Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, LINGUISTICS (linguistics.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 September 2018

Summary and Keywords

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, while 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?

Keywords: appositive relative clause, correlative, cleft, free relative, internally headed relative clause, modification, restrictive relative clause, operator construction, relative pronoun, resumptive pronoun

Access to the complete content on Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. If you are a student or academic complete our librarian recommendation form to recommend the Oxford Research Encyclopedias to your librarians for an institutional free trial.

Please subscribe or login to access full text content.

If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.

For questions on access or troubleshooting, please check our FAQs, and if you can't find the answer there, please contact us.