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definitions - Relative clause

relative clause (n.)

1.a clause introduced by a relative pronoun"`who visits frequently' is a relative clause in the sentence `John, who visits frequently, is ill'"

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relative clause (n.)

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Relative clause


A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun phrase, most commonly a noun. For example, the phrase "the man who wasn't there" contains the noun man, which is modified by the relative clause who wasn't there. A relative clause can also modify a pronoun, as in "he to whom I have written", or a noun phrase which already contains a modifier, as in "the black panther in the tree, which is about to pounce". The complete phrase (modified noun phrase plus modifying relative clause) is also a noun phrase.

In many European languages, relative clauses are introduced by a special class of pronouns called relative pronouns; in the previous example, who is a relative pronoun. In other languages, relative clauses may be marked in different ways: they may be introduced by a special class of conjunctions called relativizers; the main verb of the relative clause may appear in a special morphological variant; or a relative clause may be indicated by word order alone. In some languages, more than one of these mechanisms may be possible.


  Types of relative clause

A relative clause is always used to join together two sentences that share one of their arguments. For example, the sentence "The man that I saw yesterday went home" is equivalent to the following two sentences: "The man went home. I saw the man yesterday." In this case, "the man" occurs as argument to both sentences. Note that there is no requirement that the shared argument fulfills the same role in both of the joined sentences; indeed, in this example, "the man" is subject of the first, but direct object of the second.

The two sentences joined in a relative-clause construction are known as the main clause or matrix clause (the outer clause) and the embedded clause or relative clause (the inner clause). The shared noun as it occurs in the main clause is termed the head noun. Languages differ in many ways in how relative clauses are expressed:

  1. How the role of the shared noun phrase is indicated in the embedded clause.
  2. How the two clauses are joined together.
  3. Where the embedded clause is placed relative to the head noun (in the process indicating which noun phrase in the main clause is modified).

For example, the English sentence "The man that I saw yesterday went home" can be described as follows:

  1. The role of the shared noun in the embedded clause is indicated by gapping (i.e. in the embedded clause "that I saw yesterday", a gap is left after "saw" to indicate where the shared noun would go).
  2. The clauses are joined by the complementizer "that".
  3. The embedded clause is placed after the head noun "the man".

The following sentences indicate various possibilities (only some of which are grammatical in English):

  • "The man [that I saw yesterday] went home". (A complementizer linking the two clauses with a gapping strategy indicating the role of the shared noun in the embedded clause. One possibility in English. Very common cross-linguistically.)
  • "The man [I saw yesterday] went home". (Gapping strategy, with no word joining the clauses—also known as a reduced relative clause. One possibility in English. Used in Arabic when the head noun is indefinite, as in "a man" instead of "the man".)
  • "The man [whom I saw yesterday] went home". (A relative pronoun indicating the role of the shared noun in the embedded clause — in this case, the direct object. Used in formal English, as in Latin, German or Russian.)
  • "The man [seen by me yesterday] went home". (A reduced relative clause, in this case passivized. One possibility in English.)
  • "The man [that I saw him yesterday] went home". (A complementizer linking the two sentences with a resumptive pronoun indicating the role of the shared noun in the embedded clause, as in Arabic, Hebrew or Persian.)
  • "The man [that him I saw yesterday] went home". (Similar to the previous, but with the resumptive pronoun fronted. This occurs in modern Greek and as one possibility in modern Hebrew; the combination that him of complementizer and resumptive pronoun behaves similar to a unitary relative pronoun.)
  • "The [I saw yesterday]'s man went home". (Preceding relative clause with gapping and use of a possessive particle — as normally used in a genitive construction — to link the relative clause to the head noun. This occurs in Chinese and certain other languages influenced by it.)
  • "The [I saw yesterday] man went home". (Preceding relative clause with gapping and no linking word, as in Japanese.)
  • "The man [of my seeing yesterday] went home". (Nominalized relative clause, as in Turkish.)
  • "[Which man I saw yesterday], that man went home". (A correlative structure, as in Hindi.)
  • "[I saw the man yesterday] went home." (An unreduced, internally-headed relative clause, as in Tibetan or Navajo.)

  Strategies for indicating the role of the shared noun in the relative clause

There are four main strategies for indicating the role of the shared noun phrase in the embedded clause. These are typically listed in order of the degree to which the noun in the relative clause has been reduced, from most to least:

  1. Gap strategy or gapped relative clause
  2. Relative pronoun
  3. Pronoun retention
  4. Nonreduction

  Gapped relative clause

In this strategy, there is simply a gap in the relative clause where the shared noun would go. This is normal in English, for example, and also in Chinese and Japanese. This is the most common type of relative clause, especially in verb-final languages with prenominal relative clauses, but is also widespread among languages with postnominal externally headed relative clauses.

There may or may not be any marker used to join the relative and main clauses. (Note that languages with a case-marked relative pronoun are technically not considered to employ the gapping strategy even though they do in fact have a gap, since the case of the relative pronoun indicates the role of the shared noun.) Often the form of the verb is different from that in main clauses and is to some degree nominalized, as in Turkish and in English reduced relative clauses.[1][2]

In non-verb-final languages, apart from languages like Thai and Vietnamese with very strong politeness distinctions in their grammars[citation needed], gapped relative clauses tend however to be restricted to positions high up in the accessibility hierarchy. With obliques and genitives, non-verb-final languages that do not have politeness restrictions on pronoun use tend to use pronoun retention. English is unusual in that all roles in the embedded clause can be indicated by gapping: e.g. "I saw the man who is my friend", but also (in progressively less accessible positions cross-linguistically, according to the accessibility hierarchy described below) "... who I know", "... who I gave a book to", "... who I spoke with", "... who I run slower than". Usually, languages with gapping disallow it beyond a certain level in the accessibility hierarchy, and switch to a different strategy at this point. Classical Arabic, for example, only allows gapping in the subject and sometimes the direct object; beyond that, a resumptive pronoun must be used. Some languages have no allowed strategies at all past a certain point — e.g. in many Austronesian languages, such as Tagalog, all relative clauses must have the shared noun serving the subject role in the embedded clause. In these languages, relative clauses with shared nouns serving "disallowed" roles can be expressed by passivizing the embedded sentence, thereby moving the noun in the embedded sentence into the subject position. This, for example, would transform "The man who I gave a book to" into "The man who was given a book by me". Generally, languages such as this "conspire" to implement general relativization by allowing passivization from all positions – hence a sentence equivalent to "The man who is run slower than by me" is grammatical. Note also that gapping is often used in conjunction with case-marked relative pronouns (since the relative pronoun indicates the case role in the embedded clause), but this is not necessary (e.g. Chinese and Japanese both using gapping in conjunction with an indeclinable complementizer).

