An adjective clause, also called a relative clause, has two major functions: to modify a noun, much like a regular adjective would, or to identify an indefinite noun, that is, to specify a noun that is too general. Because it always follows the noun it modifies, an adjective clause cannot begin a sentence.
Examples of modifying clause
I’ve never been to Paris, which in my opinion has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. – This clause provides extra information about the noun Paris. It modifies the noun by giving a more detailed description of it (that is to say, by giving more details than a simple adjective would). Paris itself is one of the most famous cities in the world. It is therefore a definite noun, meaning that it is already known and does not need to be identified.
John loves Paris, where the nightlife is rich and exciting. – This clause also modifies Paris in that is describes the city by describing a certain aspect of it; in this case it describes its nightlife.
In both of the above examples, the independent clause can stand on its own, yet the adjective clause not only provides a more vivid description of the noun, it also makes the sentence more interesting.
In the first example, we use the clause conjunction (also called a relative pronoun) which because we speak of Paris as a thing, i.e. a city
In the second example, we use the pronoun where because we speak of Paris as a place. We could, as well, use ‘which has a rich and exciting nightlife’ if we speak about Paris as a city (thing): John loves Paris, which has a rich and exciting nightlife (notice the change in verbs), or John loves Paris, whose nightlife is rich and exciting (notice we don’t need an article).
Note: When using a modifying clause, the clause will be separated by a comma from the noun being described. If it ends the sentence, it will be completed by a period. If the sentence continues after the modifying clause, the clause will be completed with a comma again.
Examples of an identifying adjective clause
I’ve always wanted to visit a city that could inspire me. – This clause identifies the city I would like to visit. It doesn’t specify a city by name, but rather by what it can do for me. There are many cities in the world, but I want to visit a specific one. Which one? One that could inspire me.
I’d like to visit Paris with someone who feels the same way about it and with whom I could share the romance and passion of the city. – This clause identifies one person in two ways: by his/her feelings about Paris, and by what we could share in regards to Paris.
Note: When using an identifying relative clause, do not use a comma to separate the clause from the noun it is identifying.
Adjective clause conjunctions:
What follows is a list of the relative pronouns that can begin an adjective clause. They generally refer to the noun that they modify and do so with a specific function in mind. These pronouns replace the referred-to noun in the clause in either the subject or object position. What this means is that the relative pronoun in the clause is the same as the noun it represents, it is equal (=) to it:
|That (thing, person)||Who (person, people)||Where (place)||Whose (possession)|
|Which (thing)||Whom (person, people)||When (time)||Why (reason)|
Relative pronouns that can be used in the subject position: that, which, and who. This means that these pronouns can be both clause conjunction and subject, because the nouns they modify are also the subjects of the adjective clause.
Ex: I love shopping at stores that sell vintage items. (that is both clause conjunction and the subject (stores agrees with the verb sell; that = stores)
Relative pronouns that can be used in the object position: that, whom, whose, and which (which when it is used with a preposition [in, for, to, with, etc.])—this means that these clauses require a separate subject because the nouns they modify are the objects of the clauses, not their subjects.
Ex: John loves traveling with Helen, whom he has known for many years. (whom is the object of the clause and represents Helen, the noun modified. John is the subject, and he has known Helen for many years.)
While walking along the beach, Chris found an interesting-looking box, inside (of) which he discovered a gold coin that must have been hundreds of years old. (In this sentence, there are two adjective causes; the first modifies the noun box, the second modifies the noun coin. Stated in another way, this sentence could be read: While he was walking along the beach, John found a very old coin inside an interesting-looking box.
Relative clauses with when and where ( relative adverbs) must always have a subject in the clause, and can only be used as complements, meaning that they can only complete the meaning of the noun.
Ex: I remember a time when children used to play outside rather than at home on the computer. – This adjective clause identifies the specific time I remember. The subject of the clause is children. Without this complement, the idea ‘I remember a time.’ would be meaningless because there are many times that a person can remember; the relative clause here points to one in particular.
I went to a pub where the waitresses dance and sing on the bar. – This clause identifies a place, the pub, as the location of an action, not the pub as a thing in itself.
Note: All relative clauses, except those beginning with that and which, can be used with or without a comma, depending on the function of the clause. That should only be used with identifying clauses, and which (without a preposition) should only be used with modifying clauses (and a comma(s)).
Let’s look at each of these conjunctions in more detail:
This is one of the more confusing words in English when it comes to grammar. That can also be used as a clause conjunction with noun clauses (He said that he was tired.), as well as a demonstrative pronoun (I’d like that one, please.); be very careful in analyzing the function of the word that in a sentence in order to understand how it is being used.
First, let’s look at a few example sentences using that as a relative pronoun within an adjective clause:
Ex: 1) Crime and Punishment is one of those books that will change your life. (Modifies those books = those books will change your life.)
