Adjective clauses, also known as adjectival clauses or relative clauses, are a type of dependent clause that describes or modifies nouns, just like individual adjectives do. Like all clauses, adjective clauses contain a subject and a verb. You can identify adjective clauses because they usually begin with a relative pronoun like that, which, or who.
Adjective clauses are common in English, but their rules can get a little tricky. In this guide, we explain everything you need to know to use adjective clauses correctly and provide plenty of adjective clause examples to show you how they work.
Adjective clauses definition
All adjectives modify nouns. Sometimes adjectives are single words, like big or beautiful, but other times they are clauses with their own subject and verb. Clauses that modify nouns are called adjective clauses.
[ADJECTIVE:] Jabari caught a gigantic fish!
[ADJECTIVE CLAUSE:] Jabari caught a fish, which was gigantic!
Often called relative clauses, adjective clauses are a type of dependent clause that describes a noun, just as an individual adjective does. While normal adjectives are usually just a single word or phrase, adjective clauses always contain a subject and a verb and usually include some other words as well.
5 rules for creating an adjective clause: Examples
1 Adjective clauses start with a relative pronoun
The reason adjective clauses are also called relative clauses is because they usually begin with relative pronouns.
The new restaurant, which just opened last month, has already closed down.
I took my partner, who has never seen snow, on a ski trip.
Relative pronouns have many uses; if you see one, it doesn’t always mean there’s an adjective clause. However, seeing a relative pronoun in a sentence means there might be an adjective clause.
Relative pronouns commonly used for adjective clauses include the following:
Additionally, the relative pronouns whoever, whomever, wherever, and whichever can also introduce adjective clauses, but these are much less common than those in the list above.
We will take either a taxi or bus, whichever comes first.
Likewise, the relative pronoun why can occasionally be used for adjective clauses, although this usage is rare.
The movie Annabelle is the reason why I got rid of my doll collection.
2 Adjective clauses need a subject and a verb
The main trait of clauses is that they contain both a subject and a verb. Adjective clauses are no different, meaning each one must have its own subject and verb.
My coach didn’t believe that I won my first wrestling match.
In this example, the subject of the adjective clause is I and the verb is won. Notice how these are different from the subject and verb of the independent clause, which are my coach (subject) and believe (verb).
Keep in mind that sometimes the subject of an adjective clause is the relative pronoun. All pronouns are a type of noun, so they can act as a subject.
I need a roommate who is not afraid of spiders.
3 Adjective clauses are connected to independent clauses
Because adjective clauses are a type of dependent clause, they must be connected to an independent clause to form a complete sentence. In other words, you cannot use adjective clauses alone.
4 Adjective clauses relate to nouns from the independent clause
Adjective clauses modify nouns, which means they must be related to another noun outside the adjective clause. This noun could be a subject, direct object, prepositional object, or any other role for a noun.
She didn’t wake from the nap until 6 p.m., when the sun was setting.
In this adjective clause example, the noun 6 p.m., which is the object of the preposition until, is modified by the adjective clause when the sun was setting.
5 Adjective clauses come after the noun
Unlike normal adjectives that usually come before the noun they modify, adjective clauses always come after it. This makes it fairly easy to identify which noun they modify.
The rich lady whose house we were at wasn’t even home.
This means that you can never start a sentence with an adjective clause. However, you can start a sentence with a noun clause—which can also begin with a relative pronoun—so be careful you don’t mix them up.
[NOUN CLAUSE:] Whoever eats the most hot dogs gets the trophy.
[ADJECTIVE CLAUSE:] The winner, whoever eats the most hot dogs, gets the trophy.
How are adjective clauses used in writing?
Adjective clauses are never really essential, but they can greatly improve your writing by adding more details. They are particularly useful in specifying particular or defining characteristics of the noun being described.
Jovan wanted to see a horror movie that wasn’t too scary.
In this adjective clause example, the noun horror movie is not specific enough. Jovan doesn’t want to see any horror movie; he wants to see only a special type of horror movie. We use the adjective clause that wasn’t too scary to modify the noun horror movie and better communicate his preference.
Removing the relative pronoun in an adjective clause
Understand adjective clauses so far? That’s good, because we have another detail to include.