  Relative pronoun type

This is in fact a type of gapped relative clause, but is distinguished by the fact that the role of the shared noun in the embedded clause is indicated indirectly by the case marking of the marker (the relative pronoun) used to join the main and embedded clauses. All languages which use relative pronouns have them in clause-initial position: though one could conceivably imagine a clause-final relative pronoun analogous to an adverbial subordinator in that position, they are unknown.

Note that some languages have what are described as "relative pronouns" (in that they agree with some properties of the head noun, such as number and gender) but which don't actually indicate the case role of the shared noun in the embedded clause. Classical Arabic in fact has "relative pronouns" which are case-marked, but which agree in case with the head noun. Case-marked relative pronouns in the strict sense are almost entirely confined to European languages[citation needed], where they are widespread except among the Celtic family and Indo-Aryan family. The influence of Spanish has led to their adaption by a very small number of Native American languages, of which the best-known are the Keresan languages.[3]

  Pronoun retention type

In this type, the position relativized is indicated by means of a personal pronoun in the same syntactic position as would ordinarily be occupied by a noun phrase of that type in the main clause — known as a resumptive pronoun. It is equivalent to saying "The man who I saw him yesterday went home". Pronoun retention is very frequently used for relativization of inaccessible positions on the accessibility hierarchy. In Persian and Classical Arabic, for example, resumptive pronouns are required when the embedded role is other than the subject or direct object, and optional in the case of the direct object. Resumptive pronouns are common in non-verb-final languages of Africa and Asia, and also used by the Celtic languages of northwest Europe and Romanian ("Omul pe care l-am văzut ieri a mers acasă"/"The man who I saw him yesterday went home"). They also occur in deeply embedded positions in English, as in "That's the girl that I don't know what she did",[4] although this is sometimes considered non-standard.

Only a very small number of languages, of which the best known is Yoruba, have pronoun retention as their sole grammatical type of relative clause.

  Nonreduction type

In the nonreduction type, unlike the other three, the shared noun occurs as a full-fledged noun phrase in the embedded clause, which has the form of a full independent clause. Typically, it is the head noun in the main clause that is reduced or missing. Some languages use relative clauses of this type with the normal strategy of embedding the relative clause next to the head noun. These languages are said to have internally headed relative clauses, which would be similar to the (ungrammatical) English structure "[You see the girl over there] is my friend" or "I took [you see the girl over there] out on a date". This is used, for example, in Navajo, which uses a special relative verb (as with some other Native American languages).

A second strategy is the correlative-clause strategy used by Hindi and other Indo-Aryan languages, as well as Bambara. This strategy is equivalent to saying "Which girl you see over there, she is my daughter" or "Which knife I killed my friend with, the police found that knife". It is "correlative" because of the corresponding "which ... that ..." demonstratives or "which ... she/he/it ..." pronouns, which indicate the respective nouns being equated. Note that the shared noun can either be repeated entirely in the main clause or reduced to a pronoun. Note also that there is no need to front the shared noun in such a sentence. For example, in the second example above, Hindi would actually say something equivalent "I killed my friend with which knife, the police found that knife".

Dialects of some European languages, such as Italian, do use the nonreduction type in forms that could be glossed in English as "The man just passed us by, he introduced me to the chancellor here."

In general, however, nonreduction is restricted to verb-final languages, though it is more common among those that are head-marking.

  Strategies for joining the relative clause to the main clause

The following are some of the common strategies for joining the two clauses:

  • Use of an indeclinable particle (specifically, a complementizer) inserted into the sentence, placed next to the modified noun; the embedded clause is likewise inserted into the appropriate position, typically placed on the other side of the complementizer. This strategy is very common and arguably occurs in English with the word that ("the main that I saw"), though this interpretation of "that" as something other than a relative pronoun is controversial (see below). In the modern varieties of Arabic (using illi placed after the modified noun); in Chinese (using de placed before the modified noun); and in Japanese (using no placed before the modified noun).
  • Use of a relative pronoun. Prototypically, a relative pronoun agrees with the head noun in gender, number, definiteness, animacy, etc., but adopts the case that the shared noun assumes in the embedded, not matrix, clause. This is the case in a number of conservative European languages, such as Latin, German and Russian. Many languages also have similar linking words common termed "relative pronouns" that agree in some way with the head noun, but do not adopt the case role of the embedded clause. In English, for example, the use of who vs. which agrees with the animacy of the head noun, but there is no case agreement except in the formal English contrast who vs. whom (which is often used incorrectly, if at all, in speech). Similarly, in Classical Arabic, there is a relative pronoun that agrees in number, gender, definiteness and case with the head noun (rather than taking the case role of the noun in the embedded clause). Languages with prototypical relative pronouns typically use the gapping strategy for indicating the role in the embedded clause, since the relative pronoun itself indicates the role by its case. (Classical Arabic, where the case marking indicates something else, uses a resumptive pronoun.) Some linguists prefer to use the term relative pronoun only for the prototypical cases (but in this case it's unclear what to call the non-prototypical cases).
  • Directly inserting the embedded clause in the matrix clause at the appropriate position, with no word used to join them. This is common, for example, in English (cf. "The man I saw yesterday went home"), and is used in Classical Arabic in relative clauses that modify indefinite nouns.
  • By nominalizing the relative clause (e.g. converting it to a participial construction). Generally, no relative pronoun or complementizer is used. This occurs, for example, in reduced relative clauses in English (e.g. "The man seen by me yesterday went home" or "The man planning to go home soon is my friend"). Formal German makes common use of such participial relative clauses, which can become extremely long. This is also the normal strategy in Turkish, which has sentences equivalent to "I ate the potato of Hasan's giving to Sina" (in place of "I ate the potato that Hasan gave to Sina"). Note that this can be viewed as a situation in which the "complementizer" is attached to the verb of the embedded clause (e.g. in English, "-ing" or "-ed" can be viewed as a type of complementizer).

