Subordination in English: Relative & Reduced Relative Clauses (Participles, Verbless Clauses)
Updated: Feb 5
In English, every sentence must have at least one independent (main) clause. By definition, an independent (main) clause has a subject and a verb (or a predicate if the verb is transitive and takes an object) to make sense. As such, an independent clause/ sentence can stand alone:
SUBJECT + PREDICATE = INDEPENDENT CLAUSE
Two independent clauses form a compound sentence. One independent and at least one dependent clause form a complex sentence. Two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause form a compound-complex sentence.
Roughly speaking, the clause-linking strategies in English are classified according to whether the clauses are parallel and equal (independent), nonparallel and unequal (subordinate), or parallel, unequal, and parenthetical (appositive), and whether they are linked with a conjunction(s) (as coordinated or subordinate clauses) or without any conjunction (as juxtaposed clauses).
As an overview, the table below summarizes the common patterns of linking constituents (words, phrases, or clauses) within a sentence:
(Makes Parallel & Equal)
I love you; you love me.
The practice has a long, controversial history.
I love you, and you love me.
The practice has a long and controversial history.
I’ll take either a bus or a taxi.
I’ll either call out or bang on the door or blow my whistle.
(Makes Nonparallel & Unequal)
I am here should you need me.
I am here for the routine physical checkup.
She is expected later today.
If you're clever, you can do anything.
I knew that running meant dying.
Mary, who lives in New York, is coming to visit.
(Makes Parallel & Unequal, Equivalent & Parenthetical)
The more, the merrier.
Close the door, will you?
Gary Jones, then a student, wrote several bestsellers.
Menlo Park, CA
the number five
John the Hairy
The United States of America, or America for short, is an empire in decline.
His explanation, that he couldn't see the car, is unsatisfactory.
The practice has a long, and controversial, history.
Juxtaposed, conjunction-less clause-linking of equal elements is rhetorically known as asyndetic parataxis, and it’s less common in English than syndetic parataxis—the style of linking clauses using coordinating conjunctions. English has a strong preference for the latter style.
Furthermore, asyndetic hypotaxis (connecting unequal elements through juxtaposition) describes the style of linking of hierarchically ordered, subordinate elements without any conjunction. Like in many other languages, English has a limited use of such constructions, which are typically used in formal context.
Finally, syndetic hypotaxis means using conjunctions for clause-linking characterized by subordination—by far the most common way of connecting clauses to produce complex sentences or compound-complex sentences.
Dependent clauses in English are structurally either finite (i.e., identical in form to main clauses) or reduced finite, i.e., nonfinite (or verbless). Dependent finite clauses are typically structured as nominal, relative, or adverbial clauses. In their reduced nonfinite forms, English dependent clauses are used as verbal clauses, with or without conjunctions, including gerunds, to-infinitives, past -ed and present -ing participial clauses, absolute, small, and verbless clauses. Although rarely used in speech, verbals are a staple of formal English writing.
Finite Clauses vs. Reduced Finite Clauses
All clauses are either finite or nonfinite. While only finite clauses can be main, both finite and nonfinite clauses can be dependent. Moreover, nonfinite clauses can only be dependent.
Finite clauses are those that have finite verbs: e.g., takes, took, can work, has worked, is writing, was written:
We can move in together if you are being transferred here.
Nonfinite clauses have verbs that are nonfinite: e.g., to work, having worked, taken, knowing.
Deciding on the tasks is to solve half of the problems. [= If you decide on the tasks, you can solve half of the problems.]
There are also verbless clauses, which are also nonfinite or reduced finite clauses with predicatives instead of verbs:
Although always helpful, he was not much liked. [= Although he was always helpful, he was not much liked.]
While reduced relative clauses are used for modifying and/or distinguishing one noun from another, reduced adverbial clauses are used to express the adverbial aspects of the relationship between the main and dependent clauses, including conditional, causal, instrumental, and temporal (i.e., whether the events depicted in the clauses are concurrent or sequential):
Jack being gone, she opened his letters. He paused, not wishing to boast.
