The relative clauses introduce information about an element that precedes them and is known as “antecedent” in grammar. The antecedent is found in the main sentence.
The antecedent and the relative do not have to fulfill the same syntactic function. In the next two first examples, the antecedent and the relative function both as subject- the antecedent as the subject of the main sentence and the relative as the subject of the subordinate clause-; while in the third one, the antecedent functions as the subject of the main sentence and the relative functions as a companion complement to the subordinate sentence.
- Her dog, which is slow, is now 8 years old. – Su perro, que es lento, tiene ya 8 años.
- My mother, who was very tired, fell asleep soon.- Mi madre, que estaba muy cansada, se durmió pronto.
- My mother with whom I have a great time works a lot.- Mi madre, con quien me lo paso muy bien, trabaja mucho.
In these examples, the relative clause which provides an information about the antecedent appears in blue, while the ancedent appears in green. This mechanics will be used throughout the explanation.
The relative clauses are introduced by the following kinds of words:
- Relative pronouns: que (which/that), quien (who/that), el cual (who, which)
- Relative adjectives: cuyo (whose), cuanto (how much)
- Relative adverbs: where, how, when
Two types of relative clauses could be differentiated:
1. Defining relative clauses– oraciones de relativo especificativas:
- Restrict the extension or meaning of the word to which they refer (its antecedent)
- Provide information that cannot be omitted, that is, they provide essential information.
- They are NOT written between commas, a characteristic that makes it possible to differentiate them from the second type: non-defining relative clauses.
Children who behave well will go on a field trip.- Los niños que se comportan bien irán a una excursión. (1)
My friends who live in Madrid are very nice.- Mis amigos que viven en Madrid son muy majos.
- The relative pronoun can be increased with a preposition if the function that the relative fulfills needs it:
My mother to whom I have a great time works a lot.– Mi madre con quien me lo paso muy bien trabaja mucho.
- In English, in these clauses, the relative can be omitted when it functions as the object of the sentence, while in Spanish this is not possible:
My sister (that) her husband loves has moved to San Sebastián.- Mi hermana a la que su marido ama se ha mudado a San Sebastián.
2. Non-defining relative clauses– oraciones de relativo explicativas:
- Provide non-essential information or complementary information that can normally be eliminated without changing the semantics or the meaning of the antecedent. It is an information that can be dispensed with.
- They are written between COMMAS and in the oral communication they imply a special intonation
Children, who behave well, will go on a field trip.- Los niños, que se comportan bien, irán a una excursión. (2)
If we compare this sentence with the following one “Children who behave well will go on a field trip“- “Los niños que se portan bien irán de excursión” (1), it can be seen that the difference is that the first one restricts the meaning of the antecedent, that is, only children who behave well will go on a field trip. In (2), it is provided an additional information about the children and all of them will go on a field trip, that is, the relative clause does not restrict its antecedent.