Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Revisiting the system of English relative clauses: structure, semantics, discourse functionality 1


The goal of this article is to uncover the system underlying three types of English relative clauses, and to characterise their distinctive uses in discourse: NP-integrated ones, namely restrictive and ‘a-restrictive’ relative clauses, and non-integrated ones, represented by non-restrictive relatives.

The area at issue is central, since understanding the functioning of these constructions requires reference to the fundamental interface between grammar (language system) and discourse (language use). The discourse functions of the three subtypes of relatives are claimed to be underlain by their intrinsic morphosyntactic and semantic properties. A major aim is to highlight the relative degree of ‘communicative dynamism’ of each subtype of relative clause, in terms of its respective contribution to the construction of discourse.

In doing so, the article focuses on the distinctive properties of presupposed as well as non-presupposed restrictive relatives, and of definite as well as indefinite NPs containing integrated relatives more generally. Along the way, it critically examines certain controversial conceptions of the structural and functional features of the constructions at issue, and, in particular, the claim that there is no essential distinction to be drawn between ‘integrated’ and phrase-external relative clause subtypes at all.

Hide All

I would like to thank Jim Miller, Georges Kleiber, Daniel García Velasco, Fabio Del Prete and Ming-Ming Pu for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article, as well as the two anonymous ELL reviewers for their remarks on the initial submission, and in particular Bernd Kortmann.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Ruby Arkoh & Lisa Matthewson . 2013. A familiar definite article in Akan. Lingua 123, 130.

Carl Bache & Leif Kvistgaard Jakobsen . 1980. On the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses in modern English. Lingua 52, 243–67.

Francis Cornish . 2009. Inter-sentential anaphora and coherence relations in discourse: A perfect match. Language Sciences 31 (5), 572–92.

Francis Cornish & Anne Salazar Orvig . 2016. A critical look at the notion ‘pro-form’: Evidence from indexical markers, spoken discourse and (French) child language. Language Sciences 54, 5876.

Nicole Dehé . 2014. Parentheticals in spoken English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

David Denison & Marianne Hundt . 2013. Defining relatives. Journal of English Linguistics 41 (2), 135–67.

Ilse Depraetere . 1996. Foregrounding in English relative clauses. Linguistics 34, 699731.

Nigel Fabb . 1990. The difference between English restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses. Journal of Linguistics 26, 5778.

Barbara Fox & Sandra A. Thompson . 1990. A discourse explanation of the grammar of relative clauses in English conversation. Language 66 (2), 297316.

Evelien Keizer . 2012. English proforms in Functional Discourse Grammar. Language Sciences 34 (4), 400–20.

Rudy Loock . 2007. Appositive relative clauses and their functions in discourse. Journal of Pragmatics 39, 336–62.

Rudy Loock . 2010. Appositive relative clauses in English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

John Lyons . 1977. Semantics, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James. D. McCawley 1981. The syntax and semantics of English relative clauses. Lingua 53, 99149.

James McCloskey . 1979. Model-theoretic semantics and transformational grammar. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Ming-Ming Pu . 2007. The distribution of relative clauses in Chinese discourse. Discourse Processes 43 (1), 2553.

Randolph Quirk . 1957. Relative clauses in educated spoken English. English Studies 38, 97109.

Mats Rydén . 1974. On notional relations in the relative clause complex. English Studies 55, 542–5.

Ivan. A. Sag 1997. English relative clause constructions. Journal of Linguistics 33 (2), 431–83.

Paul Schachter . 1973. Focus and relativization. Language 49 (1), 1946.

Johan Van der Auwera . 1985. Relative that – a centennial dispute. Journal of Linguistics 21, 149–79.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

English Language & Linguistics
  • ISSN: 1360-6743
  • EISSN: 1469-4379
  • URL: /core/journals/english-language-and-linguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 9
Total number of PDF views: 56 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 449 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 2nd March 2017 - 21st August 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.