[= Because Jack was gone, she opened his letters.] [= Because he did not wish to boast, he paused.]
absolute clause 🠢 reason adverbial clause -ing participial clause 🠢 purpose adverbial clause
If an essential -ing or -ed participle is placed after a noun phrase, to identify it, the clause must correspond to an essential relative clause. If it is positioned differently, it corresponds to a nonessential adverbial clause, which modifies the entire main clause and is, therefore, more mobile than a relative clause, which modifies one headword:
Anyone following this advice could get in trouble. Jane watched, weeping, from her bed.
[= Anyone who follows this advice could get in trouble.] [= Jane watched, as she was weeping, from her bed.]
essential -ing participial clause 🠢 essential relative clause -ing participle (concurrent action) 🠢 temporal adverbial clause
A verbless clause corresponds to either relative or adverbial clause:
Of course, said Alison, astonished. The boy nodded, pale and scared.
[= Of course, said Alison, who was astonished.] [= The boy, who was pale and scared, nodded.]
[= Of course, said Alison, even though she felt astonished.] verbless clause 🠢 nonessential relative clause
verbless clause 🠢 nonessential relative or concessive adverbial clause
Clause-Linking Strategies in English
As I showed above, the major clause-linking strategies in English are based on:
1. Parataxis (Coordination or Juxtaposition):
Linking clauses of parallel and equal status ⟶ compound sentence
Coordination (with conjunctions) (syndetic parataxis) (+ punctuation)
Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asyndetic parataxis) (+ punctuation)
2. Hypotaxis (Subordination or Juxtaposition):
Linking clauses of nonparallel and unequal status ⟶ complex sentence
Subordination (with conjunctions) (syndetic hypotaxis) (+ punctuation)
Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asyndetic hypotaxis) (+ punctuation)
3. Apposition (Quasi-Coordination or Juxtaposition):
Adding a parallel, unequal but equivalent and/or parenthetical, supplemental structure ⟶ complex sentence
Quasi-coordination (with conjunctions) through interruption (asides, afterthoughts) (+ punctuation)
Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asides, afterthoughts) (+ punctuation)
Finite Subordination in English: Four Main Types of Dependent Clauses in English
The table below provides an overview of the typical dependent clauses constructed with FINITE verbs and related subordinators used in English (with the multiple-use subordinators marked with asterisk*):
Here is the more detailed account of the use of relative clauses in English. Check my other post on the remaining causes-linking strategies in the English language.
Finite Relative Clause
Relative (Adjective) Clauses ↡
Essential (Integral) Clauses
MAIN CLAUSE + that + Sub-Clause
who where that
of, in, on, at, from, by, with, for ... + which
by, for, with ... + whom
This morning, I met with the student who called me yesterday.
The horse that is white costs thousands of dollars. Other horses are cheaper.
The news [that] you gave us is very odd.
A crystal is a piece of matter whose boundaries are naturally formed plane surfaces.
He was someone whom I had never seen before.
The speed at which everything moved felt strange.
He is a man for whom I have the greatest admiration.
Nonessential (Background) Clauses
MAIN CLAUSE + ❟ + which + Sub-Clause
who which where
whom when why
of, in, on, at, from, by, with, for ... + which
by, for, with ... + whom
This morning I met with Anne Scott, who called me yesterday.
The horse, which was white, cost me thousands of dollars.
Algernon, whom I greatly admire, died last night.
The news, which spread like a plague, broke him.
The pot of gravy, which fell upon his foot, was boiling.
The thief opened the safe, by which time it had been emptied.
These are predators, for whom people could also be prey.
It was alleged that during the incident—at which more police arrived—a black woman was assaulted.
Essential vs. Nonessential Relative Clauses
English relative clauses modify nouns, like adjectives. However, unlike adjectives, they are postmodifiers (i.e., they follow a noun or noun phrase they modify), which means that they can never start a sentence:
Love is friendship that has caught fire. Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel.
Mark Twain, Man’s Place in the Animal World
Not all those who wander are lost. How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Bram Stoker, Dracula
If the information provided by the relative clause is important and essential for our understanding of the noun it modifies, and if it cannot be omitted, no punctuation should be used. However, if a relative clause provides nonessential, parenthetical information, and if it can be omitted without rendering the sentence unintelligible, it must be enclosed by a pair of commas (or dashes for more emphasis).
