11 April, 2019
Imagine you open an American travel magazine. Perhaps you want to read about other countries and the must-see places to visit in them. Or perhaps you just want to improve your understanding of English.
Imagine you read the following sentence:
"The region is still relatively undiscovered, which means unspoiled beaches and affordable prices even in the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik."*
You might read this sentence, and start to think about the word which. It appears a lot in English language publications. What exactly is the purpose of which?
Today on Everyday Grammar, we will explore that question. We will look at one use of the word: to introduce a kind of adjective clause known as a "sentence relative."
First, we probably should start with a few definitions.
A clause is a group of words that has a subject and a verb.
Some clauses are called dependent. In other words, they depend on other parts of the sentence. They cannot stand alone.
One kind of dependent clause is the adjective clause. It gives more information about a noun. Adjective clauses usually modify, or change the meaning of, the noun that they follow.
Here is an example:
Chicago, which is in the American state of Illinois, is famous for its pizza.
Here, the adjective clause is "which is in the American state of Illinois." It modifies the noun Chicago.
Yet some adjective clauses do not just modify a noun. They comment on the whole idea in the earlier, or preceding, clause. These adjective clauses are called sentence relatives. They always use the word which.
Here is an example:
He did not study, which means he is going to fail the test.
In this sentence, the main idea is "he did not study." What comes after the main idea – the words "which means he is going to fail the test" – is the speaker's interpretation, or understanding of events.
Sentence Relatives and Newswriting
You might be asking yourself how this issue relates to newswriting.
In newswriting, the most common purpose of a sentence relative is to report direct speech. In other words, the reporter is repeating the exact words that a person said.
Here is an example from The Chronicle of Higher Education. It explains the life of a man, Mister Vaidya, who grew up in many countries. Here is what he said:
"My wife thinks I have no roots, which is probably accurate." **
Here, the main idea is about the wife's opinion. The sentence relative explains the speaker's interpretation of his wife's opinion. In other words, he agrees with what she thinks.
Now you might understand why sentence relatives are common in the news. They show how Americans speak in everyday situations. You can read more about that subject in another Everyday Grammar program. It is called Sentence Relatives: Showing Feeling, Interpreting Information
Other uses of Sentence Relatives
At times, reporters use sentence relatives for a different purpose: to interpret information.
Here is an example from a sports story. The article, from Bleacher Report, gives information about Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski.
"There's also the fact he [Lewandowski] has a contract at the Allianz Arena running until the summer of 2021, which means it's likely he'll spend at least the next three-and-a-half years on the continent before an MLS move would be plausible."
In this example, the writer is interpreting information about Lewandowski's deal. The first part of the sentence is about a fact: He already is on the team. The second part of the sentence, everything after the word which, gives the reporter's interpretation of the fact.
You will see sentence relatives in many kinds of stories. Here is an example from a report on climate change. It was published in Time magazine. The author, Michael D. Lemonick, wrote the following line:
"No computer climate model anticipated that increase, which means that all current predictions about how much [the] sea level could rise... are too low and will have to be revised upward."
Think back to the travel magazine example that we gave at the beginning of our program.
"The region is still relatively undiscovered, which means unspoiled beaches and affordable prices even in the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik."
Now you know that the author was using the word which to introduce a sentence relative. In other words, the author was interpreting the idea "the region is still relatively undiscovered."
The next time you are reading a news story, try to find examples of sentence relatives. Ask yourself in what situations you see them used, and try to keep a list. With time and training, you will be able to recognize them and use them without difficulty.
A word of warning. Sentence relatives are acceptable in speaking and in newswriting and in fiction writing. However, you might not want to use them in other kinds of writing.
Betty Azar, a grammar expert, says that sentence relatives are generally not used in some kinds of formal writing, such as academic writing. In those cases, writers often use different grammatical structures and vocabulary words.
And that's Everyday Grammar.
I'm John Russell.
And I'm Ashley Thompson.
And I'm Dorothy Gundy.
**Lisa McLaughlin. What to Watch For In 2006. Time Magazine (2006/01/09).
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
unspoiled – adj. still wild and not changed by people : not spoiled
interpretation – n. the act or result of explaining or interpreting something : the way something is explained or understood
plausible – adj. possibly true : believable or realistic
appropriate – adj. right or suited for some purpose or situation