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What Are Adjective Clauses?

Adjective clauses are the secret spices of language, adding flavor to sentences by describing nouns. These clauses, often introduced by words like "who," "which," or "that," provide essential details that enhance understanding. They act like adjectives, hence the name. Think of them as the brushstrokes that paint a clearer picture in your communication. How do they work in your daily conversations?
G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Adjective clauses are dependent clauses in a sentence that serve an adjectival function, which means they describe a noun or pronoun. These types of clauses are often used in a situation in which two sentences could be created, but combining them makes the flow of language simpler or more effective. They are dependent clauses; this means that while adjective clauses have both a subject and a verb or predicate, they cannot function as full sentences on their own.

One of the most important aspects of adjective clauses is that they still fill the role of adjectives within a sentence. An adjective is a word, phrase, or clause that describes or modifies a noun or pronoun. In its simplest form, this is typically a single word such as “tall” or “blue” in phrases like “tall chair” or “blue water.”

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Adjective clauses serve this same function, but they include multiple words together that describe a particular noun or pronoun. These are dependent clauses, which mean they have the two elements required to be a clause, a subject and a verb, but they are not full sentences that could stand on their own. In contrast to this, an independent clause is part of a sentence that can be isolated and become its own grammatically accurate sentence.

For example, the following sentence includes both an independent clause and a dependent clause: “I like people who run marathons.”The independent clause is “I like people,” which includes a subject in the form of the pronoun “I,” a verb or predicate “like,” and a direct object in the word “people.” The rest of this sentence, “who run marathons,” is not a full sentence, though it could be if it was changed to “People run marathons.” This makes it a dependent clause and it is also an adjective clause.

These adjective clauses often use a relative pronoun to indicate the subject of the clause. In this case, it is the word “who,” a pronoun that represents the word “people,” which is the direct object of the previous clause. It is the subject of the dependent clause, however, followed by the verb “run,” which is the predicate. “Marathons” indicates what the subject runs, but the entire clause does not present enough information to act as a full sentence.

The presence of a relative pronoun and the structure of a dependent clause usually identify adjective clauses, though they also have to serve an adjectival function. In the previous example, it modifies or describes the “people” that the subject of the first clause likes. A similar example would be a sentence like “The man wears hats that are brown,” in which the clause “that are brown” functions as an adjective to describe the “hats.” These adjective clauses typically use the relative pronouns “that, which, who, whom, whose” and modify some aspect of the independent clause.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books