Information Quickly and Logically

Imagine the radio broadcast of a baseball game, where details make all the difference. Without them, the descriptions of players, locations and actions leave us with a lot of questions:

  • The batter missed the fastball. (What fastball?)
  • The umpire missed the play at home plate. (Who was the umpire?)
  • The second base player hasn’t recovered from the inning. (The inning when what happened?)
  • The outfielder leaped into the stands. (Where in the stands?)

Good sports broadcasters know that they can’t hear or answer listeners’ questions through the radio. Better broadcasters know that backtracking to add detail can be confusing. So, they are great sources for relative clause examples that quickly add information when it makes the most sense to do so.

2. Relative Pronouns: Indicating Who or What Something Is

Whenever we need to add clarification by describing who or what, we can convert independent clauses into subordinate relative clauses by replacing either the subject or object noun/pronoun with one of the five relative pronouns.

Relative Pronoun: Replaces: Independent Clause & Converted Subordinate Relative Clause:
that subject or object

The fastball makes this pitcher hard to beat.

that makes this pitcher hard to beat.

which subject or object

The outfield wall is covered with ivy.

which is covered with ivy.

who subject

The umpire collided with the pitcher.

who collided with the pitcher.

whom object

The catcher threw the runner out.

whom the catcher threw out.*

(*Note the altered word order.)

whose subject or object

The batter’s stance looks odd.

whose stance looks odd.

By inserting the converted relative clause into the sentence after the noun it is meant to describe, we have one complex sentence with all the information we need:

  • The batter missed the fastball that makes this pitcher hard to beat.
  • The ball sailed over the outfield wall, which is covered with ivy.
  • The umpire who collided with the pitcher missed the play at home plate.
  • The runner whom the catcher threw out stalked into the dugout.
  • The batter whose stance looks odd is one of the best hitters in the league.

relative clause examples,

3. Relative Adverbs: Describing When, Where or Why Something Happened

Sometimes the best way to clarify or embellish a noun of a sentence is to indicate one of the following characteristics with a relative adverb:

  • time or event with when
  • location or state with where
  • reason or explanation with why

Relative clauses can be built directly on the noun they need to describe with this formula: noun + relative adverb + subject + predicate.

Noun: Relative Adverb: Subject: Predicate:
the inning when she was hit by a line drive
the stands where the wall was lowest
the reason why the manager pulled the pitcher from the game

Then, we place the relative clause immediately after the noun it describes:

  • The second base player hadn’t recovered from the inning when she was hit by a line drive.
  • The outfielder leaped into the stands where the wall was lowest.
  • We can’t imagine the reason why the manager pulled the pitcher from the game.


Are Relative Clauses Essential or Nonessential?

Rules guide the word choice and punctuation of subordinate clauses. All relative clauses are subordinate clauses, and their structure is dictated by whether the information they provide is essential or nonessential to the sentence’s meaning.

1. Restrictive Clauses

Relative clauses that add contextually essential information are restrictive clauses. Think of a restrictive clause as the play-by-play baseball commentary; without it, we would have a hard time knowing what was happening in the game.

  • Correct: The runner whom the catcher threw out stalked into the dugout.

Without the relative clause, we don’t know who the runner is; therefore, the information is essential and the clause restrictive.

It often feels natural to insert a mental pause or process clauses that add details as separate ideas, but resist the temptation to punctuate; restrictive clauses are never set off by commas.

  • Incorrect: The pitcher, who was to start the first inning, walked onto the mound.

There is more than one pitcher in a baseball game, so it’s not logical to say the pitcher without adding more information. So, this clause is restrictive, and the commas are incorrect.

  • Correct: The team that has the home-field advantage always bats in the bottom half of innings.

Without this clause, we wouldn’t know which of the two teams is meant; therefore, it is restrictive and punctuated correctly.

As relative pronouns, that and which may seem interchangeable, but they are not.

  • Incorrect: The team which has the home-field advantage always bats in the bottom half of innings.
  • Correct: The team that has the home-field advantage always bats in the bottom half of innings

Some people consider it acceptable to use which for restrictive clauses. However, when communicating in a professional setting or writing content like web pages or blogs for public consumption, it is best practice to err on the side of formal; reserve that for restrictive and which for nonrestrictive relative clauses.

2. Nonrestrictive Clauses

If restrictive clauses are like the play-by-play, nonrestrictive (nonessential) relative clauses are like the color commentary. They add noteworthy details that are not logically necessary for the sentence to make sense. Nonrestrictive clauses are set off with commas and may begin with any relative pronoun or adverb except that.

  • Correct: This stadium, which was recently expanded, seats almost 50,000 spectators.

This sentence illustrates one particular stadium’s seating capacity. If we remove the clause, it’s still clear how fans will fit in it.

  • Incorrect: The southernmost entrance gate that has a hall of famer’s statue next to it had a line of people waiting to get in.

The statue tells us which gate is meant, but we’ve already defined it with the modifier southernmost. Mentioning the statue is extra, nonessential information, and the clause structure needs to be corrected by adding commas:

  • Correct: The southernmost entrance gatewhich has a hall of famer’s statue next to it, had a line of people waiting to get in.

what is a relative clause

Relative Clauses: ‘Five-Tool’ Adjectives

Relative clauses describe a noun by integrating its surroundings, characteristics and actions, so they’re like play-by-play and color commentary at the same time. A baseball game could be described as the one “last Wednesday” or the one “when a new home-run record was set.” Clarification is often essential, and with relative clauses, we can provide details with elements of the greater whole.

Do you relish slinging curve balls with descriptive relative clauses, or do you prefer pitching down the pipe with tools such as simple adjectives or prepositional phrases? Share your thoughts with GrammarSpot readers and writers below!

Zibby Alexander
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