Similar to the adjective and adjective phrase in grammatical function, an adjective clause is a dependent or subordinate clause that consists of a subordinating conjunction, specifically a relative pronoun, followed by a clause and that performs an adjectival function. Some grammars use the term relative clause for adjectives clauses.
Conjunctions are “words that link words, phrases, and clauses.” A subordinating conjunction is a conjunction that introduces a subordinate or dependent clause. Relative pronouns are both a type of pronoun that take the place of another word, phrase, or clause and a type of subordinating conjunction that introduce adjective, or relative, clauses. The nine relative pronouns in English grammar are:
- Ø (null relative pronoun)
In addition to functioning as subordinators, relative pronouns also perform syntactic functions within adjective clauses. Syntactic functions are grammatical functions that relate to other grammatical functions within the syntax, or word order, of a sentence. The seven syntactic functions that relative pronouns perform in English grammar are:
- Direct object
- Object complement
- Indirect object
- Prepositional complement
- Adjunct adverbial
- The cat that eats special food has health problems. (subject relative pronoun)
- The soup that my dog devoured tasted too spicy. (direct object relative pronoun)
- The position that you appointed me comes with a nice pay raise. (object complement relative pronoun)
- The woman that the man bought flowers works at my office. (indirect object relative pronoun)
- Are you going to the party for which I baked a cake? (prepositional complement relative pronoun)
- The neighbor whose baby my mother watches works nights at the library. (determinative relative pronoun)
- Exciting events never happen in the small town where I lived as a child. (adjunct adverbial relative pronoun)
For more information about relative pronouns, see The English Relative Pronoun System.
Forming Adjective Clauses
To form an adjective clause, a relative pronoun replaces a word, phrase, or clause within another clause. Consider, for example, the following sentences:
- The book belongs to the library.
- You stole the book.
- The book that you stole belongs to the library.
In the third sentence, the adjective clause is that you stole. The relative pronoun that replaces the noun phrase the book, which is the direct object of the clause in the second sentence. The adjective clause that you stole then describes the noun phrase the book from the first sentence to create the third sentence, which consists of an adjective clause embedded in the main, or verb, clause.
Using Adjective Clauses
Adjective clauses perform four grammatical functions within sentences in the English language. The four functions of adjective clauses are:
- The map you sent me last week seems outdated. (noun phrase modifier)
- The neighbor whose car you hit mowed over my flowers. (noun phrase modifier)
- Hunting tigers, which many people still consider sport, should be outlawed internationally. (verb phrase modifier)
- Employees must arrive between seven and nine, which is a reasonable time frame. (prepositional phrase modifier)
- That the museum cancelled the lecture, which is quite surprising, disappoints me. (noun clause modifier)
For more information about the grammatical functions of adjective clauses, see Grammatical Functions of English Adjective Clauses.
Adjective clauses are dependent or subordinate clauses that consist of a subordinating conjunction, specifically a relative pronoun, followed by a clause. Adjective clauses perform four adjectival functions: noun phrase modifier, verb phrase modifier, prepositional phrase modifier, and noun clause modifier.
Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.