  Position of the head noun with respect to the relative clause

The positioning of a relative clause before or after a head noun is related to the more general concept of branching in linguistics. Languages that place relative clauses after their head noun (so-called head-initial or VO languages) generally also have adjectives and genitive modifiers following the head noun, as well as verbs preceding their objects. French, Spanish and Arabic are prototypical languages of this sort. Languages that place relative clauses before their head noun (so-called head-final or OV languages) generally also have adjectives and genitive modifiers preceding the head noun, as well as verbs following their objects. Turkish and Japanese are prototypical languages of this sort. Not all languages fit so easily into these categories. English, for example, is generally head-first, but has adjectives preceding their head nouns, and genitive constructions with both preceding and following modifiers ("the friend of my father" vs. "my father's friend"). Chinese has the VO order, with verb preceding object, but otherwise is generally head-final.

Various possibilities for ordering are:

  • Relative clause following the head noun, as in English, French or Arabic.
  • Relative clause preceding the head noun, as in Turkish, Japanese, or Chinese.
  • Head noun within the relative clause (an internally-headed relative clause). An example of such a language is Navajo. These languages are said to have nonreduced relative clauses. These languages have a structure equivalent to "[I saw the man yesterday] went home".
  • Adjoined relative clause. These languages have the relative clause completely outside the main clause, and use a correlative structure to link the two. These languages also have nonreduced relative clauses. Hindi is the most well known such language, and have a structure similar to "Which man I saw yesterday, that man went home" or (with non-fronting of the relativized noun in the relative clause) "I saw which man yesterday, that man went home". Another example is Warlpiri, which constructs relative clauses of a form similar to "I saw the man yesterday, which he was going home". However, it is sometimes said these languages have no relative clauses at all, since the sentences of this form can equally well translate as "I saw the man who was going home yesterday" or "I saw the man yesterday when/while he was going home".

  Accessibility hierarchy

The antecedent of the relative clause (that is, the noun that is modified by it) can in theory be the subject of the main clause, or its object, or any other verb argument. In many languages, however, especially rigidly left-branching, dependent-marking languages with prenominal relative clauses,[5] there are major restrictions on the role the antecedent may have in the relative clause.

Edward L. Keenan and Bernard Comrie noted that these roles can be ranked cross-linguistically in the following order from most accessible to least accessible:[6][7]

Subject > Direct Object > Indirect Object > Oblique > Genitive > Object of comparative

Ergative–absolutive languages have a similar hierarchy:

Absolutive > Ergative > Indirect Object > etc. (same as above)

This order is referred to as the accessibility hierarchy. If a language can relativize positions lower in the accessibility hierarchy, it can always relativize positions higher up, but not vice versa. For example, Malagasy can relativize only subject and Chukchi only absolutive arguments, whilst Basque can relativize absolutives, ergatives and indirect objects, but not obliques or genitives or objects of comparatives. Similar hierarchies have been proposed in other circumstances, e.g. for pronominal reflexes.

English can relativize all positions in the hierarchy. Here are some examples of the NP and relative clause usage from English:

Position With explicit relative pronoun With omitted relative pronoun In formal English
Subject That’s the man [who ran away]. That’s the man [who ran away].
Direct object That’s the man [who I saw yesterday]. That's the man [I saw yesterday]. That’s the man [whom I saw yesterday].
Indirect object That’s the man [who I gave the letter to]. That’s the man [I gave the letter to]. That’s the man [to whom I gave the letter].
Oblique That’s the man [who I was talking about]. That’s the man [I was talking about]. That’s the man [about whom I was talking].
Genitive That’s the man [whose sister I know]. That’s the man [whose sister I know].
Obj of Comp That’s the man [who I am taller than]. That’s the man [I am taller than]. That’s the man [than whom I am taller].

Some other examples:

Position Example
Subject The girl [who came late] is my sister.
Direct object I gave a rose to the girl [that Kate saw].
Indirect object John knows the girl [I wrote a letter to].
Oblique I found the rock [which the robbers had hit John over the head with].
Genitive The girl [whose father died] told me she was sad.
Obj of Comp The first person [I can't run faster than] will win a million dollars.

Languages which cannot relativize directly on noun phrases low in the accessibility hierarchy can sometimes use alternative voices to "raise" the relevant noun phrase so that it can be relativized. The most common example is the use of applicative voices to relativize obliques, but in such languages as Chukchi antipassives are used to raise ergative arguments to absolutive.

For example, a language that can relativize only subjects could say this:

  • The girl [who likes me] came to visit.

But not:

  • *The girl [whom I like] came to visit.
  • *The girl [whom I gave a rose to] came to visit.
  • *The girl [whom I watched a movie with] came to visit.
  • *The girl [whose father I know] came to visit.
  • *The girl [whom I know the father of] came to visit. (equivalent to previous)
  • *The girl [whom I am taller than] came to visit.

These languages might form an equivalent sentence by passivization:

  • The girl [who was liked by me] came to visit.
  • The girl [who was given a rose by me] came to visit.
  • The girl [who was watched a movie with by me] came to visit.
  • The girl [who was known the father of by me] came to visit.
  • The girl [who was been taller than by me] came to visit.

Note that these passivized sentences get progressively more ungrammatical in English as they move down the accessibility hierarchy; the last two, in particular, are so ungrammatical as to be almost unparsable by English speakers. However, those languages with severe restrictions on which roles can be relativized are precisely those that can passivize almost any position, and hence the last two sentences would be normal in these languages.

A further example is languages that can relativize only subjects and direct objects. Hence the following would be possible:

  • The girl [who I like] came to visit.

However, the other ungrammatical examples above would still be ungrammatical. These languages often allow an oblique object to be moved to the direct object slot by the use of the so-called applicative voice, similar to how the passive voice moves an oblique object to the subject position. The above examples expressed in an applicative voice might be similar to the following (in not necessarily grammatical English):

  • The girl [who I gave a rose] came to visit.
  • The girl [who I with-watched a movie] came to visit.
  • The girl [who I (of-)know the father] came to visit.
  • The girl [who I out-tall] came to visit.

