Grammar curiosities 2: relative clauses

Too much choice

So in my last post I did ask if anyone had any good ideas about contexts for presenting and practising relative clauses, but there was a deafening silence from the blogosphere! Perhaps this is like when you tell someone you speak a foreign language and the other person says ‘Go on! Say something’. You are left speechless, paralysed by the infinite choice of what you could say. Relative clauses could come up in all kinds of situations so thinking of one particular context can leave you similarly nonplussed.


Do we need to teach them at all?

One solution to this that I mentioned before might, therefore, be not to teach them at all! Instead, we could simply draw attention to them as and when they come up. When I was at IATEFL Glasgow last week this was also suggested by Danny Norrington-Davies, who I think was quoting Martin Parrot. I’ve recently found myself looking more at Parrot’s book and finding many words of wisdom. Certainly in Romance languages there isn’t anything really syntactically different about a relative clause – they basically come in the same part of the sentence, don’t they? What about in other languages? I would be very interested to learn. We could see relative clauses as primarily a question of learning the words which, who, that, where etc. – or to put it a better way, the English equivalents of the relative pronouns in the foreign language. I believe in some languages a relative pronoun for a defining clause might be different to a non-defining one. Students need to know that equivalent in English but not how a relative clause works – they know that already. OK, so in English we often leave out the relative pronoun, but you don’t have to. This eliding of the pronoun might be something we could deal with receptively and wait for students to develop that style (or not develop it, if they so wish in the ELF world!).

Oil Olives Olive Trees Mediterranean

Some grammar olives for relative clauses

One way awareness can drawn to relative clauses is through two-way translation. You might have an example such as This is the guy I was telling you about, which could be useful when introducing someone. Ask the students to translate it into their own language. Then they can cover the original and translate it back into English and notice any differences. This could be done with single sentences as they arise for example when a student was searching to use a relative clause or used one wrongly (a two-minute activity). You might also  provide additional examples to illustrate the pattern – something we have done in the Outcomes series – and get students to translate all of them to see how the sentence is patterned and generative.

  • That’s the place I was telling you about yesterday.
  • She’s the woman I was talking to earlier.
  • Did you see I sent you that article I was telling you about?  

Thoughts on the controlled practice and free practice in PPP

What’s interesting to me here is that while all these sentences have the same function, you would be quite unlikely to say them all within the same context or conversation. When it comes to communicative practice, it is, therefore, quite hard to have a sensible context which provides multiple opportunities for using relative clauses. My view is that we should probably just accept this. The translation activity is a kind of controlled practice (why should the second P be a long activity) and we could have a short free conversation practice perhaps based on any one of these sentences. So students don’t use any other relative clauses in their conversation, so what? They’ll be practising plenty of other grammar in this freer P stage. That’s worthwhile, isn’t it?

Having said that, we may be able to provide groups of relative clauses which allow students more choice and several opportunities to use them within an extended speaking. For example:

  • That’s exactly what I was saying earlier.
  • That’s not what I meant to say.
  • That’s the point I was trying to make.
  • That’s the word I wanted, not X.
  • That’s who I meant to say, not Y!

Relative clauses, common modifiers and chunks

These previous examples could, of course, be taught simply as useful chunks of language without reference to the grammar at all. A narrow view of a lexical approach would say that is exactly what you should do – reference to grammar is to be avoided. However, as we have made clear in previous articles, this is certainly not how we view lexical teaching. Instead what we are trying to do is work with collocation and useful chunks within grammar teaching. This is something which Bruno Leys presented in another talk at IATEFL. His exercises look at relative clauses as a kind of collocation. I think there is definitely something in this – especially when we broaden the concept of relative clauses to general post-modification of nouns, including prepositional phrases and participle phrases. So for example we might have these common collocations:

  • the car in front
  • the car coming in the opposite direction
  • the car parked next to me
  • the car I had before


Apart from the two way translation, you could use put these in a simple gap-fill which emphasises the grammar element. In each case, we could ask ‘which car?’ to draw attention to the grammar function:

  • As I was backing out I caught the side of the car …….. . I left quite a bad scratch.
  • I find this is a lot cheaper to run than the car………. . That one used to guzzle fuel.
  • Apparently, they were trying to overtake a truck and they collided with a car ……… .
  • The car ………… braked really suddenly and I almost went into the back of it.

A context of talking about cars and driving incidents might allow a practice of these. However, note that when planning such a task that the vocabulary is likely to be far more of a problem than the grammar! We could do a number of these sentences where we first process the grammar, but we then would need to go back and look at the vocabulary and ask questions about it to check and develop students understanding. Again, this is a central idea of lexical teaching – exercises can serve two functions. They are not separated out. Grammar and vocab work together, so why not develop exercises that recognise that fact?