An essential (restrictive) relative clause serves to specify, classify, or define the noun it modifies; a nonessential (nonrestrictive) relative clause, marked by appositional intonation (falling intonation and brief pauses at the start and end boundaries of the parenthetical comment), typically functions to add a background detail about the noun it modifies.
Whether the head noun should be marked or not depends on the status of its specificity and definiteness, which can only be triggered by pragmatic considerations. In other words, isolating a relative clause as a comment within a sentence can only occur in an ongoing conversation or as within a text, with the head noun functioning as a backward-linking topic.
For example, the essential clause in the following examples functions as the specifier, definer, or classifier of the head noun, which by definition has to be nonspecific:
Students who have to take a lot of exams get too tired to relax.
nonspecific (zero article)
A student who has to take a lot of exams gets too tired to relax.
nonspecific, indefinite (a/an)
The student who has to take a lot of exams gets too tired to relax.
nonspecific, definite (the)
The students who have to take a lot of exams get too tired to relax.
nonspecific, definite (the)
What would contribute to marking the relative clause as nonessential is the use of a semantic detail that would convey the specificity of the head noun and the discursive nature of the context: for example, the use of past tense instead of present indefinite or the use of a demonstrative determiner with the head noun:
The students, who had to take a lot of exams, got too tired to relax.
specific, definite (the)
These students, who have to take a lot of exams, get too tired to relax.
specific, definite (the)
Marking a relative clause as nonessential does not mean it’s not important. On the contrary, nonessential relative clauses often provide new, newsworthy but backgrounded details about the head noun, which the author chooses to highlight by using the appositional intonation in speech (or enclosing punctuation in writing). The appositional intonation, signaled with a drop in pitch and pauses at both boundaries of the enclosed clause, marks the part we want to deemphasize or to background, which inevitably draws attention, as any change in one’s intonation becomes noticeable.
Paradoxically, whether we choose to emphasize or deemphasize a constituent, by making it non-neutral, we create a different type of emphasis. And what we want to emphasize with a nonessential relative clause, especially the one that is medially positioned, is its special status as an aside loosely attached to the main clause, a moment of digression that we believe is important to the matter of the main clause.
While essential relative clauses can be characterized as defining, specifying, or classifying, nonessential relative clauses can be roughly separated into two main groups:
1. An interrupting relative clause that provides referential, background details about the head it modifies and markedly disrupts the flow of the main clause as a parenthetical aside comment.
2. A supplemental, connective relative clause that functions as a narrative forwarder, added not to interrupt the main clause but to continue it. It may express the sequential event, or the result of the event described in the main clause. It can also be added as an afterthought, or as a sentential relative clause, which typically modifies the entire preceding clause.
Essential (specifying): The car that was standing in the road was stolen.
Nonessential (background): The car, which was standing in the road, was stolen.
Essential (classifying): Cars that cause pollution should be banned. [= Some cars pollute.]
Nonessential (background): Cars, which cause pollution, should be banned. [= All cars pollute.]
Essential (specifying): I waived to the man who was running next to me.
Nonessential (connective): I yelled to the man, who ran off. [= I yelled to the man, and he ran off.]
Essential (specifying): A movie that we saw was really scary.
Nonessential (background): Your movie, which we saw yesterday, was really scary.
Essential (defining): The program included a movie that we had already seen.
Nonessential (background): The program included the new Scorsese movie, which we had already seen.
As I said before, the distinction between essential and nonessential clauses reflects the semantic differences.
For example, compare the following sentences:
She loved to talk about her sister who lived in Paris and her younger brother. [= She has more than one sister.]
She loved to talk about her sister, who lived in Paris, and her younger brother. [= She has only one sister.]
He closed the door and handed his keys to the attendant, who was standing next.
[= There was only one attendant present.]
He closed the door and handed his keys to the attendant who was standing next.
[= There were other attendants around.]
The difference between essential and nonessential clauses can also be adverbial:
I wouldn't fly with an airline whose safety record is so poor.
[= I wouldn't fly with an airline if its safety record is so poor.]
I wouldn't fly with this airline, whose safety record is so poor.
[= I wouldn't fly with this airline because its safety record is so poor.]
