The Study of Position of Relative Clause in Written Context
Hu Shuang Ling 671 Fall, 2008
Relative clause is a type of complex post-nominal adjectival modifier used in both
written and spoken English, which has brought a lot of teaching challenge to ESL
teachers (Murcia &Larsen-Freeman, 574). The concept “The Noun phrase accessibility
hierarchy” is a prevailing theory that provides an explanation of how the relative clause is
acquired. The basic idea of this theory is that since a subject noun phrase can become a
relative form more easily than an object noun phrase, it is more accessible to
relativization. Furthermore, a direct object is more accessible than an indirect object,
which is more accessible than an object of a preposition, and so on. This hierarchy is
illustrated as follows (Keenan & Comrie, 1977):
Subject > Direct Object > Indirect Object > Oblique > Genitive > Object of
Fox (1987) re-examined the far-left side of this hierarchy and challenged the subject
primacy hypothesis by analyzing the spoken data and proposed the Absolute hypothesis,
which was developed on the basis of Du Bois (1987)’ s Preferred Argument Structure
Hypothesis, to a large extent.
The position of relative clause is an inevitable topic, as far as the acquisition of relative
clause is concerned. It is generally believed that the second language learners are much
successful at learning to use the relative clause in sentence final position than those in the
The present study is to examine the distribution of the positions of relative clauses in
written data, including academic papers and newspaper, in the general terms of the
medial and final positions. In addition, the meaning of the relative clause in context is
explored on the basis of qualitative analysis of data. Some teaching suggestions at the end
are provided, with an attempt to help EFL teachers to explain the basic structure and
usage of relative clause in simple and comprehensive way.
The study was conducted by Swets and Zeitlinger(1994) to explore the position of
relative clauses on the basis of analyzing the Lancaster/ IBM Spoken English Corpus. In
order to study the position of relative clauses, four categories are made for analysis:
Restrict relative clause in the Middle position, Non-restrictive relative clause in the
Middle position, Restrictive relative clause at the End and Non-restrictive relative clause
at the End. The results showed that relative clause is preferred to occur at the end of the
utterance rather than placed somewhere in the middle of the utterance. The relative
clauses inserted in the middle of the utterance tend to be shorter than those at the end. In
addition, even though the relative clause comes in the middle of the utterance, it is more
likely that it is placed at the end of the meaningful part.
Relevant findings came from Yule (1998), who claims that the relative clause can be
placed in the middle or in the final position of a main clause, when it is connected to the
In this case, when position of relative clause is concerned, relative clause can be
categorized by the relationship between the antecedent noun and the relative noun, as
follows: S-O, S-S, O-S and O-O.
 The woman that the man wants to marry has a large dog.(S-O)
 The man who lives next door has a cat. (S-S)
 I came across the man who has a cat that (O-S)
 I also met the woman that the man wants to marry. (O-O)
From the observation on the structural connections between main clauses and relative
clauses, relative clauses are found in final position after the direct objects of the main
clause, as in  and also after the antecedents that are objects of preposition in the main
clause, as in 
He also claimed that while acquiring the relative clauses, the second language learners
are much more successfully mastering those in final position than those in medial
position. The structure of O-S type tend to be acquired most successfully by ESL
learners, where the last element (object) of the main clause and the first element (subject)
of the relative clause are connected; while they have difficulty in producing the type of S-
S and S-O, that is, the two medial position structures.
The written data will be analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively to demonstrate the
distribution of the position of relative clause and their meaning in the context.
Academic paper: Role of ploy (ADP-ribose) synthetase in inflammation and ischaemia-
Reperfusion (10 pages)
Newspaper: The Money & Investigation Section in The Wall Street Journal (8 pages)
The relative clauses in the written data are categorized into restricted relative clause
(R) and non-restricted relative clause(Non-R), in order to identify their distribution of the
position of the relative clauses in the data. Then these two categories are individually
subdivided into the subject relative clauses and object relative clause to figure out the
detail distributive characteristics of the relative clauses in the data.
