Adjective Clauses: What Are They? Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 1, 2023

You use adjective clauses in your writing all the time, even if you don't realize it. But what are they? And how should you use them? If those are the questions you've been asking yourself, you're in the right place; this article will teach you everything you need to know.

In short:

  • Adjective clauses are groups of words containing a subject and a predicate that perform the role of an adjective. 

This article is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Adjective Clauses?

Adjective clauses, also known as adjectival clauses, are clauses that perform the role of an adjective, that is, to modify a noun or pronoun. You might be used to seeing adjectives as single words, but these are groups of words. Not just any group, though; a clause.

  • Clauses contain a subject and a predicate and can be either independent or dependent. If they express a complete thought, they are independent. If they don't, they are dependent.

There are three types of dependent clauses: noun clauses, adverb clauses, and adjective clauses.

Here's an example of an adjective clause:

My auntie, whom I really dislike, is coming to stay for the weekend.

The underlined clause meets all four requirements to be an adjective clause:

  • It contains a subject ('I') and a predicate ('dislike').
  • It doesn't express a complete thought.
  • It begins with a relative pronoun ('whom')
  • It tells us something about the independent clause's noun ('auntie')

Throughout this article, in my examples, I'll underline the adjective clause and put the noun or pronoun it modifies in bold. As you'll see, the noun almost always appears directly before the adjective clause.

How to Use Adjective Clauses

When you use adjective clauses, one crucial thing to remember is that they are dependent clauses, so they must always be paired with at least one independent clause. The independent clause will contain a noun or pronoun that the adjective clause modifies.

Relative Pronouns

Unlike regular adjectives, which come before the noun they modify, adjective clauses come after. And they begin with a relative clause or adverb.

Here's a list:

  • who
  • which
  • that
  • whose
  • whom
  • whoever
  • whomever
  • wherever
  • whichever

They occasionally begin with a relative adverb, instead:

  • where
  • when
  • why

Here are some examples:

The place that I love most in the world is a beach in Colombia.

Our new boss, whoever they are, is in for a challenge. 

Sally cooked us all dinner, which was delicious

Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Clauses

Some adjective clauses are restrictive (essential), and others are non-restrictive (non-essential). If a clause is restrictive, it means it cannot be removed from the sentence without significantly impacting the reader's understanding of the sentence. You can remove a clause without affecting the meaning if it is non-restrictive.

Non-restrictive clauses should always be offset by commas, whether in the middle or at the end of a sentence.

Case in point:

My daugther, who's a gardener at heart, spent all afternoon taking photos of the flowers in our garden.

We went to see his new movie last night, which was disappointing.

Restrictive clauses don't need to be offset by commas or any form of punctuation.

The town where I grew up is quite small.

Commas can sometimes be replaced by em dashes or parentheses. Read our punctuation articles for more guidance.

Removing the Relative Pronouns

Sometimes, you don't need to use relative pronouns, but that's only if the pronoun isn't the subject of the adjective clause.

For example, the two following sentences are correct:

The TV series that I'm most obssessed with at the moment is Stranger Things. 

The TV series I'm most obssessed with at the moment is Stranger Things. 

If the relative pronoun is the subject, you must leave it in.

Case in point:

I bought a new laptop, which is very fast

I bought a new laptop, is very fast.

Adjective Clauses vs Adjective Phrases

Don't get confused between adjective clauses and adjective phrases. The latter don't contain a subject and predicate or count as complete sentences. But they still modify the noun.

Here's an example of an adjective phrase (underlined):

That was the most hilarious and witty show I've seen in a long time.

As you can see, it still modifies the noun (show), but it's placed before the noun and isn't a complete sentence. There's no subject or verb.

More Examples of Adjective Clauses

Now we've covered what you need to know about adjective clauses and how to use them. Let's take a look at some more examples. As usual, the clauses will be underlined, and the nouns or pronouns they modify will be in bold.

On our walk we bumped into a bear, which seemed very hungry, and we were terrified.

Can the person whose flyers these are come and collect them from my desk?

I'm surprised to hear that coming from you, who should understand what I'm going through.

He is bored of talking about subjects that he isn't interested in.

Whoever you are, please come forward. 

Concluding Thoughts

Well, that pretty much covers it. I hope you found this article helpful and that you now feel confident using adjective clauses in your writing.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Adjective clauses are groups of words that contain a subject and a predicate and perform the role of an adjective. They modify nouns just like regular adjectives do.
  • They are one of three types of dependent clauses, along with noun clauses and adverb clauses.
  • Because they are dependent clauses, they can't stand alone and must be paired up with an independent clause.
  • You should always start your adjective clause with a relative pronoun, although this can be omitted if the pronoun isn't the clause's subject.
  • Non-restrictive adjective clauses are to be offset by commas.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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