In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Relative Clauses

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Extraposition, Pied Piping, and Split Antecedents

Linguistics Relative Clauses
Mark de Vries
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0120


Relative clauses are subordinate clausal modifiers. Semantically, they contain a variable that is somehow related to the anchoring phrase (usually a so-called head noun). Across and within different languages, we find a host of different construction types falling under the general label of relative clause. These can be restrictive or nonrestrictive, be nominalized and/or nonfinite, contain a resumptive pronoun, relative pronoun or other kind of linking element, and so on. Relative clauses seem to be essential for the linguistic expression of complex concepts, and it comes as no surprise that practically every language uses relativization in one way or another. If only for this reason, relative clauses have received ample attention in the descriptive as well as generative linguistic literature, especially since the 1960s. The text and references below provide an overview of the various phenomena involved and the related theoretical debate, thereby establishing a selective guide to the relevant literature, including relatively early scholarship. This bibliography focuses on formal and cross-linguistic work. There is also a rich literature on acquisition and cognitive processing of relative clauses, which is not covered here.

General Overviews

There are a number of useful general overviews of the topic, also containing many references. Nicolaeva 2006 is a brief introduction (complemented by Miller 2006, cited under Pseudo-, Reduced, and Other Kinds of Relatives). Andrews 2007 is a typologically oriented overview; Givón 1984 is a functionally oriented overview; and Alexiadou, et al. 2000 is a theoretically oriented overview. The more peripheral types of relative constructions are presented briefly but insightfully in Grosu 2002. Bianchi 2002 is an advanced general short text about the theory of relative clauses. The comprehensive books Smits 1988 and de Vries 2002 contain typological as well as theoretical discussion. Notice that some of the works mentioned in the Cross-Linguistic Typology section can be considered general overviews as well.

  • Alexiadou, Artemis, Paul Law, André Meinunger, and Chris Wilder. 2000. Introduction. In The syntax of relative clauses. Edited by Artemis Alexiadou, Paul Law, Andre Meinunger, and Chris Wilder, 1–51. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    General introduction to the syntax of relative clauses; also contains a summary of the papers in this volume.

  • Andrews, Avery. 2007. Relative clauses. In Language typology and syntactic description. Vol. 2, Complex constructions. 2d ed. Edited by Timothy Shopen, 206–236. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Basic typological overview of relative constructions.

  • Bianchi, Valentina. 2002. Headed relative clauses in generative syntax, Part I. Glot International 6.7: 197–204.

    Concise but in-depth discussion of theoretical issues in the syntax of relative clauses. Contains a “headed relatives” bibliography. Part 2 in Glot International 6.8: 235–247

  • de Vries, Mark. 2002. The syntax of relativization. PhD diss., University of Amsterdam.

    Systematic overview of typological and theoretical issues relating to relative clauses. Includes an annotated compendium of syntactic analyses, and an in-depth discussion of the raising analysis.

  • Givón, Talmy. 1984. Syntax, a functional-typological approach. Vol. 1. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Contains a long chapter 15 with illustrated strategies of relativization.

  • Grosu, Alexander. 2002. Strange relatives at the interface of two millennia. Glot International 6.6: 145–167.

    Discusses atypical relative constructions, which are often semantically maximalizing. This includes amount relatives, free relatives, correlatives, certain internally headed relatives, and modal existential constructions. See also Specific Construction Types. Includes a “Strange Relatives” bibliography.

  • Nicolaeva, Irina. 2006. Relative clauses. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Vol. 10. Edited by K. Brown, 501–508. Oxford: Elsevier.

    Basic introduction to the typology and theory of relative clauses.

  • Smits, Rik. 1988. The relative and cleft constructions of the Germanic and Romance languages. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris.

    A rich source of data containing a systematically organized overview of relative clauses in the Germanic and Romance (standard) languages. The first half of the book contains an elaborate discussion of theoretical issues. (Published PhD dissertation, Catholic University of Brabant.)

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