Mastering Relative Clauses: A Guide for Writers

Relative clauses might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the tools of effective writing, but they are fundamental to constructing clear and engaging sentences. Last post we talked about relative pronouns but there is more to the story.

Today, we’re going to explore the nuances of descriptive and restrictive relative clauses and how you can use them to enhance your writing.

A relative clause is a type of dependent clause that modifies a noun or a pronoun. It is called “relative” because it relates additional information to a noun mentioned in the main clause. There are two major ways it can describe.

Descriptive Clauses

These clauses provide additional, non-essential information about a noun, often set off by commas. They don’t limit or define the noun; they just add extra details about it.
In the sentence below, the words in italics (aka relative clause) are just describing the Italian. They’re not crucial to figuring out who he is. The italicized part helps tell this Italian apart from others.

♦ The Italian, who wore a flower in his coat, smiled at me.
♦ Three sailors, who were loitering on the pier, sprang to the rescue.

So, a relative pronoun that just adds a detail is called a descriptive relative.

For example, using the same sentences from above in the first sentence, ‘who‘ is a descriptive relative because it just adds a detail.

Restrictive Clauses

These clauses provide essential information needed to understand exactly which noun is being referred to. Commas do not set them off and they are essential to the meaning of the sentence.
In the sentence below, the flower is used to identify him. This makes the description necessary to identify exactly which Italian is being talked about.

♦ The Italian who wore a flower in his coat smiled at me.
♦ Three sailors who were loitering on the pier sprang to the rescue.

A relative pronoun introducing information that helps clearly identify the antecedent is called a restrictive relative.

In the second sentence, ‘who‘ is a restrictive relative because it helps to point out exactly which person we’re talking about.

The words ‘who,’ ‘which,’ and ‘that’ are often used as restrictive relatives to point out specific things or people. However, some writers prefer to use ‘that’ instead of ‘which’ when they are being really specific, especially when it starts a sentence.

Telling them apart

When you use a descriptive relative pronoun in a sentence, you take a brief pause when speaking, and you put a comma before it.

But with a restrictive relative pronoun, you don’t pause and you don’t use a comma. In short:

A descriptive relative is preceded by a comma; a restrictive relative is not.

Choosing between these two types of clauses depends on the message you want to convey. If the clause is critical to the meaning of the sentence, use a restrictive clause. If the clause merely adds extra information or a detail that could be interesting but not essential, use a descriptive clause.

Are They Relative Pronouns?

Descriptive and restrictive clauses are not themselves relative pronouns, but types of relative clauses that often contain relative pronouns, which connect the clause to the noun it modifies.

Relative Pronouns are words used to introduce relative clauses, connecting them to the rest of the sentence.

So, while descriptive and restrictive are types of relative clauses, they are characterized by how they use relative pronouns, not by being relative pronouns themselves.

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Exercises for Using Relative Clauses

Can you identify if these sentences contain descriptive or restrictive?

  1. The cat, which was sleeping all day, finally woke up.
  2. Anyone who knows the answer should raise their hand.
  3. My sister, who lives in New York, is visiting us next month.
  4. The books that have red covers are new.
  5. The movie, which won three Oscars, is playing at the local theatre.
  6. People who wake up early achieve more during the day.
  7. The Oak Tree, which is over 100 years old, fell down last night.
  8. Cars that use electric power instead of gasoline are becoming more popular.
  9. The museum, which we visited last year, was renovated.
  10. The recipe that uses butter instead of oil tastes better.
  11. Jupiter, which is the largest planet in our solar system, has dozens of moons.
  12. A person who tells the truth is trustworthy.
  13. The painting, which was stolen in 1999, has been recovered.
  14. The trees that lose their leaves in autumn are called deciduous.
  15. The building, which was constructed in 1923, is a historical monument.
  16. Students who study regularly perform better on exams.
  17. The president, who was elected in 2020, gave a speech yesterday.
  18. Flowers that bloom in spring bring colour to the garden.
  19. The necklace, which she received from her grandmother, is her favourite piece of jewellery.
  20. Foods that contain a lot of sugar are bad for your health.
Click on the + button for the answers
  1. The cat, which was sleeping all day, finally woke up. Descriptive
  2. Anyone who knows the answer should raise their hand. Restrictive
  3. My sister, who lives in New York, is visiting us next month. Descriptive
  4. The books that have red covers are new. Restrictive
  5. The movie, which won three Oscars, is playing at the local theater. Descriptive
  6. People who wake up early achieve more during the day. Restrictive
  7. The Oak Tree, which is over 100 years old, fell down last night. Descriptive
  8. Cars that use electric power instead of gasoline are becoming more popular. Restrictive
  9. The museum, which we visited last year, was renovated. Descriptive
  10. The recipe that uses butter instead of oil tastes better. Restrictive
  11. Jupiter, which is the largest planet in our solar system, has dozens of moons. Descriptive
  12. A person who tells the truth is trustworthy. Restrictive
  13. The painting, which was stolen in 1999, has never been recovered. Descriptive
  14. The trees that lose their leaves in autumn are called deciduous. Restrictive
  15. The building, which was constructed in 1923, is a historical monument. Descriptive
  16. Students who study regularly perform better on exams. Restrictive
  17. The president, who was elected in 2020, gave a speech yesterday. Descriptive
  18. Flowers that bloom in spring bring colour to the garden. Restrictive
  19. The necklace, which she received from her grandmother, is her favourite piece of jewellery. Descriptive
  20. Foods that contain a lot of sugar are bad for your health. Restrictive

Tips for Using Relative Clauses

1. Use Commas Correctly: Using commas incorrectly can change the meaning of your sentence.
2. Choose the Right Pronoun: Use “who” for people, “which” for things, and “that” for both, keeping in mind that “that” is often preferred in restrictive clauses.
3. Keep It Relevant: Make sure the information in restrictive clauses is crucial to the noun it modifies, helping to specify which one you’re talking about.
4. Add Flavor with Descriptive Clauses: Use descriptive clauses to add interesting details that enhance your description but aren’t crucial to the sentence’s meaning.
5. Avoid Ambiguity: Ensure your relative clause clearly refers to the noun intended, especially in complex sentences with multiple nouns.

6. Shorten Sentences if Needed: If a sentence becomes too complex or confusing with a relative clause, consider breaking it into two simpler sentences.
7. Use Restrictive Clauses for Precision: When you need to be clear and precise about the identity of a noun, use a restrictive clause.
8. Revise for Clarity: Always revisit sentences with relative clauses in your revisions to ensure they are clear and effectively convey the intended meaning.
9. Simplify When Possible: Don’t use a descriptive clause if the sentence is already clear and concise without it.
10. Avoid Excessive Detail in Restrictive Clauses: While restrictive clauses are essential, keeping them concise helps maintain the clarity and pace of your writing.

Last Words on Relative Clauses

Mastering the use of descriptive and restrictive relative clauses not only helps in enhancing the clarity of your writing but also in engaging your readers with the right details. Practice identifying and using both types in your daily writing. For more detailed study, check out grammar books focused on English writing skills—they are a treasure trove of useful tips!

Happy writing!

Linda

 

Feature Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay.

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