Difference Between Relative Clause And Subordinate Clause

Grammar serves as the backbone of effective communication in English, and understanding its components, like clauses, is crucial for mastery. A clause forms the basic building block of sentences, where each type plays a different role. Among these, relative and subordinate clauses are particularly pivotal, influencing how information is interconnected and presented.

Relative clauses function to describe or give more information about a noun, directly impacting the clarity of a sentence. For instance, in the sentence “The book, which lies on the table, is old,” the phrase “which lies on the table” is a relative clause describing “the book.” On the other hand, subordinate clauses serve to add additional context and are dependent on the main clause for their meaning, as in “Because it was raining, the match was postponed.”

Understanding the differences between these two types of clauses not only enhances writing fluency but also aids in crafting more nuanced and complex sentences. This distinction is fundamental for anyone looking to refine their writing or grasp the subtleties of English grammar.

Clauses Defined

Definition of a Clause

A clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb. It is the fundamental building block of sentences in English grammar. Depending on how they are used in a sentence, clauses can be independent or dependent, with each playing a critical role in communicating complete ideas.

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Role in Sentence Structure

Clauses determine the structure of sentences by dictating how ideas are organized and connected. An independent clause can stand alone as a complete sentence, delivering a complete thought. In contrast, a dependent clause, which includes relative and subordinate clauses, must be attached to an independent clause to provide additional details and enhance the meaning of the main sentence.

Relative Clauses

Explanation of Relative Clauses

Relative clauses are types of dependent clauses that modify a noun or a pronoun in the main clause. They are essential in providing specific information about the subject, thereby refining what the speaker is referring to without starting a new sentence.

Examples in Sentences

Consider the sentence: “The jacket, which I bought last week, is already stained.” Here, “which I bought last week” is a relative clause giving more information about “the jacket.” It specifies which jacket the speaker refers to, making the sentence more informative and precise.

Key Features

Identifying Characteristics

Relative clauses often begin with relative pronouns like who, which, that, whom, and whose. These clauses are usually positioned immediately after the noun they describe, integrating seamlessly into the flow of the sentence.

Common Relative Pronouns

  • Who: used for people.
  • Which: used for objects, animals, and ideas.
  • That: can be used for both people and things.
  • Whom: used for people, typically in a formal style.
  • Whose: denotes possession.

Uses in Sentences

Enhancing Descriptions

Relative clauses enrich sentences by providing extra details. This function is crucial in writing where precision and clarity are needed. For example, “The car that won the race is on display,” where “that won the race” precisely identifies the car being discussed.

Adding Necessary Details

These clauses also add necessary information that defines or restricts the noun’s identity. In the sentence “Students who study hard excel in exams,” the clause “who study hard” specifies which students are being referred to, thus adding essential context to the statement.

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Subordinate Clauses

Explanation of Subordinate Clauses

Subordinate clauses, also known as dependent clauses, cannot stand alone as complete sentences because they do not provide a complete thought. These clauses rely on an independent clause to give a sentence full meaning. They are pivotal for constructing complex sentences that convey detailed, nuanced information.

Examples in Sentences

In the sentence, “When the rain stopped, we went for a walk,” the phrase “When the rain stopped” is a subordinate clause. It depends on the main clause “we went for a walk” to provide complete information.

Key Features

Identifying Characteristics

Subordinate clauses are characterized by their dependency on the main clause and their role in supporting or embellishing it. They are introduced by subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns, making the sentence more detailed and complex.

Common Subordinating Conjunctions

  • Because: shows reason.
  • Although: introduces a concession.
  • If: indicates conditions.
  • Since: points to time or reason.
  • While: denotes time or contrast.

Uses in Sentences

Showing Relationships Between Ideas

Subordinate clauses are essential for demonstrating the relationship between different ideas in a sentence. They can express time, cause and effect, condition, and contrast, which are crucial for building logical connections in text.

Adding Context to Main Clauses

These clauses provide a background that enhances the understanding of the main clause. For example, “Although it was late, she decided to start studying,” where “Although it was late” sets the scene for the main action.

Comparative Analysis

Similarities Between Both Clauses

Relative and subordinate clauses both serve to add information to the main clause. They are integral in forming complex sentences that are rich in detail and context, essential for advanced writing and speaking.

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Differences in Function and Structure

  • Function: Relative clauses primarily provide additional information about a noun, acting almost like an adjective. Subordinate clauses, however, introduce a condition or reason, expanding on the main clause’s information.
  • Structure: While relative clauses are often introduced by relative pronouns, subordinate clauses are typically introduced by subordinating conjunctions.

Practical Examples

Side-by-Side Sentence Comparisons

  • Relative Clause: “The artist who paints with bold colors will exhibit first.”
  • Subordinate Clause: “Because she loves art, she will visit the exhibition first.”

These examples show how the relative clause describes “the artist,” whereas the subordinate clause provides a reason for the subject’s action in the sentence.

Impact on Meaning and Clarity

Understanding the correct use of relative and subordinate clauses can significantly affect the clarity and effectiveness of communication. For example:

  • With Subordinate Clause: “She stayed at the library until she finished her homework.”
  • Without: “She stayed at the library. She finished her homework.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Relative Clause?

A relative clause is a part of a sentence that describes a noun and is introduced by a relative pronoun such as “who,” “which,” or “that.” These clauses are essential for adding detail and specificity to a sentence, helping to clarify which person or thing we are talking about.

What is a Subordinate Clause?

A subordinate clause, also known as a dependent clause, adds extra information to the main clause and cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. It is typically introduced by subordinating conjunctions like “although,” “since,” or “because.”

How do Relative Clauses Differ from Subordinate Clauses?

Relative clauses specifically provide more information about a noun, often essential for the completion of a sentence’s meaning, whereas subordinate clauses add context to the main clause, expressing relationships like time, reason, or condition.

Can a Sentence Have Both a Relative and a Subordinate Clause?

Yes, a sentence can include both types of clauses. For example, in the sentence “The athlete, who won the race, had trained hard because she knew the competition would be tough,” “who won the race” is a relative clause, and “because she knew the competition would be tough” is a subordinate clause.


In exploring the intricacies of English grammar, distinguishing between relative and subordinate clauses is fundamental. These clauses enrich sentences, providing clarity and depth to written communication. By comprehending their differences and uses, writers can enhance both the complexity and effectiveness of their language.

Ultimately, mastering the use of these clauses not only bolsters writing skills but also elevates one’s ability to express thoughts clearly and persuasively. Understanding these grammatical structures is indispensable for anyone aspiring to proficiency in English.

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