Relative Clause: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we will define and examine the relative clause. Relative clauses are adjective clauses. They provide more descriptive information about the subject or other nouns in the sentence, but they cannot stand alone.


Relative Clauses are adjective clauses. First, remember that a clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb. It is then either dependent, meaning that it needs another part of a sentence to make it a complete thought, or it is independent, and it can stand alone as a complete thought by itself. Relative clauses are dependent. A relative clause must be attached to an independent clause, or complete sentence, in order for it to work. It cannot stand alone.

Signal Words

There are certain words that start relative clauses. We can think of them as 'signal words,' but their official title is 'relative pronouns.' Here is a list of relative pronouns: 'which, that, whose, why, where, when, who and whom.' When we see a group of words that has both a subject and a verb that starts with one of these 'signal words,' or 'relative pronouns,' we know we are looking at a relative clause.

Roles of Relative Clauses

First, we know that relative clauses are adjectival by nature, so let's review the role of the adjective. The adjective modifies - or gives additional descriptions of or information about - nouns. If we have a whole clause that takes on the role of an adjective, the entire clause modifies the noun in the main part of the sentence, the independent clause.

Examples of Relative Clauses

Let's take a look at a few examples of relative clauses and see how they work in sentences. First, we will begin with the independent clause: 'My relatives love pizza.' There are two nouns in the sentence: the subject, 'relatives,' and the direct object, 'pizza.'

Let's add a relative clause that modifies the subject. 'My relatives who came from France love pizza. Notice how a relative clause can be tucked in right in the middle of a sentence. We know the italicized words make up a relative clause because the sentence begins with a 'signal word,' and it also has both a subject and a verb. The word 'who' actually acts as a subject. We might think of it as a 'sentence within a sentence,' but remember that, although the relative clause has a subject and a verb, it cannot stand alone.

When we say that a relative clause cannot stand alone, this is what we mean. Try using the relative clause in the above sentence as a sentence, itself: 'Who came from France.' Now, if it were a question, things would be different, but in this case, the clause 'who came from France' is modifying, or giving us more information about the word 'relatives.' These are not just any old relatives. They are the relatives 'who came from France.'

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