2) Isn’t that the sweater that I bought you for Christmas last year? (Modifies sweater; the first that is a demonstrative pronoun.)
3) Howard Stringer was the first person that wasn’t Japanese to become a president of Sony Corp. (Modifies person—we can, alternatively, use the relative pronoun who in this case.)
4) The government has decided to provide subsidies on a tiered basis to the nation’s universities in an effort to improve the quality of education. This means that the schools that attain the highest overall graduate employment records will receive the highest budgets. (Modifies schools; the that before the adjective clause is a conjunction for a noun clause.)
The first thing to notice in these examples is that the relative pronoun can act as the subject of the clause (ex. 1, 3, and 4) or as the object (ex. 2). Keep in mind that when we use the conjunction as an object, we can remove it from the sentence as it is clearly understood (Isn’t that the sweater I bought you for Christmas last year?).
In all four examples, the adjective clause is an identifying clause, meaning that without it, the sentence would not be complete because the noun would be too general, or not specific enough, for the sentence to make sense. In example 1, for instance, Crime and Punishment is one of those books., wouldn’t make sense because we would be left with the questions: Which one of those books? What kind of books? etc. The adjective clause identifies the type.
In example 3, Howard Stringer was the first person to become a Sony Corporation president, wouldn’t make sense because it wouldn’t be true; he wasn’t the first Sony president. We need the identifying clause to specify him as the first non-Japanese president.
In all cases, notice that the clause does not follow a comma. This is true for all identifying clauses. If we used who instead of that in example 3, we still would not need a comma (Howard Stringer was the first person who wasn’t Japanese to become a Sony Corporation president.)
One last note: the easiest way to think of the pronoun that, is to visualize it as a finger pointing at the noun being modified and then explaining what the noun does, or is, etc.
Which is used similarly to that in terms of pointing to a thing. It can be used in both the subject and object positions, and it can be both clause conjunction and subject of the clause.
Ex: Every student must come to class with the course textbook, which can be purchased online or at the school bookstore. (Notice that this clause is in the passive form and so which is both subject of the clause and object of the verb)
The committee has received your application and Dr. Stanley’s letter of recommendation, which we admit was quite influential in our decision-making process, and has consequently decided to offer you a probationary acceptance, subject to your final paper.
The study’s female elephant, which the keepers named Booboo, was successfully impregnated after several failed attempts at artificial insemination. (Keep in mind that animals, no matter how attached we become to them, are grammatically considered things and cannot be referred to using who or whom)
Unlike that, which cannot be used to point to a person.
Which is also a modifying pronoun, and so it follows a comma.
Another key difference between which and that is the former’s ability to point to an entire preceding clause:
Ex: Many new graduates leave university with a heavy debt load, which makes starting out in the workforce even more stressful than it normally is already.
In this sentence, which refers to the entire independent clause that comes before it. Although grammar purists would suggest that this is an incorrect use of the relative clause, it is nevertheless a commonly used and widely accepted practice. To be clear, however, consider the sentence as so:
Many new graduates leave university with a major debt load, (a situation) which makes starting out in the workforce even more stressful than it normally is already.
One way to avoid this is to separate the sentences into two independent clauses: Many new graduates leave university with a major debt load. This makes starting out in the workforce even more stressful than it normally is already.
Which can also be used in conjunction with a preposition. Just as with the regular use of prepositions, each combination in an adjective clause has a function based on the preposition itself:
Ex: The limousine in which he arrived was rented from a local agency, which also supplied a professional chauffeur.
The unfortunate accident at the factory, for which no one has taken responsibility, was deemed to be the result of negligence. (Although an adjective clause should directly follow the noun it modifies, it may come after another noun if the noun being modified is obvious. In this case, it is clear that no has taken responsibility for the accident, not the factory. However, to avoid possible confusion, you can rearrange the sentence so as to avoid the dangling modifier: The unfortunate accident at the factory, an accident for which no one has taken responsibility, was deemed to be the result of negligence. Or, No one has taken responsibility for the unfortunate accident, which was deemed to be the result of negligence.)
Stephanie, with/to whom I haven’t spoken in years, called me out of the blue last week to ask if I’d like to meet for a coffee.
Who and whom are relative pronouns used to identify or modify people. The difference between these two pronouns is their position and function within the clause: who is a subject pronoun, while whom is an object pronoun. If we understand the functions of a subject and an object in a sentence, then we already have an understanding of how who and whom function in a clause.
As with the other relative pronouns, an identifying clause with who or whom does not follow a comma, while a modifying clause does follow a comma.
The pronoun who is always used in the subject position of a clause. As such it is responsible for the main verb of the clause, regardless of what other subject-verb combination may appear between the pronoun and the clause’s verb:
Ex: The latest incident of vandalism has been attributed to saboteurs who the government believes are responsible for the recent string of events aimed at destabilizing the project.
