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What Is an Adjective Clause? (with Examples)

What Is an Adjective Clause? (with Examples)

When we think of an adjective, we usually think about a single word used before a noun to modify its meanings (e.g., tall building, smelly cat, argumentative assistant). However, an adjective can also come in the form of an adjective clause.

An adjective clause usually comes after the noun it modifies and is made up of several words which, like all clauses, will include a subject and a verb.

Examples of Adjective Clauses

Here are some examples of adjective clauses:
  • The carpets which you bought last year have gone moldy.
  • The film which you recommended scared the kids half to death.
  • The follies which a man regrets most in his life are those which he didn't commit when he had the opportunity. (Helen Rowland, 1876-1950)
  • Bore: a person who talks when you wish him to listen.

The Components of an Adjective Clause

An adjective clause (which can also be called an adjectival clause or a relative clause) will have the following three traits:
  • It will start with a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, that, or which) or a relative adverb (when, where, or why).
  • (This links it to the noun it is modifying.)(Note: Quite often, the relative pronoun can be omitted. However, with an adjective clause, it is always possible to put one in. There is more on this below.)
  • It will have a subject and a verb.
  • (These are what make it a clause.)
  • It will tell us something about the noun.
  • (This is why it is a kind of adjective.)
Look at the three traits in this example:




Quite often, the relative pronoun is the subject of the clause. Look at the three traits in this example:


The Relative Pronoun Can Be Omitted

It is common for the relative pronoun to be omitted. Look at these examples:
  • The carpets which you bought last year have gone moldy.
  • The film which you recommended scared the kids half to death.
  • The follies which a man regrets most in his life are those which he didn't commit when he had the opportunity. (Helen Rowland, 1876-1950)
This is not always possible though:
  • Bore: a person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Commas or No Commas around an Adjective Clause?

The big question with an adjective clause is whether to offset it with commas or not. The rule is this:
  • Don't use commas if your clause is essential; i.e., it is required to identify its noun. (This is called a restrictive clause.)
  • Do use commas if your clause is just additional information. (This is called a non-restrictive clause.)
This is a good test: If you would happily put brackets around it or delete it, then use commas.

Here is an example of a non-restrictive clause:

  • My brother, who claimed to have a limp, sprinted after the bus.
  • (This clause is not required to identify My brother. It is just additional information.)
  • My brother (who claimed to have a limp) sprinted after the bus.
  • (As it's just additional information, you can put it in brackets.)
  • My brother sprinted after the bus.
  • (As it's just additional information, you can even delete it.)
Compare this to a restrictive clause:

  • The tramp who claimed to have a limp sprinted after the bus.
  • (This clause is required to identify The tramp. Without it, we don't know which tramp we're talking about.)
  • The tramp (who claimed to have a limp) sprinted after the bus.
  • (This sentence is only appropriate if we know which tramp we're talking about.)
  • The tramp sprinted after the bus.
  • (This sentence is only appropriate if we know which tramp we're talking about.)
Interactive Test
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Click on the example with an adjective clause: