Module 14 - Relative Clauses

Relative Clauses - Overview

Relative clauses are dependent clauses that tell us more about an antecedent, which is often a noun or pronoun. Such clauses function adjectivally; they modify the antecedent. Take a look at the following examples:

Note that each relative clause is introduced by the word who (or its related words, like whom or whose), which, or that. Each relative clause describes an antecedent: which students? The ones who studied for the exam. Which girl? The one whom I love.

Identifying Relative Clauses

In Latin, relative clauses are introduced by the relative pronoun, quī, quae, quod (“who, which, that”). This should hopefully be familiar to you from last semester – it’s the exact same entry as for the interrogative adjective. Last semester, we learned that forms of quī, quae, quod, when used as an interrogative adjective, modify an explicit noun in the sentence and ask a question: quī puer? Which boy? quae puella? Which girl?

Here, quī, quae, quod as a relative pronoun stands on its own and introduces a subordinate clause that contains its own verb and whatever else the verb governs (objects, subjects, prepositional phrases, etc.).

You can find the paradigm chart for the relative pronoun here.

Note also some special translations. The genitive of the relative pronoun usually indicates possession, so we can translate it as “whose”. Also, when a relative pronoun refers to a person, translations of oblique cases that indicate object status, like an accusative direct object or dative indirect object, will often use the form “whom”, since that is the objective form of the relative pronoun in English (“who” is subjective!).

Take a look at the following examples, with the relative clause, introduced by the relative pronoun, in bold:

Again, the relative clause is a dependent, subordinate clause. It is usually introduced by the relative pronoun or the preposition that governs it (e.g., ā of ā quā in the third example), and it usually ends at the first conjugated verb that follows the relative pronoun. It is extremely important to sequester the relative clause so that you translate what belongs to the clause within the clause, without letting the main sentence creep in or vice versa.

In the sentence:

note that the core of the sentence is exempla cognoscō, “I recognize the examples.” We can extract the relative clause without affecting the coherence of the main sentence. The relative clause simply serves to tell us more information about its antecedent. Which examples do I recognize? The ones that the teacher gave to me.

Practice Opportunity 1

Identify the relative clause in the following sentences. Do not translate (unless you’re feeling adventurous!).

  1. monstra nautās quōrum nāvēs vīdimus terruērunt. (terreō, -ēre, -uī, -itus, to terrify, frighten)

  2. urbs quam regēs regunt septem portās habet. (porta, -ae, f. - gate)

  3. mīles ducibus quī ā flūmine veniunt epistulās dābit.

  4. verba quae mihi dicenda sunt dīcō.

Back to top.

Gender, Number, and Case of Relative Pronouns

This is the most important rule when it comes to using relative pronouns in Latin: the relative pronoun takes its gender and number from its antecedent, but it takes its case from its use within the relative clause. As an illustration, take a look at this sentence again:

According to our chart, the relative pronoun quī can be either masculine nominative singular or masculine nominative plural. Either way, it has to be the subject of its clause (because nominative), and the clause contains the plural verb veniēbant; therefore, quī must be masculine nominative plural. Within the relative clause “…who were coming from the ships”, “who” / quī, our relative pronoun, serves as the subject of “were coming” / veniēbant, so it makes sense that that pronoun is nominative. The pronoun takes its case from its function within its clause. To put it differently:

The relative takes its CASE from its PLACE in its own SPACE.

Notice, however, that the antecedent of quī is virōs, which is masculine accusative plural. quī takes its gender and number (masculine and plural) but NOT its case from virōs. quī serves as the subject of the relative clause, but its antecedent virōs serves as the direct object of the main clause. Relative pronoun and antecedent share gender and number but not necessarily case.

Another example to illustrate this idea:

Our relative pronoun quā can only be one thing: feminine ablative singular. It is ablative because it is being used in an ablative of agent construction within the relative clause: ā quā doctus erat, “…by whom he had been taught.” Its gender and number, feminine and singular, come from its antecedent, fēminae, which is being used as a dative object of crēdidit in the main clause.

Practice Opportunity 2

In each of the following English sentences, identify the relative clause, and determine what case and use the relative pronoun would be in Latin according to its use within the clause. Do not translate into Latin (unless you feel adventurous!).

  1. We were attacked by the sailors who had come from the sea.

  2. The citizens to whom we gave peace nevertheless did not encourage us. (tamen - nevertheless)

  3. He slept near the river from which my family brought the water. (prope + acc. - near)

  4. I don’t trust the woman whose husband we recognized.

Back to top.

Locating the Antecedent

The relative clause will often be located close to its antecedent, but sometimes it is not. For example, I could easily rewrite the sentence above as:

When it isn’t immediately clear what the antecedent of a relative pronoun is, you must use the gender and number of the relative pronoun to try to figure it out. quā is feminine singular, so we’re looking for some noun, pronoun, or substantive adjective in the main clause that is feminine singular. The two nouns are rex and fēminae; of these two, the only possible choice is fēminae (as rex has to be masculine).

Even though the relative clause may be separated from its antecedent in Latin, in English, it makes more idiomatic sense to translate the relative clause immediately after its antecedent. For example, in the following Latin sentence:

the relative clause quem docueram modifies the noun puer; antecedent and clause are separated by carmina cecinit. However, if we postpone the translation of the relative clause until the end, it sounds strange and, indeed, even confusing: “The boy sang songs whom I had taught.” Because English relies on word order to make sense, we need to put the relative clause right after its antecedent: “The boy whom I had taught sang songs.”

Practice Opportunity 3

In each of the following sentences, parse the relative pronoun, identify and parse its antecedent, and then translate.

  1. mīlitēs verba clamāvērunt quae nōs hortāta sunt. (clamō, -āre, -āvī, -ātus - to shout)

  2. ā frātre sorōrēs creditae sunt quī hanc epistulam scripsit.

  3. rēgina regnum rexit in quō nōmina nostra cognoscuntur.

  4. illī librī hīs puellīs legendī sunt quae discere volunt.

Back to top.

Connecting Relative

If a relative pronoun comes at the very beginning of a sentence, it is often being used as a connecting relative, an odd combination of a coordinating conjunction and a pronoun. Depending on the gender and number of the relative pronoun, it can be used to refer to an entity in the previous sentence or the whole idea encapsulated in the previous sentence, and it can sometimes be prefaced by “and”, such that:


Take a look at the following examples:

This connecting relative often, though not always, is used in a cum clause, and the cum is often postponed until after the connecting relative, as in the examples above. Note that the verbs in these examples are subjunctive because they are used in a cum clause to express the circumstances of the main verb; they are not subjunctive because of the relative pronoun. This is an important distinction to make once we consider in what circumstances a relative clause WOULD use a subjunctive verb, as in a relative clause of characteristic.

Relative Clause of Characteristic

Most of the relative clauses that we’ve seen use indicative verbs because the clause is describing a definite antecedent. However, we can also use a subjunctive verb in the relative clause when the antecedent is general, indefinite, interrogative, or negative. This use of a relative clause with a subjunctive verb is called a relative clause of characteristic, because it defines a quality or characteristic of an antecedent that itself is general, indefinite, etc.

In translation, we can sometimes use the auxiliary verb “would” to render the subjunctive, and the antecedent can sometimes be prefaced by “the sort of” or “the kind of”. We also often have to supply words in our translation based on, e.g., the gender and number of pronouns or nouns to help the translation make sense.

Take a look at the following examples:

Practice Opportunity 4

Identify whether each of the following sentences uses a relative clause of characteristic, a connecting relative, or a straightforward relative clause. Then, translate.

  1. haec est quae id putet.

  2. haec est quae id putat.

  3. mīles pulcher est. quem cum vidērēmus, mirābāmur.

  4. mīles est quem mirēmur.

Back to top.