While the above example can work for say a B2 level or higher,  Still, we could do the same kind of thing at lower levels. For example in deciding where to eat we could give students these chunks and patterns:

  • the bar next door
  • the cafe down the road
  • that X place with the terrace on Y Rd 
  • the place we went to last week
  • a new place in Z a friend was telling me about

We could perhaps brainstorm other examples in class based on the location of the class and the students in the room. We could provide then other frames to go with these noun phrases:.

  • The …. is nice
  • The …. does sandwiches
  • The …. is OK for something quick.
  • How about the …. ? We have been there for a while.
  • How about the ….? They do a nice lunch menu.
  • How about the ….? We could sit outside.
  • There’s …. . They said it’s great / It’s supposed to be great

If we really wanted to simplify this you could stick to the prepositional phrases. It is strange, I think, that while prepositions and prepositional phrases are a common part of low-level courses as in There’s a pub on Upper Street, materials rarely follow this up by showing students how these same prepositional phrases can be used to define nouns in other sentences:

  • I never go to the bar round the corner.
  • They’ve closed the bar next to the station.

I don’t see why such noun phrases could not be taught to an Elementary student. There is nothing conceptually complicated about them or linguistically (assuming they have been taught the prepositional phrases already). Again, we might not expect immediate take up and we can imagine errors, but it may speed up the journey.

Some more collocations

Of course, these defining relative clauses will often follow very common nouns: man, woman, people, place, thing, stuff, way, shop, bar, hotel etc. Perhaps, and I have never tried this in class, it would be interesting at low levels (A1-B1) to give noun phrases based on these words and ask students to generate sentences or stories about them. And/or we could add other common phrases to modify the noun

  • the woman …. in front of me in the queue / sitting next to me / behind me / standing / shouting / I met / I was telling you about
  • people ….. waiting / hanging around / protesting / I work with / in my class / next door
  • the way … home / to work / there / to the airport / out
  • place … nearby / we stayed in / we went to / you live in / you’re moving to

The ‘human’ examples above include ‘reduced’ relative clauses – which are not usually taught in coursebooks till upper intermediate / B2 level.  However, do students actually have to think of them as reduced relative clauses at all in these cases to make use of them – and perhaps even generate their own patterns? I don’t think so.

Are -ing clauses reduced relative clauses anyway?

Another example where this pattern of using an -ing form to define a noun could be through the pattern there is / there are  X -ing. We learn there is /  there are at an elementary level. We might follow this up with there was / there were – maybe – but I have rarely seen it taught in coursebooks as a thing at lower levels. But again is it such a difficult further step? And wouldn’t learning it, help develop an awareness and uptake of the ‘reduced relative clause’ pattern in other contexts?

I have do have a question here though, when considering these as a reduction of a full relative clause’ as opposed to an -ing form modifying the noun it follows. It seems clear that There were lots of people already queuing when I got there Is ‘reduced’ from ‘…lots of people who were were already queuing…’, but what about ‘There was a problem finding accommodation?’ What’s the relative clause that is being ‘reduced’ there? And in either case, is this what speakers are really doing – reducing the relative clause? Do speakers start by thinking of  the relative clause and then choose to reduce it? Seems a faff to me.

. . . which was nice.

And finally a thought on the non-defining relative clauses in speech. We mentioned before that they are not very common. However, one type that is used quite a lot are those which basically modify a previous clause or  in other words to comment on what you just said. The ‘…which was nice’ chunk, actually became a catchphrase in the BBC sketch show, The Fast Show. The character would list a series of incredible happenings in their life which was then followed, with typically English understatement, by the phrase. We could provide examples for two-way translation as suggested above:

  • The airline bumped us up to business class, which was very nice.
  • I left my ID at home and had to go back, which was a bit of a pain.
  • They got married in Littlehampton, which is where they first met.
  • I’d told him hundreds of times before not to do it, which I why I was so pissed off.

Alternatively, as a practice you could work either by giving the relative clause and getting students to think of the rest of the sentence, or you could give sentences to think of the relative clauses:

  • …………, which was nice.
  • I left my ID at home and had to go back, ……..

In either case they could see how many different ideas they could come up with in Fast Show style, and you may even find students produce similar comic effects! Working with common chunks doesn’t mean we can’t be creative and playful at times.

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  • Ken Paterson

    There’s also that situation in conversation, isn’t there, where you add a relative clause to what someone else has said, e.g.:

    B: I can’t find that TV cable anywhere.
    A: Have you tried the drawer?
    B: Drawer?
    A: Yeah. Where you keep electrical stuff.

    A: I only told him to clear up his room.
    B: Exactly. Which is why he lost his temper.

    The other thing your piece reminded me of was how often relative clauses are used in ‘heads/headers’, e.g.:

    That new job you’re applying for, is it part-time or full-time?
    That guy you spoke to, did you get his name?


    • Hugh Dellar

      Thanks for these, Ken. All lovely natural examples.

    • Lexicallab

      Thanks for these, Ken. All lovely natural examples.