Modern grammars may use the accessibility hierarchy to order productions — e.g. in Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar the hierarchy corresponds to the order of elements on the subcat list, and interacts with other principles in explanations of binding facts. The hierarchy also figures in Lexical Functional Grammar where it is known as Syntactic Rank or the Relational Hierarchy.


  Indo-European languages


In English, a relative clause follows the noun it modifies. It is generally indicated by a relative pronoun at the start of the clause, although sometimes simply by word order. If the relative pronoun is the object of the verb in the relative clause, it comes at the beginning of the clause even though it would come at the end of an independent clause ("He is the man whom I saw", not "He is the man I saw whom").

The choice of relative pronoun can be affected by whether the clause modifies a human or non-human noun, by whether the clause is restrictive or not, and by the role (subject, direct object, or the like) of the relative pronoun in the relative clause.

  • For a human antecedent, "who", "whom", or "that" is usually used ("He is the person who saw me", "He is the person who(m) I saw", "He is the person "that" I saw"). For a non-human antecedent, only "that" or "which" is used.
  • In a non-restrictive clause with a non-human antecedent, "which" is used ("The tree, which has fallen, is over there"), while in a restrictive clause with a non-human antecedent "that" or "which" is used ("The tree that fell is over there", "The tree which fell is over there") (although some prescriptive grammars require the use of "that" in this context).
  • The relative pronoun "who(m)" has a subjective case form "who" that must be used if it is the subject of the relative clause ("He is the person who saw me"), and an objective case form which in formal usage is used as the object of a verb or preposition in the relative clause ("He is the person whom I saw", "He is the person whom I talked to", "He is the person to whom I talked"); but in informal usage "whom" is often replaced by "who".

In English, as in some other languages (such as French; see below), non-restrictive relative clauses are set off with commas, but restrictive ones are not:

  • "I met a man and a woman yesterday. The woman, who had a thick French accent, was very pretty." (non-restrictive — does not narrow down who is being talked about)
  • "I met two women yesterday, one with a thick French accent and one with a mild Italian one. The woman who had the thick French accent was very pretty." (restrictive — adds information about who is being referred to)

The status of "that" as a relative pronoun is not universally agreed. Traditional grammars treat "that" as a relative pronoun, but not all contemporary grammars do: e.g. the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (pp. 1056–7) makes a case for treating "that" as a subordinator instead of a relative pronoun; and the British National Corpus treats "that" as a subordinating conjunction even when it introduces relative clauses. One motivation for the different treatment of "that" is that there are differences between "that" and "which" (e.g., one can say "in which" but not "in that", etc.).


The system of relative pronouns in French is as complicated as, but similar in many ways to, the system in English.

When the pronoun is to act as the direct object of the relative clause, que is generally used, although lequel, which is inflected for grammatical gender and number, is sometimes used in order to give more precision. For example, any of the following is correct and would translate to "I talked to his/her father and mother, whom I already knew":

J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, laquelle (f. sing.) je connaissais déjà.
J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, lesquels (m. pl.) je connaissais déjà.
J'ai parlé avec son père et sa mère, que je connaissais déjà.

However, in the first sentence, "whom I already knew" refers only to the mother; in the second, it refers to both parents; and in the third, as in the English sentence, it could refer either only to the mother, or to both parents.

When the pronoun is to act as the subject of the relative clause, qui is generally used, though as before, lequel may be used instead for greater precision. (This is less common than the use of lequel with direct objects, however, since verbs in French often reflect the grammatical number of their subjects.)

When the pronoun is to act in a possessive sense, where the preposition de (of/from) would normally be used, the pronoun dont ("whose") is used, but does not act as a determiner for the noun "possessed":

J'ai parlé avec une femme dont je travaille avec le fils. ("I spoke with a woman whose son I work with." - lit., "I spoke with a woman of whom I work with the son.")

This construction is also used in non-possessive cases where the pronoun replaces an object marked by de:

C'est l'homme dont j'ai parlé. ("That's the man of whom I spoke.")

More generally, in modern French, dont can signal the topic of the following clause, without replacing anything in this clause:

C'est un homme dont je crois qu'il doit très bien gagner sa vie. ("That's a man about whom I believe that he must make a lot of money.")

When the pronoun is to act as the object of a preposition (other than when dont is used), lequel is generally used, though qui can be used if the antecedent is human. The preposition always appears before the pronoun, and the prepositions de and à (at/to) contract with lequel to form duquel and auquel, or with lesquel(le)s to form desquel(le)s and auxquel(le)s.


Aside from their highly inflected forms, German relative pronouns are less complicated than English. There are two varieties. The more common one is based on the definite article der, die, das, but with distinctive forms in the genitive (dessen, deren) and in the dative plural (denen). Historically this is related to English that. The second, which is more literary and used for emphasis, is the relative use of welcher, welche, welches, comparable with English which. As in most Germanic languages, including Old English, both of these inflect according to gender, case and number. They take their gender and number from the noun they modify, but the case from their function in their own clause.

Das Haus, in dem ich wohne, ist sehr alt.
The house in which I live is very old.

The relative pronoun dem is neuter singular to agree with Haus, but dative because it follows a preposition in its own clause. On the same basis, it would be possible to substitute the pronoun welchem.

However, German uses the uninflecting was ('what') as a relative pronoun when the antecedent is alles, etwas or nichts ('everything', 'something', 'nothing'.).

Alles, was Jack macht, gelingt ihm.
Everything that Jack does is a success.

In German, all relative clauses are marked with commas.


See Relative pronouns in the Spanish pronouns article.


In Latin, relative clauses follow the noun phrases they modify, and are always introduced using relative pronouns. Relative pronouns, like other pronouns in Latin, agree with their antecedents in gender and number, but not in case: a relative pronoun's case reflects its role in the relative clause it introduces, while its antecedent's case reflects the antecedent's role in the clause that contains the relative clause. (Nonetheless, it is possible for the pronoun and antecedent to be in the same case.) For example:

Urbēs, quae sunt magnae, videntur. (The cities, which are large, are being seen.)
Urbēs, quās vīdī, erant magnae. (The cities, which I saw, were large.)