Here the S-relative clause refers to the relative clause used to modify the subject of the
main clause, while the O-relative clause refers to the relative clause used to modify the
object of the main clause.
VersaSun, which is based in Sioux Falls, S.D., avidly rode investors enthusiasm for
ethanol, a corn-based product typically mixed with gasoline.
As recently as 1995, 73.5% of Berkshire’s total asserts consisted of a portfolio of publicly
traded stocks that any investor could have replicated.
The distribution of the position of the relative clause:
In academic paper
Medial Position Final Position
R Non-R R Non-R
S-relative clause 6 5 4 7
O-relative clause 3 9 3 20
Total 23 34
In the newspaper
Medial Position Final Position
R Non-R R Non-R
S-relative clause 10 2 3 7
O-relative clause 12 5 16 10
Total 28 36
By observing the results table1 and table2, the relative clause is preferred to occur in the
final position rather than the medial position in the written data, as the same results found
in the spoken data by the previous studies. Obviously the non-restrictive relative clauses
are more likely to occur in the final position. This tendency of placing relative clause in
the final position is stronger in the non-restrictive relative clause rather than restrictive
clause. The relative clauses used to modify the object of main clause are likely to occur
in the final position, while those used to modify the subject of main clause are likely to
occur in the medial position. In addition, the relative clause used to modify the object of
the main clause appear more frequently than that used to modify the subject of the main
clause, which may mean the former one may more accessible to language learners in the
acquisition of English as a second language.
Besides that, the detail distribution of position of relative clause is different in these two
different styles, especially shown in the non-restrictive relative clause, which can be
further worked on in a new angle.
Meaning in context
The differences in the structure of relative clause are connected to the difference in t
how information is presented in speaker or writer’ s message. The basic organization of
English sentences containing relative clauses can be explained in terms of information
structure, including the introduction of new information and connection with given
Fox (1987) re-examine “The Noun phrase accessibility hierarchy” on the far left side
and re-categorized the subject and object relative clauses into A-relatives, P-relatives and
S-relatives. She further claims that the given information or the theme of the sentence is
often coded by a pronoun in A-relative clauses in spoken discourse, while the new
information or the rheme of the sentence is coded by full NPs or often with P- and S-
The present study is to demonstrate how information is structured in the relative clause
in relation to its position in the sentence, namely final and medial position. Based on the
observable facts in the data, generally speaking, the relative clause in the final position is
typically used to introduce new information, while the relative clause in the medial
position is used to make a connection with already established, or given information. In
the following part, examples extracted from the data will be shown to make a further
Final position: Introducing new information
The firm is under a separate court order in Delaware that admonishes it to use its best
efforts to close the $ 6.5 billion bill.
In this sentence, the firm is assumed to be known by readers, which can be treated as
given, since it is the central element of this news and has been mentioned several times
above. The noun phrase “ a separate court order in Delaware”, at this point, is being
presented as new. The relative clause “ that admonishes it to use its best efforts to close
the $6.5 billion bill” in the final position is the new information in the whole information
There were a host of things that have sold off to extraordinarily ridiculous level.
This positive feed-forward cycle might explain the reduced peroxynitrite generation that
was detected in the animal treated with PARS inhibition during myocardial reperfusion.
Those sentences also provide evidence to demonstrate that relative clause in the final
position is used to introduce the new information.
Medial position: Connection with given information
Ameriprise Financial Inc. , a broker that the company met on October, alleges in a
Based on the analysis of the data, it is obvious that relative clauses in medial position
typically modify the subject, so they are used to identify what is already assumed to be
known or given. That given information, expressed in a relative clause, is generally
placed inside the main clause. In this example, the relative clause “the company met on
October” is inserted to modify the subject “the broker” in the main clause and provide the
Based on the qualitative analysis of the data, it has a tendency that relative clause
connecting to an object in the final position is typically used to introduce new
Information, whereas a relative clause connecting to the subject in the medial position is
typically used to make a connection with given information.