In this sentence, the relative clause is who the government believes are responsible for the recent string of events. Some writers might understand that the government believes is the subject and verb pairing in this clause and therefore would make the pronoun whom take the object position. However, the verb are (responsible) is actually the main verb of the clause and is paired with the subject who. To see this more clearly, the sentence might be rewritten as such:
The latest incident of vandalism has been attributed to saboteurs who, according to the government, are responsible for the recent string of events aimed at destabilizing the project.
The latest incident of vandalism has been attributed to saboteurs. The government believes these saboteurs are responsible for the recent string of events aimed at destabilizing the project.
In other words, the government believes a situation exists, namely that the saboteurs are responsible.
Other examples of adjective clauses with who:
Ex: Apart from the usual group of visitors, (who are) those who come to the gallery on a semi-regular basis, the exciting new exhibition also drew an unprecedented crowd from the art world, especially curators who in the past would not have even considered visiting a gallery this small.
All of you who have come from great distances to pay your last respects to my dear husband, I appreciate your devotion to Phillip. However, I’m afraid that this situation has been very emotional for our family, who ask that you please respect our need for some time together without distraction. Thank you.
Recent immigrants to Canada who have taken the necessary measures in order to be granted legal standing in the eyes of the government are voicing their anger at the proposed changes that will affect their transitions to becoming full-fledged citizens. Many believe they have already been asked to do a lot more than their family members who came before them and who experienced a relatively easy process. Even these family members, who are already citizens, feel the government in being unfair.
Many members of the military, especially those who were raised in military families, find it difficult to understand the hostility that more liberal members of society feel towards them.
The pronoun whom is always used in the object position in an adjective clause, meaning that this clause will always have a separate subject. The key to using this correctly is identifying the role of the noun being identified or modified, namely as receiving the action or verb of the clause.
Ex: The President delivered his speech to the attentive students, whom Mr. Edwards had handpicked for the occasion. – In this sentence, Mr. Edwards handpicked the students, thus making them the object of the verb in the relative clause and represented by the object pronoun whom.
Although whom is no longer commonly used in everyday speech or even in modern writing, it is technically the correct form of the object pronoun in adjective (and noun) clauses and must be used correctly in formal academic writing and in English proficiency exams. Here are some examples of relative clauses with whom:
Ex: Many young women these days say that it is important for them to marry someone whom they respect.
Martha Stewart, whom many women had considered a great role model for young women in America, lost much of her support and fan base after she was found guilty of committing fraud.
Dr. Lee and Dr. Fengas, both of whom have been credited with developing the procedure, have been nominated for a prestigious award to honour their work.
Of all the people whom I had ever approached for guidance, none had been more insightful than my father, Henry.
While it might not seem that these two pronouns should be treated together, they are quite similar in their use in adjective clauses. The only difference between them is the noun that they can identify or modify. When can modify a noun of time, while where can modify a noun of place. Both can be omitted from their respective clauses when it is quite clear that the clause is identifying a time or place.
Moreover, in many cases, both of these pronouns can be replaced with the pronoun that. If the time or place is seen as a thing (time is technically a thing, as is a city or room in the house), then that works equally well, and the pronoun can often be omitted entirely:
Ex: My childhood was great; I remember it as a time when everything was good and fun and free.
My childhood was great; I remember the day (when/that) I went to school for the first time and met my best friend, who is still my best friend today.
Patriotism is the belief that one belongs to the place where one lives and to the cultural understandings one shares with others who live there as well.
Many tourists line up regularly to visit the Louvre Museum, where the Mona Lisa is permanently displayed.
The best time to visit Tokyo is in early spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom and everyone celebrates the event in parks all around the city.
Note: Remember that when and where can also be used in adverb and noun clauses. Make sure you understand the differences between these three clause types in order to be able to identify the particular use of these clause conjunctions.
Whose is a possessive relative pronoun that can refer to people or things. This pronoun often confuses writers new to English because of its spelling, suggesting that it is somehow related to the pronoun who. This is not the case:
Ex: The old pickup truck, whose owner lives next door to me, always spews a bluish smoke when it is started. – In this sentence, the owner of the truck lives next door to me.
The police questioned the man whose description matched the one given by the witnesses. – The description of the man.
Because whose shows possession, it is always used as an adjective pronoun and therefore cannot be used as a subject in the clause. In other words, whose must always be followed by a noun.
Here are some more examples of relative clauses with whose:
Ex: It seems these days that any university graduate whose degree did not somehow focus on the sciences or maths is doomed to unemployment; this is not the case, however, as studies have shown that those whose studies delved into some aspect of the humanities are better prepared to adapt to changing marketplaces whose shifting demands require a skill set that includes critical thinking and good writing.
The new Mayor of Springville, whose constituents turned out in large numbers to vote in this year’s election, has made overhauling the town’s budget his first order of business.
Tesla Motors Inc., whose founder is Elon Musk, manufactures electric cars that are revolutionizing the auto industry.