In the former example, urbēs and quae both function as subjects in their respective clauses, so both are in the nominative case; and due to gender and number agreement, both are feminine and plural. In the latter example, both are still feminine and plural, and urbēs is still in the nominative case, but quae has been replaced by quās, its accusative-case counterpart, to reflect its role as the direct object of vīdī.

For more information on the forms of Latin relative pronouns, see the section on relative pronouns in the article on Latin declension.

  Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek follows the same rule as Latin.

  • αἱ πόλεις, ἃς εἶδον, μεγάλαι εἰσίν.
hai póleis, hàs eîdon, megálai eisin.
The cities that I saw were large.

The Ancient Greek relative pronoun ὅς, ἥ, ὅ (hós, hḗ, hó) is unrelated to the Latin word, since it derives from Proto-Indo-European *yos: in Proto-Greek, y before a vowel usually changed to h (debuccalization). Cognates include Sanskrit yas, yā, yad (where o changed to short a).[8]

The Greek definite article ὁ, ἡ, τό (ho, hē, tó) has a different origin, since it is related to Sanskrit sa, sā and Latin is-tud.[9]

  Slavic languages

Most Slavic languages use exactly the same principle as Latin does. The following sentences are the Latin examples translated to Croatian (the same sentences also apply to Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin):

Gradovi, koji su veliki, se vide. (The cities, which are large, are being seen.)
Gradovi, koje sam vidio, su bili veliki. (The cities, which I saw, were large.)

In the first sentence, koji is in nominative, and in the second koje is in accusative. Both words are two case forms of the same relative pronoun, that is inflicted for gender (here: masculine), number (here: plural), and case.

  Celtic languages

The Celtic languages (at least the modern Insular Celtic languages) distinguish two types of relative clause: direct relative clauses and indirect relative clauses. A direct relative clause is used where the relativized element is the subject or the direct object of its clause (e.g. "the man who saw me", "the man whom I saw"), while an indirect relative clause is used where the relativized element is a genitival (e.g. "the man whose daughter is in the hospital") or is the object of a preposition (e.g. "the man to whom I gave the book"). Direct relative clauses are formed with a relative pronoun (unmarked for case) at the beginning; a gap (in terms of syntactic theory, a trace, indicated by t in the examples below) is left in the relative clause at the pronoun's expected position.

an fear a chonaic t
the man DIR-REL saw me
"the man who saw me"
y dyn a welais
the man DIR-REL I saw
"the man whom I saw"

The direct relative particle "a" is not used with "mae" ("is") in Welsh; instead the form "sydd" or "sy'" is used:

y dyn sy'n blewog iawn
the man DIR-REL + is hairy very 
"the man who is very hairy"

There is also a defective verb "piau" (usually lenited to "biau"), corresponding to "who own(s)":

y dyn piau castell anferth
the man DIR-REL + owns castle huge 
"the man who owns a huge castle"

Indirect relative clauses are formed with a relativizer at the beginning; the relativized element remains in situ in the relative clause.

an fear a bhfuil a iníon san ospidéal
the man IND-REL is his daughter in the hospital
"the man whose daughter is in the hospital"
y dyn y rhois y llyfr iddo
the man IND-REL I gave the book to him
"the man to whom I gave the book"

Note that although both the Irish relative pronoun and the relativizer are 'a', the relative pronoun triggers lenition of a following consonant, while the relativizer triggers eclipsis (see Irish initial mutations).

Both direct and indirect relative particles can be used simply for emphasis, often in answer to a question or as a way of disagreeing with a statement. For instance, the Welsh example above, "y dyn a welais" means not only "the man whom I saw", but also "it was the man (and not anyone else) I saw"; and "y dyn y rhois y llyfr iddo" can likewise mean "it was the man (and not anyone else) to whom I gave the book".

  Semitic languages


In Biblical Hebrew, relative clauses were headed with the word asher, which could be either a relative pronoun or a relativizer. In later times, asher became interchangeable with the prefix she- (which is also used as a conjunction, with the sense of English that), and in Modern Hebrew, this use of she- is much more common than asher, except in some formal, archaic, or poetic writing. In meaning, the two are interchangeable; they are used regardless of whether the clause is modifying a human, regardless of their grammatical case in the relative clause, and regardless of whether the clause is restrictive.

Further, because Hebrew does not generally use its word for is, she- is used to distinguish adjective phrases used in epithet from adjective phrases used in attribution:

Ha-kise l'-yad-kha. ("The chair is next to you." - lit., "The-chair [is] to-hand-your.")
Ha-kise she-l'-yad-kha shavur. ("The chair next to you is broken." - lit., "The-chair that-[is]-to-hand-your [is] broken.")

(This use of she- does not occur with simple adjectives, as Hebrew has a different way of making that distinction. For example, Ha-kise adom means "The chair [is] red," while Ha-kise ha-adom shavur means "The red chair is broken" - literally, "The chair the red [is] broken.")

Since 1994, the official rules of Modern Hebrew (as determined by the Academy of the Hebrew Language) have stated that relative clauses are to be punctuated in Hebrew the same way as in English (described above). That is, non-restrictive clauses are to be set off with commas, while restrictive clauses are not:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. ("The chair, which you are sitting on, is broken.")
Ha-kise she-ata yoshev alav shavur. ("The chair that you are sitting on is broken.")

Nonetheless, many, perhaps most, speakers of Modern Hebrew still use the pre-1994 rules, which were based on the German rules (described above). Except for the simple adjective-phrase clauses described above, these speakers set off all relative clauses, restrictive or not, with commas:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. ("The chair that you are sitting on is broken," or "The chair, which you are sitting on, is broken.")

One major difference between relative clauses in Hebrew and those in (for example) English is that in Hebrew, what might be called the "regular" pronoun is not always suppressed in the relative clause. To reuse the prior example:

Ha-kise, she-ata yoshev alav, shavur. (lit., "The chair, which you are sitting on it, [is] broken.")

