How to teach reduced relative clauses

Summary: How to present and practise shorter forms of relative clauses with present and past participles

Although students can spend a lot of time in class making sentences like “No, the man who is wearing the red hat is not the one who I am dating!”, in real life these are often reduced to shorter forms like “No, the man (who is) wearing the red hat is not one who I am dating”. As well as being more common and natural in situations like these, such reduced relative clauses are one of the most common reasons for students’ problems with understanding texts, and are so well worth some class time. They can also be a good way into participle clauses more generally.

The first problem with preparing to teach reduced relative clauses is that there are many possible definitions and categories, making it difficult to decide exactly what to cover. The basic definition I am using here is something that could be written with a full relative clause but has had the relative pronoun and something else removed to make it shorter (and therefore usually more elegant), in examples like “He is the runner (who was) beaten 23 times by Usain Bolt”. This definition excludes removing only the relative pronoun in so-called “contact clauses” like “This is the apple (which) I recommended”, which I would teach just as a regular part of defining relative clauses followed by a subject. 

Simple examples where relative pronouns and verbs are removed, without the need for other changes, include:

  • Present Continuous and Past Continuous, as in “Someone (who was) watching the same movie had a heart attack”
  • the passive voice, as in “He was the man (who was) dumped by two different cast members of Friends” and “The painting (which is) being moved isn’t the right one”
  • prepositional phrases, as in “I need the red boxes (which are) on the roof”
  • descriptive noun phrases, as in “I live in Birmingham, (which is) Britain’s second city”

It is also possible with adjective phrases, as in “He is a man (who is) happiest with his own company”, but to me this seems too literary to be worth including in production tasks.  

Some people would limit their definition of reduced relative clauses to removing relative pronoun plus auxiliary verb(s) in the way that is shown with brackets above, and this is probably enough at lower levels. However, at higher levels it is common to include changing some of those words in order to make the reduction possible, as in “The man who lives next door hangs his dirty socks out of the window” becoming “The man living next door hangs his dirty socks out of the window”. Tenses that can be reduced to a present participle this way include:

  • Present Simple – People who wear expensive clothes more often get promoted. – People wearing expensive clothes more often get promoted.
  • Past Simple – The cook who lived here made beautiful smells every morning – The cook living here made beautiful smells every morning (but one-off actions like in “The player who hit the most home runs pitched the worst and so lost us the game” can’t be reduced that way)
  • Future Simple – The company which will take over next year my firm might treat us better – The company taking over my firm next year might treat us better (but not with other modal verbs with more specific meanings like “should”)

There is some controversy online over whether perfect tenses like Present Perfect can be reduced, but for me all the examples that make sense could actually be reducing different tenses or are different kinds of participle clauses meaning “because”, so I’d basically say no. However, perfect forms of passive voice like “He is planning to restore the car (which has been) left in my field since 1982” can be reduced in the normal way for passive voice.

Relative clauses with relative pronouns which are followed by a subject cannot be made into reduced relative clauses, meaning that you can’t cut out the part in brackets in “This is a tool (which I am) using on this broken Apollo rocket” X. This is presumably because, as in this example, losing the subject after the relative pronoun would make the meaning unclear. This means that relative pronouns which are always followed by a subject like “when” and “where” are never removed as part of a reduced relative clause.

As well as reduced defining relative clauses like those above, it is also fairly common to read reduced non-defining relative clauses like “The escaped gorilla, (who was) last seen climbing the Empire States Building, seems to have disappeared into thin air” and “The Oompa-Loompas, (who are) now living in peace back in their jungle homeland, have won damages from Willy Wonka”. Such reduced non-defining relative clauses are much less common in conversation, probably because of the difficulty of making such a complex sentence in real time. However, a major reason for teaching reduced relative clauses is to help with reading comprehension, so I’d also recommend including reduced non-defining relative clauses in most higher-level classes.  


Typical student problems with reduced relative clauses

There are two quite automatic problems that students have with making reduced relative clauses that can easily be solved by a bit more thought. One is taking every past participle (and perhaps similar-looking Past Simple forms) as being something that can be left on its own in a reduced relative clause, though in fact this is only possible with passive voice. For example, it might seem possible to change “These are the boys who have persecuted my aunt for years” to “These are the boys persecuted my aunt for years” X, but it is not.

A similar confusion is seeing a reduced relative clause with the present participle and always assuming that it has been reduced from a continuous tense. However, it could well be another tense, as in “Men suffering from reoccurring ulcers benefit from yoga”, which is more likely to be “Men who suffer…” than “Men who are suffering…”

There is also the issue that both kinds of reduced relative clause can have ambiguity in the tense that is meant. For example, if I take out the relative pronoun and “be” to make the reduced relative clause “I drank a glass of wine left in the sun for two hours”, it’s not clear if it is missing “which is”, meaning a general way of preparing that wine, or “which was”, meaning just that particular glass (and therefore probably a bad thing). This mainly produces problems in comprehension, but too much mechanical practice of reduced relative clauses can lead to students producing sentences which are similarly ambiguous when they are reduced, in which case they should probably have stuck to the full relative clause form.


How to present reduced relative clauses

As I do with most grammar, I generally like to get students started with something non-grammar-related that has reduced relative clauses in it. They then analyse the clauses that they have just been exposed to, and finally use those rules to make their own.

Perhaps the simplest way of starting is to find a text that has reduced relative clauses (as most do) and make comprehension questions with full relative clauses about those parts, as in “How many teeth did the dog who was guarding the door show?” about the sentence that says “The dog guarding the door revealed four huge fangs”. After checking their answers to the comprehension questions, students can then find patterns in the changes from the full relative clauses in the questions to the reduced relative clauses in the text.

Instead of or after using a whole text, you could also get students to look at pairs of sentences with full and reduced relative clauses, and ask them simply to choose the versions that they like best. They should initially choose mostly through instinct/ what sounds best, and so this stage is probably best done individually. However, they can hopefully eventually come up with reasons such as reduced clauses usually being best unless they make the meaning unclear. They can then look at the same pairs of sentences again to work out what changes are made in transforming full relative clauses into reduced relative clauses.


How to practise reduced relative clauses

The first practice stage should almost always be finding reduced relative clauses and expanding them into full relative clauses. As well as being fairly easy practice of this grammar point, this is a good general tactic for dealing with comprehension problems while reading. I strongly suggest doing this with individual sentences or short extracts of a sentence or two. In other words, I would avoid tasks where students search a longer text for reduced relative clauses, as in that case there will inevitably be numerous places where there are other similar forms such as different kinds of participle clauses, which are likely to confuse everyone, including the teacher!

The next stage would then logically seem to be converting sentences into reduced relative clauses, but this is a bit mechanical and boring for higher-level classes. This can be made slightly more challenging by including ones that can’t be reduced, but I prefer to add a bit more freedom and discussion by also including ones that could be reduced but probably shouldn’t be.

The same problem of tedium can also haunt most error correction tasks on this topic. This could be reduced by including other problems with some of the reduced relative clauses such as being grammatically correct but confusing or grammatically correct but factually inaccurate.

The final step is then to give students an overly simple text that is boring to read and/ or has vital info missing, and ask them to add reduced relative clauses (and some full relative clauses when that would be better) to improve it.

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Written by Alex Case for

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