Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

Defining things or adding information? – Correcting relative clauses

Everybody loves a quiz, don’t they? Well, if you do, read on.

Relative clauses (sentence components starting with ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘whom’ or ‘whose’) are quite possibly one of the most confusing areas of English grammar. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on them, they become a bit more slippery and evade your grasp.

Relative clauses quiz

Can you spot what’s wrong with the relative clauses in the sentences below?

  1. The poet’s parents who lived in Manchester had hoped that he would become a doctor.
  2. Einstein, whom some say to be the greatest scientist of all time was not a high achiever at school.
  3. There is alliteration in the ‘p’ of ‘Pitched past pitch’ in line 1, that means that those words are emphasised.
  4. Spring tides which don’t just occur in spring are a result of near alignment between the Earth, Sun and Moon.
  5. Female emancipation was furthered by activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst who campaigned for women’s suffrage and managed to win them the vote.

… and the answers

As you probably know, the general rule is that relative clauses with no commas define or identify the noun that precedes them, whereas relative clauses within commas just add extra information. The commas work like a less forceful version of brackets; remove the information within them, and the remaining sentence keeps its same basic meaning. The following solutions are all based on that simple rule, but the complicated bit can be getting your head around the context and working out what the author really meant:

  1. It is only possible to have one set of parents, so the poet cannot, say, have some parents in Manchester and some more in Leeds – the sentence is not identifying which parents (these ones or those ones?) but just adding more information about them. The relative clause should, therefore, be within brackets: ‘The poet’s parents, who lived in Manchester, had hoped that he would become a doctor.’ Similarly, ‘His brother, who lived in Hull, was also a poet’ means that he only had one brother, whereas ‘His brother who lived in Hull was also a poet’ indicates that he had more than one brother (‘… while his brother who lived in Lancaster was a lorry driver’). If you are proofreading a document that contains the following sentence: ‘His brother, who lived in Hull was also a poet’, you will need to query with the author how many brothers the poet had, as it is impossible to tell from the sentence alone whether to remove the existing comma or to add a second one.
  1. The ‘whom’ is actually correct, if a little old fashioned. Traditionally, ‘whom’ replaces the object of the main sentence, and in this case ‘Einstein’ is the object (or, at least, part of the complement): ‘Some say that Einstein is the greatest scientist of all time.’ However, the sentence does need a closing comma at the end of the relative clause: ‘Einstein, whom some say to be the greatest scientist of all time, was not a high achiever at school.’
  1. ‘That’ cannot be used to add extra information but only to define or identify. Here, the second part of the sentence is adding extra information about the whole of the preceding statement: the fact that alliteration is used means that those words are emphasised. Therefore, the correct sentence is: ‘There is alliteration in the ‘p’ of ‘Pitched past pitch’ in line 1, which means that those words are emphasised.’ In this similar example, ‘whom’ is also correct: ‘Einstein, of whom it is said that he is the greatest scientist of all time, was not a high achiever at school.’ (‘It is said that Einstein…’) However, in the following version, ‘who’ is correct rather than ‘whom’, as ‘Einstein’ is the subject of the main sentence: ‘Einstein, who is said to be the greatest scientist of all time, was not a high achiever at school.’ (‘Einstein is said to be…’)
  1. As with example 1, this is a question of whether the relative clause is defining the subject or adding extra information. The sentence is not identifying a certain type of spring tide; it is describing all spring tides, or spring tides in general, so the correct sentence is: ‘Spring tides, which don’t just occur in spring, are a result of near alignment between the Earth, Sun and Moon.’
  1. The key question to ask yourself here is whether it was Emmeline Pankhurst alone who managed to win women the vote or whether it was other activists as well. The following sentence would mean that it was her alone: ‘Female emancipation was furthered by activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst, who campaigned for women’s suffrage and managed to win them the vote’, whereas the following one would mean that it was her fellow activists too: ‘Female emancipation was furthered by activists, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, who campaigned for women’s suffrage and managed to win them the vote.’

In the final example, the issue is, of course, further complicated by the use of commas with ‘such as’ … but this is a topic for a future blog post, so if you found this useful, then keep coming back!



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Posted in Grammar, Proofreading/copy-editing