Author Topic: Guideposts for using “who,” “that,” and “which” to link relative clauses  (Read 19247 times)

Joe Carillo

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Last week, to better equip Forum members in handling relative pronouns and complex sentences, I posted in the Forum Part I of “Getting to know the relative clauses better,” a three-part essay that I wrote for  my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008. Part I discussed the grammatical basis for the choice of relative pronoun to link a subordinate clause to the main clause, then explained the difference between a defining or restrictive relative clause, on one hand, and a nondefining or nonrestrictive relative clause, on the other. The discussion went as far as the use of the relative pronoun “who” when persons are the antecedent subjects. 

This time, in Part II, we will review the choice of relative pronoun for linking subordinate clauses when the subject is an animal, a place, an inanimate object, or a concept. The choice, of course, will be between the relative pronouns “that” or “which.” As the following discussions will make clear, that choice will depend on the kind of relative clause being used in the sentence. (April 2, 2011)

Getting to know the relative clauses better – II

In Part I of this essay, we discussed the difference between the two kinds of relative clauses: a defining or restrictive relative clause provides essential information to the main clause of a sentence, while a nondefining or nonrestrictive relative clause provides information not essential to the idea or context of the main clause. We then saw that when the antecedent noun is a person, a defining relative clause is inseparably linked to the main clause by the relative pronoun “who,” as in “Young people who spend too much time playing computer games tend to have very short attention spans.” A nondefining relative clause is similarly introduced by the relative pronoun “who,” but it must always be set apart from the main clause by a pair of commas, as in “The great Jose Rizal, who has been called ‘The Pride of the Malay Race,’ was actually of Chinese ancestry.” Those commas indicate that the main clause can stand even without the relative clause.

(Again, to get a surer feel of the difference between a defining clause and a nondefining clause, see what happens when we drop the relative clauses from each of the examples above: “Young people […] tend to have very short attention spans.” “The great Jose Rizal […] was actually of Chinese ancestry.” With the relative clause gone in the first sentence, the statement has become too overgeneralized to be true; in contrast, even without the relative clause, the second statement remains perfectly valid.)

So far, though, we have only discussed the use of relative pronouns when persons are the antecedent subjects. When the subject is an animal, a place, an inanimate object, or a concept, we can no longer use the relative pronoun “who” to link the relative clause to its antecedent subject. Instead, we use either the relative pronouns “that” or “which” depending on the kind of relative clause we are using in the sentence.

In American English specifically, we use “that” to link a defining or restrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, as in the following examples: “The Siamese cat that our father found on a street gutter a year ago became the family’s favorite pet.” “The treehouse that the Sanchez brothers built during their teens was gone.” “The great idea that was propounded by the neophyte legislator got mangled due to too much politicking.” In these sentences, the relative clause is crucial to understanding the idea or context of the main clause; dropping the relative clause can seriously alter the import of—or significantly detract from—the intended meaning: “The Siamese cat became the family’s favorite pet.” “The treehouse […] was gone.” “The great idea […] got mangled due to too much politicking.”

On the other hand, we use the relative pronoun “which” to link a nondefining or nonrestrictive clause to a nonhuman antecedent subject, as in the following examples: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was written by the British historian Edward Gibbon in the 18th century, has been hailed as one the greatest historical works produced by Western man.” “A subspecies of the chevrotain, which is also known as the mouse deer, is indigenous to Palawan and nearby islands.” The pair of enclosing commas is mandatory in such constructions; it sets the relative clause apart from the main clause and indicates that the relative clause is not essential to the idea of the main clause.

Indeed, when the relative clauses are dropped from such sentences, we will find that the main clauses can very well stand by themselves: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire […] has been hailed as one the greatest historical works produced by Western man.” “A subspecies of the chevrotain […] is indigenous to Palawan and nearby islands.” (September 27, 2011)

Next week, in Part III of this essay, we will discuss how the American English usage of the relative clauses differs from that of British English and how we can streamline sentence constructions that use relative clauses.
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, September 27, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.