1. A common exercise format for indentifying the positions of relative clause and
practicing their basic structures is to provide learners with two sentences and invite them
to combine those sentences into a single sentence containing a relative clause. During this
process, students will be able to find the way to put the relative clauses in the appropriate
positions on their own. One noun phrase has to be identical in each of the sentence pairs.
I want to catch the plane. The plane leaves at noon.
The money has been stolen. I left the money in the box.
After learners have a mastery of how to solve these problems, it may be helpful to
discuss with students the fact that there are several choices in some examples and
those choices fit different contexts. In this case, EFL teachers can figure out what the
students lack in this aspect and modify their teaching content correspondingly.
2. Another way to help the students get familiar with the position of relative clause to
insert the extra information to the original sentence, which can be considered as the main
clause. This can be realized by the simple sentence-combing type of excise or by a more
interesting text-elaborate type of excise.
The simple sentence-combing excise:
For instance: Original sentence: My friend buys a lot of books in the bookstore.
Extra- information sentences: He doesn’t read them most of the time.
The bookstore is on the left side of the Wall
In the text excise, the extra information has been inserted in the text and learners are
invited to coherent relative clauses in a proper way, especially taking some consideration
of the pragmatic meaning of the text.
3. The “OK, or not OK exercise” (Tarone and Yule, 1989) can be adopted here to help
the learners acquire the relative clause. This excise aims at discovering and concentrating
on the specific aspects of those English relative clauses that learners are consistently
going wrong. In this excise, a set of relative clauses are provided to the students, who can
comprehend what these sentence are talking about. The relative clauses are put in
different positions in the example, mainly in the wrong way. The students are invited to
judge the appropriateness of the basic structure of the relative clauses and provide their
The people arrived later who was coming by bus. Ok/ not Ok
The book that was lying on the table wasn’t there now. Ok/ not Ok.
4. Toward more proficient learners, the task can be designed to challenge them to identify
a range of relative clauses in different types of context, which may be efficient for
students to identify the proper usage of relative clause in different style of writing
materials. For instance, the material used in the excise can be from the newspaper and
academic writing, the students are required to identify and compare the relative clauses in
the chosen material, in order to develop their awareness of some aspects of the
composition of extended discourse English.
Teaching relative clause is always a troublesome task for EFL learners, especially
when the basic structure of relative clause is concerned. In this study, the position of
relative clause was touched on and discussed on the basis of the analysis of the written
data. It is found out that the relative clause is preferred to appear in the final position of
the relative clause rather than in the medial position, which is embodied more obviously
in the non-restricted relative clause. In addition, the relative clause used to modify the
subject of the main clause tends to occur in the medial position, while those used to
modify the object of the main clause tends to occur in the final position. Based on this
preliminary of the position of the relative clause in the written data, the information
structure of relative clause is identified in terms of final and medial position. The general
tendency is that the relative clause in the final position is typically used to introduce new
information, while the relative clause in the medial position is used to make a connection
with already established, or given information. Teaching suggestion at the end is
proposed with an attempt to show EFL teachers an easy way to teach the relative clause,
especially in the aspect of basic structure. The distribution of non-restricted relative
clause differs a little in different writing styles, which can be further explored from a new
angle in the near further.
This research has achieved some interesting findings, but the report is lack of focus
and some discussions were unclear or even misleading.
For instance, the absolutive hypothesis was introduced in the beginning but it did
not seem to be related to the rest of the discussion.
The summary in the conclusion is nice, but the same information should have been
placed in the beginning to let the readers know what this study is about.
Celce-Murcia, Marianne, Howard Alan Williams, and Diane Larsen-Freeman (1998).
Grammar Book: An ESLEFL Teacher's Course. New York: Newbury House, 599-
Fox, Barbara A (1987). "The Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy Reinterpreted: Subject
Primacy or the Absolutive Hypothesis." Language 63 (1978): 856-70.
Swets, and Zeitlinger (1994). "An Analysis of Relative Clause in the Lancaster/IBM
spoken English Corpus." English Studies: 73-84.
Yule, George (1998). Explaining English Grammar. New York: Oxford UP, 257-69.