More specifically, if this pronoun is the subject of the relative clause, it is always suppressed. If it is the direct object, then it is usually suppressed, though it is also correct to leave it in. (If it is suppressed, then the special preposition et, used to mark the direct object, is suppressed as well.) If it is the object of a preposition, it must be left in, because in Hebrew - unlike in English - a preposition cannot appear without its object. When the pronoun is left in, she- might more properly be called a relativizer than a relative pronoun.

The Hebrew relativizer she- ‘that’ "might be a shortened form of the Hebrew relativizer ‘asher ‘that’, which is related to Akkadian ‘ashru ‘place’ (cf. Semitic *‘athar) Alternatively, Hebrew ‘asher derived from she-, or it was a convergence of Proto-Semitic dhu (cf. Aramaic ) and ‘asher [...] Whereas Israeli she- functions both as complementizer and relativizer, ashér can only function as a relativizer."[10]


In Literary Arabic there is a relative pronoun (in Arabic: الاسم الموصول al-ism al-mawṣūl) allaḏī (masculine singular), feminine singular allatī, masculine plural allaḏīna, feminine plural allawātī, masculine dual allaḏānī (nominative) / allaḏayni (accusative and genitive), feminine dual allatānī (nom.) / allataynī (acc. and gen.).

Its usage has two specific rules: it agrees with the antecedent in gender, number and case, and it is used only if the antecedent is definite. If the antecedent is indefinite, no relative pronoun is used. The former is called jumlat sila (conjunctive sentence) while the latter is called jumlat sifa (descriptive sentence).

  • الولد الذي رأيته في الصف أمس غائب اليوم
al-waladu (a)lladhi ra’aytuhu fī (a)ṣ-ṣaffi ’amsi ğā’ibun al-yawma
"The boy I saw in class yesterday is missing today". (relative pronoun present)
  • هذا ولد رأيته في الصف أمس
hāḏā waladun ra’aytu-hu fī (a)ṣ-ṣaffi ’amsi
"This is a boy I saw in class yesterday". (relative pronoun absent)

In Demotic Arabic the multiple forms of the relative pronoun have been levelled in favour of a single form, a simple conjunction, which in most dialects is illi, and is never omitted. So in Palestinian Arabic the above sentences would be:

  • alwalad illi shuftō fi (a)ssaff embārih ghāyeb alyōm
  • hāda walad illi shuftō fi (a)ssaff embārih

As in Hebrew, the regular pronoun referring to the antecedent is repeated in the relative clause - literally, "the boy whom I saw him in class..." (the -hu in ra'aituhu and the in shuftō). The rules of suppression in Arabic are identical to those of Hebrew: obligatory suppression in the case that the pronoun is the subject of the relative clause, obligatory retention in the case that the pronoun is the object of a preposition, and at the discretion of the speaker if the pronoun is the direct object. The only difference from Hebrew is that, in the case of the direct object, it is preferable to retain the pronoun rather than suppress it.

  Japonic languages


Japanese does not employ relative pronouns to relate relative clauses to their antecedents. Instead, the relative clause directly modifies the noun phrase as an attributive verb, occupying the same syntactic space as an attributive adjective (before the noun phrase).

この おいしい 天ぷら
kono oishii tempura
"this delicious tempura"
姉が 作った 天ぷら
ane-ga tsukutta tempura
sister-SUBJ make-PAST tempura
"the tempura [that] my sister made"
天ぷらを 食べた 人
tempura-o tabeta hito
tempura-OBJ eat-PAST person
"the person who ate the tempura"

In fact, since so-called i-adjectives in Japanese are technically intransitive stative verbs, it can be argued that the structure of the first example (with an adjective) is the same as the others. A number of "adjectival" meanings, in Japanese, are customarily shown with relative clauses consisting solely of a verb or a verb complex:

光っている ビル
hikatte-iru biru
lit-be building
"an illuminated building"
濡れている 犬
nurete-iru inu
be_wet-be dog
"a wet dog"

Often confusing to speakers of languages which use relative pronouns are relative clauses which would in their own languages require a preposition with the pronoun to indicate the semantic relationship among the constituent parts of the phrase.

紅茶を 淹れる ために お湯を 沸かした やかん
kōcha-o ireru tame ni oyu-o wakashita yakan
tea-OBJ make purpose for hot-water-OBJ boiled kettle
"the kettle I boiled water in for tea"

Here, the preposition "in" is missing from the Japanese ("missing" in the sense that the corresponding postposition would be used with the main clause verb in Japanese) Common sense indicates what the meaning is in this case, but the "missing preposition" can sometimes create ambiguity.

天ぷらを 作った 人
tempura-o tsukutta hito
tempura-OBJ made person
(1) "the person who made the tempura"
(2) "the person [someone] made the tempura for"

In this case, (1) is the context-free interpretation of choice, but (2) is possible with the proper context.

僕が 記事を 書いた レストラン
boku-ga kiji-o kaita resutoran
I-SUBJ article-OBJ wrote restaurant
(1) "a restaurant about which I wrote an article"
(2) "a restaurant in which I wrote an article"

Without more context, both (1) and (2) are equally viable interpretations of the Japanese.

Note: Spaces are not ordinarily used in Japanese, but they are supplemented here to facilitate parsing by non-speakers of the language.

  Caucasian languages


In Georgian, there are two strategies for forming relative clauses. The first is similar to that of English or Latin: the modified noun is followed by a relativizer that inflects for its embedded case and may take a postposition. The relativized noun may be preceded by a determiner.

(ის) კაცი, რომელიც პარკში წავიდა, გაზეთს კითხულობს
(is) ḳac-i, romel-i-c ṗarḳ=ši c̣avida, gazet-s ḳitxulobs
(that.NOM) man-NOM which-NOM-REL park=to he.went newspaper-DAT he.reads.it
"the man who went to the park is reading the newspaper"
(ის) ქალი, რომელსაც წერილს დავუწერ, თბილისში ცხოვრობს
(is) kal-i, romel-sa-c c̣eril-s davuc̣er, tbilis=ši cxovrobs
(that.NOM) woman-NOM which-DAT-REL letter-DAT I.will.write.it.to.her Tbilisi-in she.lives
"the woman who I will write a letter to lives in Tbilisi"
ნინომ (ის) სკამი, რომელზეც ვზივარ, იყიდა
Nino-m (is) sḳam-i, romel=ze-c vzivar, iqida
Nino-ERG (that.NOM) chair-NOM which=on-REL I.sit she.bought.it
"Nino bought the chair I am sitting in"

A second, more colloquial, strategy is marked by the invariant particle რომ rom. This particle is generally the second word of the clause, and since it does not decline, is often followed by the appropriately cased third-person pronoun to show the relativized noun's role in the embedded clause. A determiner precedes the relativized noun, which is also usually preceded by the clause as a whole.

