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Sentence Relatives: Showing Feeling, Interpreting Information


everyday grammar - sentence relatives

“The Big Lebowski” is an American movie that has developed a large following. Since its release in the late 1990s, the film has been shown at film festivals, colleges, and special events.

Many college students have spent evenings watching this film instead of doing their homework.

One famous quote from the movie is this:

"And even if he's a lazy man - and the 'Dude' was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide."

You can learn a lot from this quote about a lazy man. You can learn about a common feature of everyday speech in America: the use of adjective clauses.

In today's report, we are going to explore how Americans use a type of adjective clause, sometimes called a sentence relative, in everyday speech.

What is a clause?

A clause is a group of words that has a subject and a predicate. It does not act as a sentence on its own; instead, it is part of a longer sentence.

One common type of clause is the relative clause. These clauses begin with relative pronouns such as that or which and act as adjectives in a sentence.

For example, consider the sentence "The book that my friend gave me is very boring."

In the sentence, the words "that my friend gave me" make up a relative clause that acts as an adjective for the noun, book.

Today, we are discussing how Americans use adjective clauses that begin with the word which. You will often hear speakers use these clauses to modify an entire idea, not just a noun.

Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber are English grammar experts. They say these special clauses that always use which are called sentence relatives.

If this sounds difficult to understand, don’t worry. We will give you many examples to clarify this point. Today we are going to show you two of the most common uses of sentence relatives.

Common functions

1. Expressing a feeling or value judgement

Americans often use sentence relatives when they are expressing a feeling or a value judgment. For example, a speaker may be talking about an idea. The sentence relative gives more information about the idea.

Consider this famous scene from the 1954 film, On the Waterfront:

"You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it."

Here, the main idea is that the character sees himself as a failure. The sentence relative which is what I am expresses a feeling or value judgment about his situation.

Marlon Brando's fictional character does not feel good about his life! He is saying that, in his opinion, his life has little value.

Speakers do not always use sentence relatives to talk about their unhappiness. Indeed, speakers can use these structures to show happy feelings, too.

Consider this example: "Two schools sent him acceptance letters, which is great news!"

Here, the sentence relative which is great news shows the speaker's feelings about the statement in the first part of the sentence. This is an optimistic, positive use of a sentence relative; you will hear it often in everyday speech.

2. Interpreting information

Americans also commonly use sentence relatives to interpret information.

Consider this line from the 1960 film, The Apartment:

"Our home office has 31,259 employees - which is more than the entire population of, uh, Natchez, Mississippi."

In the quote, the sentence relative, which is more than the entire population of, uh, Natchez, Mississippi, interprets information in the main part of the sentence. The main part of the sentence is: Our home office has 31,259 employees.

Using a sentence relative is a quick way to give and interpret information. If the same scene did not have the sentence relative. It might sound like:

"Our home office has 31,259 employees. 31,259 employees is more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi."

These lines are not as interesting as the line you heard from the movie. Why? Probably because it repeats information while the line from the movie uses the sentence relative to give new information.

What about the Big Lebowski?

Now that we have discussed two common uses of sentence relatives, think back to the film, The Big Lebowski.

"And even if he's a lazy man - and the 'Dude' was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide."

Did you notice that the quote has one of the sentence relatives we talked about today? Can you recognize how the speaker is using it? Do you think it is to express a feeling, to interpret information, or to show something else? Write to us in the comments section of our website, or on our Facebook page.

Closing thoughts

Sentence relatives are very common in speaking. They are polite and acceptable in almost any situation. You will hear them every day in American workplaces, schools, airports, and so on.

However, you should know that the structures we have talked about today are not as common in different kinds of writing. While you might read them in a newspaper or in fictional writing, say Conrad and Biber, you are less likely to see them in academic writing.

That's all for today's program. We will be back next week, which means you will get to learn more grammar!

I'm Alice Bryant.

And I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section. ________________________________________________________________

Words in This Story

lazy – adj. not liking to work hard or to be active

clause – n. grammar : a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

predicate – n. grammar : the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject

relative – adj. grammar : referring to a noun, a part of a sentence, or a sentence that was used earlier

pronoun – n. grammar : a word (such as I, he, she, you, it, we, or they) that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase

modify – v. grammar : to limit or describe the meaning of (a word or group of words)

interpret – v. to explain the meaning of (something)

academic – adj. usually used before a noun : of or relating to schools and education

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