Adjective Clauses

Adjective clauses are a really important part of the English language, and mastering them can boost your IELTS writing score, improve your speaking accuracy, and even help improve your reading comprehension.

What are Adjective Clauses?

Adjective clauses are dependent clauses which add detail to a sentence by functioning as adjectives. Like regular adjectives, they modify nouns. They are usually placed right after the noun which they describe.

They are often referred to as “relative clauses” because they begin with relative pronouns or relative adverbs such as:

  • Who
  • Whom
  • Whose
  • Where
  • That
  • Which
  • When
  • Where
  • Why

How does it Work?

Generally, an adjective clause will follow one of these patterns:

  1. Relative pronoun/adverb + subject + verb
  2. Relative pronoun (as subject) + verb

As a dependent clause, it needs to have both a subject (even if, as in #2, the subject is a relative pronoun) and a verb. It should modify a noun by adding extra information about it, being placed as close as possible to the noun. To understand what it means to “modify” the noun, think about questions that may be asked: Who? What? Where? When? How? etc

Here are some examples:

  • Carol felt manipulated by her poodle, whose big, black eyes pleaded for another snack.
  • Constantly talking with food in her mouth is one reason why John cannot stand sitting near his sister.
  • Jane’s two dogs competed for the ball that bounced across the patio.
  • Laughter came from Susan, who hiccupped for the next two hours.

What do the Relative Pronouns Mean?

Who – people as subject of clause

  • The woman who teaches in the chemistry department is my mentor.

Whom – people as objects or objects of preposition

  • John, whom I’ve known since primary school, is my closest friend.
  • The boy of whom we’re discussing is from Slovakia.

Which, that – things or animals

  • The computer that I bought was very cheap.
  • The dog which we adopted has settled into our family.

Whose – denotes ownership or possession

  • The girl whose father is watching from the stands is winning the race.

When – used to show the time (can sometimes be omitted)

  • I’ll never forget the time when I first met her.
  • I’ll never forget the time I first met her.

Where – marks place (can be omitted, but must be replaced by a preposition)

  • The school where he teaches is very old.
  • The school he teaches in is very old.

Why – shows a reason (can also be omitted)

  • No one knows the reason why he skips school.
  • No one knows the reason he skips school.

Essential Clauses

Commas often seem confusing, but they’re really not hard to understand. (Check out our article on correct punctuation for IELTS writing.) When it comes to adjective clauses, you need to consider the exact meaning of the sentence before you use a comma. Incorrect comma use can change the whole meaning!

Ask yourself if the information in the adjective clause is essential to understanding the noun, or if it is just extra information. If it is essential, then we call this an essential clause. If it is purely extra information to add more interest or flavor to the sentence, then it is a non-essential clause.

Essential clauses are not surrounded by commas:

  • The girl that spoke to us earlier is my sister.
    • This is essential because otherwise we don’t know which girl.
  • The house where I grew up is near here.
    • This is essential because otherwise we don’t know which house.

Non-essential clauses require commas around them:

  • Fran, who really likes dogs, is getting a puppy this weekend.
    • The information in the clause is interesting but not necessary to understand the sentence.
  • My cat, who’s always begging me for more food, is getting really fat.
    • Again, the information is relevant, but it is not essential to understanding the main clause.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel.

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