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date: 25 April 2017

Relative Clauses in Syntax

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

A relative clause is a clausal modifier that relates to a constituent of the sentence, typically a noun phrase. This is the antecedent or “head” of the relative construction. What makes the configuration special is that the subordinate clause contains a variable that is bound by the head. For instance, in the English sentence Peter recited a poem that Anne liked, the object of the embedded verb liked is relativized. In this example the relative clause is a restrictive property, and the possible reference of a poem is narrowed to poems that Anne likes. However, it is also possible to construct a relative clause non-restrictively. If the example is changed to Peter recited this poem by Keats, which Anne likes, the relative clause provides additional information about the antecedent, and the internal variable, here spelled out by the relative pronoun which, is necessarily coreferential with the antecedent.

Almost all languages make use of (restrictive) relative constructions in one way or another. Various strategies of building relative clauses have been distinguished, which correlate at least partially with particular properties of languages, including word order patterns and the availability of certain pronouns. Relative clauses can follow or precede the head, or even include the head. Some languages make use of relative pronouns; others use resumptive pronouns, or simply leave the relativized argument unpronounced in the subordinate clause. Furthermore, there is cross-linguistic variation in the range of syntactic functions that can be relativized. Notably, more than one type of relative clause can be present in one language. Special types of relative constructions include free relatives (with an implied pronominal antecedent), cleft constructions, and correlatives.

There is an extensive literature on the structural analysis of relative constructions. Questions that are debated include: How can different subtypes be distinguished? How does the internal variable relate to the antecedent? How can reconstruction and anti-reconstruction effects be explained? At what structural level is the relative clause attached to the antecedent or the matrix clause?