Sometimes—but not always—you can remove the relative pronoun in an adjective clause and the sentence is still correct.
This is the book that I was talking about!
This is the book I was talking about!
Both of the above adjective clause examples are correct, but one is missing the relative pronoun that. In certain situations, you can get rid of the relative pronoun and the grammar is still correct.
When is it OK to remove a relative pronoun? If the relative pronoun acts as the subject in the adjective clause, you cannot remove it. Otherwise, it’s okay to drop it.
I met someone whom you dated in high school.
In this adjective clause example, the relative pronoun whom is used as the object of the verb dated. The subject of the adjective clause is you; the subject is the doer of the action, and in this case the pronoun you is doing the dating. Because the relative pronoun whom is used as an object, you can safely remove it.
Now let’s rephrase the adjective clause example.
I met someone who dated you in high school.
In this new example, the relative pronoun who is the subject. Because the subject is the doer of the action, now who does the dating (who is a pronoun that represents the antecedent, someone). Because the relative pronoun who acts as the subject, we cannot remove it.
There is a quick way to remember when it’s OK to drop the relative pronoun in an adjective clause, and it works most of the time. If the relative pronoun is immediately followed by a verb, it’s probably the subject of the clause. That means we can’t remove it. If the word after the relative pronoun is a noun, then that noun is probably the subject—which means we can remove the relative pronoun.
In our first example, the relative pronoun whom was followed by the noun you. It was safe to remove whom because you was the subject. In our second example, the relative pronoun who was followed by the verb dated. This time who was the subject, so we couldn’t remove it.
Removing the relative pronoun is useful if you want to make your writing shorter and more energetic. It’s also particularly useful if you’re using the word that as a demonstrative pronoun and a relative pronoun.
I hope that that was the last interruption.
In this example, the first that is used as a relative pronoun introducing the adjective clause. The second that is a demonstrative pronoun; it represents whatever “interruption” the speaker was talking about. Because the second that is the subject of the adjective clause, we can safely remove the first that since it’s not the subject.
I hope that that was the last interruption.
Removing the relative pronoun from an adjective clause is advanced English. If you don’t feel ready or confident enough, don’t worry—you can always keep the relative pronoun in the sentence if you are unsure about removing it.
Adjective clause vs. adverbial clause
Adjectives and adverbs are often mixed up. Both are word classes that modify other words—the difference is that adjectives modify nouns and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
As you can imagine, adjective clauses and adverbial clauses (also called adverb clauses) are also mixed up. The difference is, again, that adjective clauses modify nouns and adverbial clauses modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
How can you tell an adjective clause apart from an adverbial clause? Adverbial clauses don’t always start with a relative pronoun. However, sometimes they do, so that’s not a reliable method to distinguish them.
Instead, focus on what the clauses describe. If it adds details to a noun, it’s an adjective clause. If it adds details to the verb, such as explaining when or where the action took place, it’s an adverbial clause.
[ADVERBIAL CLAUSE:] We vacationed where it was sunny.
[ADJECTIVE CLAUSE:] We vacationed at the beach, where it was sunny.
Adjective clause vs. adjective phrase
An adjective phrase is a group of words that work together as a single adjective, just like an adjective clause does. The difference is that adjective clauses have a subject and a verb, but adjective phrases do not.
[ADJECTIVE PHRASE:] Easy and high-paying jobs are hard to find.
[ADJECTIVE CLAUSE:] Jobs that are easy and high-paying are hard to find.
Adjective clause FAQs
What is an adjective clause?
Adjective clauses, also known as relative clauses, are a type of dependent clause that describes or modifies nouns, just like individual adjectives do. Like all clauses, adjective clauses contain a subject and verb. You can identify adjective clauses because they usually begin with a relative pronoun like that, which, or who.
When is an adjective clause useful?
Adjective clauses are most useful when explaining the specific qualities of a noun. For example, if you say a movie, that noun is too general and could mean anything. If you say a movie that is not too long, the adjective clause that is not too long makes it more specific so you can communicate better.
What’s the difference between an adjective clause and an adverbial clause?
The difference between adjective clauses and adverbial clauses is the same as the difference between adjectives and adverbs in general. Adjective clauses modify nouns, while adverbial clauses modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.