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Author Topic: Reducing adjective clauses for conciseness  (Read 74 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: August 10, 2017, 11:28:02 PM »

The mark of fluent English-language writers or speakers is the way they effortlessly do away with words mandated by formal grammar but that only impede the quick delivery of their ideas. Nonnative writers or speakers, on the other hand, stick to the grammar protocols tenaciously, making sure there are no grammatical gaps in their sentences that might betray their less than perfect proficiency in the language. As might be expected, however, their desire to treat syntax and semantics with mathematical precision achieves the exact opposite. It results in stiff, unidiomatic English that clearly identifies them as nonnative users trying mighty hard not to be perceived as such.
 

One aspect of English where grammatical exactitude clearly doesn’t pay is in the use of adjective clauses. Recall that adjective clauses are those extended modifiers that give us more details about nouns to put them in better perspective. Adjective clauses, we will also remember, are often introduced by the pronouns “that,” “which,” “who,” “whom,” “whose,” and “where,” which grammatically link the additional ideas to the main (independent) clause.

To get a better idea of how the linking mechanism works, let us look closely at the following sentences: “The plane that is flying over the village right now is a Boeing 747.” “The strategy that they used to win the bidding was superb.” “The woman who was looking for me this morning is my fiancée.” “The street where she passes every night is always well-lighted.” “The caretaker to whom she entrusted her house during her absence proved untrustworthy.” “That candidate whose English is so atrociously bad might just win the election.”


REDUCING THE ADJECTIVE CLAUSE TO ADJECTIVE PHRASE

Most nonnative speakers of English, not yet wise to the highly idiomatic character of the language, will naturally write or articulate the adjective-clause-bearing sentences above in exactly the way they are written above. But native speakers routinely shortcut the construction of such sentences, getting rid of words not essential to conveying their meaning. Their usual targets are the subordinating conjunction and the passive verb form that links the subordinate clause to the main clause. This technique, when done successfully without materially changing the meaning of the sentence, is called the reduction of adjective clauses. It is a simple, forthright process that converts the adjective clauses into adjective phrases, which are structurally simpler and more concise.



ADJECTIVE CLAUSES REDUCED TO ADJECTIVE PHRASES

See what happens to the six sentences when this reduction technique is done just right (enclosed by the brackets are the words that have been knocked off without changing the meaning of the sentence): “The plane [that is] flying over the village right now is a Boeing 757.” “The strategy [which] they used to win the bidding was superb.” “The woman [who was] looking for me this morning is my fiancée.” “The street [where] she passes every night is always well-lighted.” “The caretaker [to whom] she entrusted her house with during her absence proved untrustworthy.” “That candidate [whose English is] with the atrociously bad English might just win the election.”
   
The adjective reduction process is simplicity itself when the relative pronoun is followed by “be” in any of its forms. To make the first four adjective-clause-bearing sentences above more compact, for instance, we simply drop the words “that is,” “which was,” “who was,” and “where” and do absolutely nothing else. But with sentences using verbs other than “be,” the reduction often calls for a minor revision of the adjective clause to retain the meaning of the sentence. See, for instance, how nonsensical the fifth sentence above becomes when we simply drop “to whom” and leave it at that: “The caretaker she entrusted her house during her absence proved untrustworthy.” The use of the preposition “with” restores the meaning of the sentence: “The caretaker she entrusted her house with during her absence proved untrustworthy.”

Reduction is also possible when what follows the relative pronoun is an active verb. The relative pronoun can then be dropped and the verb changed to its –ing form In this way, a sentence like “Her allergy is a rabid type that arises from childhood trauma” reduces to “Her allergy is a rabid type arising from childhood trauma.” The adjective clause becomes an adverb phrase.  

Not all sentences with adjective clauses can be reduced meaningfully, however. In particular, reduction fails when a sentence contains the modal auxiliary verbs “should,” “may,” “can,” or “must.” The element of probability or uncertainty provided by these words is unavoidably lost in the reduction, which of course distorts the meaning of the sentence. Consider this example: “This uniform, which should be worn at all times during regular working days, will be provided free to all personnel.” Its mandatory tone vanishes in this misguided reduction: “This uniform, worn at all times during regular working days, will be provided free to all personnel.”

Such distortions should make us think twice before attempting to reduce adjective clauses.

This essay, 335th in the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the February 18, 2004 issue of The Manila Times, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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