Six Types of Relative Clauses by Grammatical Structure
Essential and nonessential relative clauses can be classified by the grammatical function of their relative pronouns into six types:
Subject Relative Clauses, in which who, that, or which replaces the subject of the clause.
The visitor who/ that asked for help was from Japan.
The hurricane that struck the town destroyed several homes.
Last year’s hurricane, which destroyed many homes, cost us millions of dollars.
Direct Object Relative Clauses, in which who, whom, that, which, or zero pronoun replaces the object of the clause.
At the meeting, there were many participants whom/ that we did not know.
At the meeting, there were many participants we did not know.
Thank you for the letter of application that we received yesterday.
Thank you for the letter of application [that] we received yesterday.
Thank you for your letter of application, which we received yesterday.
Indirect Object Relative Clauses, in which who, whom, that, which, or zero pronoun replaces an indirect object following the preposition to or for. Two patterns are possible:
Everyone knew the culprit to whom the prosecutor was referring.
Everyone knew the culprit whom/ that /who the prosecutor was referring to.
Everyone knew the culprit [that] the prosecutor was referring to.
This was a job that he seemed well suited to.
This was a job [that] he seemed well suited to.
He loves his new job, to which he seemed well suited.
He loves his new job, which he seemed well suited to.
Oblique Object of the Preposition Relative Clauses, which have the same two patterns as indirect object clauses but may have a range of prepositions: at, on, in, under, for, about, with, etc.:
The girl with whom he went to the dance was my sister.
The girl whom/ that he went to the dance with was my sister.
The girl [that] he went to the dance with was my sister.
The bed on which/ where I slept once belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
The bed that I slept on once belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
The bed [that] I slept on once belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
Possessive Relative Clauses, in which the relative pronoun replaces an element that indicates possession. These clauses take two forms:
⬥ Possessive relative clauses introduced by whose, used especially but not exclusively for possessors that are human or otherwise animate.
Last week, I met a girl whose brother works in your law firm.
The author one of whose last three books Peter has reviewed is very famous.
Let ABC be a triangle whose sides are of equal length.
⬥ Possessive clauses introduced by of which, used with inanimate possessors. Three patterns are possible when of + which is part of an object noun phrase:
The reports of which the government prescribes the size are boring.
The reports which the government prescribes the size of are boring.
The reports the size of which the government prescribes are boring.
Object of Comparison Relative Clauses, in which who, whom, that, or which replaces a noun phrase following the comparative conjunction than.
This is the first person whom/ that/ who I happened to be taller than.
This is the first person [that] I happened to be taller than.
The sports car that the Alfa Romeo was faster than was a Porsche.
Relative vs. Complement Clauses
English dependent clauses (nominal content, complementary, relative, and adverbial clauses) use the same subordinating conjunctions, which can cause confusion. What often helps to distinguish between the clauses is the intonation contour or the punctuation pattern applied.
📍 Punctuation is vital when it comes to appositional intonation. A text may contain enough context for the intended meaning to come through unambiguously, even if commas are not used correctly. It is possible, however, for the commas to be the sole source of information as to whether a clause is essential or not.
Punctuation also helps distinguish between relative and complement clauses:
The plan is that we should reconvene after lunch.
nominative predicative that-clause
I like his plan that we should reconvene after lunch.
We questioned the plan that called for our reconvening after lunch.
relative clause (modifying the plan)
The plan, that we should reconvene after lunch, was questioned.
Relative Clauses vs. It-Cleft Clauses
💥 Don’t confuse relative clauses with it-clefts and it-cleft-type constructions! It-clefts are used to identify by pointing out something. As such, they can be used to emphasize proper nouns:
It-cleft (formal) (provides specific contrastive information): Relative clause (provides general information):
“Did you sell the table that Agatha gave us?” “I see we’ve sold something. What was it?”
“It was [the vase] [that Agatha gave us]—not the table.” “Yeah, it was [the vase that Agatha gave us].”
contrastive focus background focus
It was Jones that was injured. The reason that I can't go is that I don't have time.
it-cleft (formal) it-cleft variation: formal
It was Jones who was injured. The reason why I can't go is that I don't have time.