წერილს რომ მას დავუწერ, ის ქალი თბილისში ცხოვრობს
c̣̣eril-s rom mas davuc̣̣er, is kal-i tbilis=ši cxovrobs
letter-DAT REL 3S.DAT I.will.write.it.to.her that.NOM woman-NOM Tbilisi-in she.lives
"the woman who I will write a letter to lives in Tbilisi"
მე რომ მასზე ვზივარ, ის სკამი ნინომ იყიდა
me rom mas=ze vzivar, is sḳam-i Nino-m iqida
1S REL 3S.DAT=on I.sit that.NOM chair-NOM Nino-ERG she.bought.it
"Nino bought the chair I am sitting in"

Such relative clauses may be interally-headed. In such cases, the modified noun moves into the clause, taking the appropriate declension for the its role therein (thus eliminating the need for the third person pronouns in the above examples), and leaves behind the determiner (which now functions as a pronoun) in the matrix clause.

ქალს რომ წერილს დავუწერ, ის თბილისში ცხოვრობს
kal-s rom c̣̣eril-s davuc̣̣er, is tbilis=ši cxovrobs
woman-DAT REL letter-DAT I.will.write.it.to.her 3S.NOM Tbilisi-in she.lives
"the woman who I will write a letter to lives in Tbilisi"

  Austronesian languages


Tagalog uses the gapping strategy to form relative clauses, with the complementiser, na / =ng 'that', separating the head, which is the noun being modified, from the actual relative clause. In (1a) below, lalaki 'man' serves as the head, while nagbigay ng bigas sa bata 'gave rice to the child' is the relative clause.

(1) a. lalaki =ng nagbigay ____ ng bigas sa bata
man COMP ACT.gave ACC rice DAT child
"man that gave rice to the child"
b. Nagbigay ang lalaki ng bigas sa bata.
ACT.gave NOM man ACC rice DAT child
"The man gave rice to the child."

The gap inside the relative clause corresponds to the position that the noun acting as the head would have normally taken, had it been in a declarative sentence. In (1a), the gap is in subject position within the relative clause. This corresponds to the subject position occupied by ang lalaki 'the man' in the declarative sentence in (1b).

There is a constraint in Tagalog on the position from which a noun can be relativised and in which a gap can appear: A noun has to be the subject within the relative clause in order for it to be relativised. The phrases in (2) are ungrammatical because the nouns that have been relativised are not the subjects of their respective relative clauses. In (2a), the gap is in direct object position, while in (2b), the gap is in indirect object position.

(2) a. * bigas na nagbigay ang lalaki ____ sa bata
rice COMP ACT.gave NOM man DAT child
for: "rice that the man gave to the child"
b. * bata =ng nagbigay ang lalaki ng bigas ____
rice COMP ACT.gave NOM man ACC rice
for: "child that the man gave rice to"

The correct Tagalog translations for the intended meanings in (2) are found in (3), where the verbs have been passivised in order to raise the logical direct object in (3a) and the logical indirect object in (3b) to subject position. (Tagalog can have more than one passive voice form for any given verb.)

(3) a. bigas na ibinigay ng lalaki sa bata
rice COMP PSV.gave GEN man DAT child
"rice that the man gave to the child"
(or: "rice that was given to the child by the man")
b. bata =ng binigyan ng lalaki ng bigas
child COMP gave.PSV GEN man ACC rice
"child that the man gave rice to"
(or: "child that was given rice to by the man")

Tagalog relative clauses can be left-headed, as in (1a) and (3), right-headed, as in (4), or internally headed, as in (5).

(4) nagbigay ng bigas sa bata na lalaki
ACT.gave ACC rice DAT child COMP man
"man that gave rice to the child"
(5) a. nagbigay na lalaki ng bigas sa bata
ACT.gave COMP man ACC rice DAT child
"man that gave rice to the child"
b. nagbigay ng bigas na lalaki sa bata
ACT.gave ACC rice COMP man DAT child
"man that gave rice to the child"

In (4), the head, lalaki 'man', is found after or to the right of the relative clause, nagbigay ng bigas sa bata 'gave rice to the child'. In (5), the head is found in some position inside the relative clause. Note that when the head appears to the right of or internally to the relative clause, the complementiser appears to the left of the head. When the head surfaces to the left of the relative clause, the complementiser surfaces to the right of the head.

There are exceptions to the subjects-only constraint to relativisation mentioned above. The first involves relativising the possessor of a noun phrase within the relative clause.

(6) bata =ng nasugatan ang daliri ____
child COMP injured.PSV NOM finger
"child whose finger was injured"

In (6), the head, bata 'child', is the owner of the injured finger. Note that ang daliri 'the finger' is the subject of the verb, nasugatan 'was injured'.

Another exception involves relativising the oblique noun phrase.

(7) a. ospital (na) kung saan ipinanganak si Juan
hospital COMP Q-COMP where PSV.bore NOM Juan
"house where Juan was born"
b. Nagtanong siya kung saan ipinanganak si Juan.
ACT.asked 3SG.NOM Q-COMP where PSV.bore NOM Juan
"She asked where Juan was born."
c. Ipinanganak si Juan sa ospital.
PSV.bore NOM Juan LOC hospital
"Juan was born at the hospital."
d. Saan ipinanganak si Juan?
where PSV.bore NOM Juan
"Where was Juan born?"

When an oblique noun phrase is relativised, as in (7a), na 'that', the complementiser that separates the head from the relative clause, is optional. The relative clause itself is also composed differently. In the examples in (1a), and in (3) to (6), the relative clauses are simple declaratives that contain a gap. However, the relative clause in (7a) looks more like an indirect question, complete with the interrogative complementiser, kung 'if', and a pre-verbally positioned WH-word like saan 'where', as in (7b). The sentence in (7c) is the declarative version of the relative clause in (7a), illustrating where the head, ospital 'hospital', would have been "before" relativisation. The question in (7d) shows the direct question version of the subordinate indirect question in (7b).


Relative clauses in Hawaiian[11] are avoided unless they are short.

If in English a relative clause would have a copula and an adjective, in Hawaiian the antecedent is simply modified by the adjective: "The honest man" instead of "the man who is honest". If the English relative clause would have a copula and a noun, in Hawaiian an appositive is used instead: "Paul, an apostle" instead of "Paul, who was an apostle".

If the English relative pronoun would be the subject of an intransitive or passive verb, in Hawaiian a participle is used instead of a full relative clause: "the people fallen" instead of "the people who fell"; "the thing given" instead of "the thing that was given". But when the relative clause's antecedent is a person, the English relative pronoun would be the subject of the relative clause, and the relative clause's verb is active and transitive, a relative clause is used and it begins with the relative pronoun nana: The one who me (past) sent = "the one who sent me".

If in English a relative pronoun would be the object of a relative clause, in Hawaiian the possessive form is used so as to treat the antecedent as something possessed: the things of me to have seen = "the things that I saw"; Here is theirs to have seen = This is what they saw".

  Andean languages


thuquñap punchu
dance-INF-3POSS poncho
"the poncho he is dancing with"

  Chinese languages


In Mandarin Chinese, the relative clause precedes the noun that it modifies, and ends with the relative particle de. If the relative clause is missing a subject but contains an object (if transitive), the main-clause noun is the implied subject of the relative clause:[12]

zhòng shuǐguǒ de nóngrén
grow fruit (particle) farmer
the farmer who grows fruit

If the object but not the subject is missing from the relative clause, the main-clause noun is the implied object of the relative clause:

tāmen zhòng de shuǐguǒ
they grow (particle) fruit
the fruit that they grow

If both the subject and the object are missing from the relative clause, then the main-clause noun could either be the implied subject or the implied object of the relative clause; sometimes which is intended is clear from the context, especially when the subject or object of the verb must be human and the other must be non-human:

jīntiān yíng de qián fù fáng zū
today win (particle) money pay house rent
the money that [we] won today pays the rent

But sometimes ambiguity arises when it is not clear from the context whether the main-clause noun is intended as the subject or the object of the relative clause:

zuótiān pīping de rén dōu bu zài zhèlǐ
yesterday criticize (particle) person all not at here
the people who criticized [others] yesterday are not all here OR the people whom [others] criticized yesterday are not all here

Sometimes a relative clause has both a subject and an object specified, in which case the main-clause noun is the implied object of an implied preposition in the relative clause:

wŏ xiě xìn de máobǐ
I write letter (particle) brushpen
the brushpen I write letters with


  Hawaiian Creole English

In Hawaiian Creole English, an English-based creole also called Hawaiian Pidgin or simply Pidgin, relative clauses work in a way that is similar to, but not identical to, the way they work in English.[13] As in English, a relative pronoun that serves as the object of the verb in the relative clause can optionally be omitted: For example,

Ai neva si da buk daet Lisa wen bai
I never see the book that Lisa (past) buy
I didn't see the book that Lisa bought

can also be expressed with the relative pronoun omitted, as

Ai neva si da buk Lisa wen bai
I never see the book Lisa (past) buy
I didn't see the book Lisa bought

However, relative pronouns serving as the subject of a relative clause show more flexibility than in English; they can be included, as is mandatory in English, they can be omitted, or they can be replaced by another pronoun. For example, all of the following can occur and all mean the same thing:

Get wan nada grl hu no kaen ste stil
There's one other girl who no can stay still
There's another girl who cannot stay still
Get wan nada grl no kaen ste stil
There's one other girl no can stay still
Get wan nada grl shi no kaen ste stil
There's one other girl she no can stay still


In Gullah, an English-based creole spoken along the southeastern coast of the United States, no relative pronoun is normally used for the subject of a relative clause. For example:

Duh him cry out so
It him cry out so
It's he who cries out so
Enty duh dem shum dey?
Ain't it them saw_him there?
Isn't it they who saw him there?

  See also


  1. ^ Carrol, David W (2008). Psychology of Language (5 ed.). Belmont: Thomson & Wadsworth. 
  2. ^ Townsend, David J; Thomas G Bever (2001). Sentence Comprehension: The Integration of Habits and Rules. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 247–9. 
  3. ^ WALS - Acoma
  4. ^ McKee, Cecile; McDaniel, Dana (2001), "Resumptive Pronouns in English Relative Clauses", Language Acquisition 9 (2) .
  5. ^ Lehmann, C, 1986; "On the Typology of Relative Clauses", in Linguistics, vol. 24, issue 4, pp.663-680. doi:10.1515/ling.1986.24.4.663
  6. ^ EL Keenan, B Comrie, "Noun Phrase Accessibility and Universal Grammar", Linguistic Inquiry, volume 8 number 1 (Winter 1977), pp. 63-99
  7. ^ Comrie, Bernard; Language Universals and Linguistic Typology; pp. 156-163; ISBN 0-226-11434-1
  8. ^ ὅς. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at Perseus Project
  9. ^  in Liddell and Scott
  10. ^ A quote from p. 79 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), "Complement Clause Types in Israeli", Complementation: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, edited by R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 72-92 (Chapter 3).
  11. ^ Alexander, W. D., Introduction to Hawaiian Grammar, Dover, 2004 (originally 1864): 45-47.
  12. ^ The examples in this section are from Li, Charles N., and Thompson, Sandra A., Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, Univ. of California Press, 1981: 579-585.
  13. ^ Sakoda, Kent, and Siegel, Jeff. Pidgin Grammar, Bess Press, 2003: pp. 102ff.
  • Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
  • A.J.Thomson & A.V.Martinet (4th edition 1986). A Practical English Grammar. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-431342-5. §72-85. (For the basic "rules" of the English relative pronoun in a presentation suitable for foreign learners.)
  • Keenan & Comrie, "Data on the Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy", Language, vol. 55, No. 2 (Jun., 1979), pp. 333–351 [1]

  External links



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