In “Crafting more elegant prose with free modifiers,” an essay of mine that I posted here last December 2, 2012, I showed how we can craft more elegant English prose by making good use of the so-called free modifiers instead of bound modifiers. To highlight the difference between these two, I likened a bound modifier to an animal species that has already perfected itself genetically, thus arriving at its evolutionary dead-end; in contrast, I said that free relative clauses form part of the wide gene pool of language that makes infinite permutations of thought possible.
This time, in “Making good use of free relative clauses,” an essay that I wrote for my daily English-usage column in The Manila Times on February 26, 2004, we will take an even closer look at the great versatility of this grammar device in modifying ideas. This is the last of the seven essays on grammar strategies for crafting more readable and compelling sentences that I have posted here from June 2012 onwards.
Making good use of free relative clauses
In the preceding chapter, we compared a bound modifier to an animal species that has already arrived at its evolutionary dead-end, and a free relative modifier to a species that partakes of a wide gene pool for its further evolution. This was in the context of the power of free relative clauses to expand ideas beyond the limits of the usual subject-verb-predicate format. We saw that while bound relative clauses simply affirm the identity of a subject noun, free relative clauses expand ideas in any way the writer or speaker deems suitable to his exposition.
There’s a handy guide for spotting the two: most bound relative clauses that refer to non-persons are introduced by “that,” while most free relative clauses that refer to non-persons are introduced by “which”: “The sedan that you delivered to me last week is a lousy clunker!” “That sedan, which you told me would be the best my money can buy, is a lousy clunker!” Notice how self-contained and peremptory the first sentence is, and how awkward it would be to add any more ideas to it (better to start all over again with a new sentence!).
In contrast, marvel at how the second sentence readily lends itself to further elaboration: “That sedan, which you told me would be the best my money can buy, which you bragged would give me the smoothest ride, and which you claimed would make me the most sophisticated-looking motorist in town, is a lousy clunker!” We can add even more “which” clauses to that sentence in direct proportion to the speaker’s anger and indignation, and still be sure that the speaker won’t be gasping for air when he gives vent to them.
We must be aware, though, that bound relative clauses are sometimes not that easy to spot in a sentence. Recall that we learned to routinely knock off “that” from relative clauses as part of our prose-streamlining regimen. Thus, the bound-clause-using sentence above would most likely present itself in this guise: “The sedan [that] you delivered to me last week is a lousy clunker!” This, as we know, is a neat disappearing act that “which” can oftentimes also do to link free relative clauses smoothly with main clauses.
But what really makes free relative clauses most valuable to prose is their ability to position themselves most anywhere in a sentence—at the beginning, in the middle, or at the tail end—with hardly any change in meaning; bound relative clauses simply can’t do that. We can better understand that semantic attribute by using three ways to combine sentences using the free-relative-clause construction technique. Take these two sentences: “The new junior executive has been very astute in his moves. He has been quietly working to form alliances with the various division managers.”
Our first construction puts the relative clause right at the beginning of the sentence: “Working quietly to form alliances with the various division managers, the new junior executive has been very astute in his moves.” The second puts it smack in the middle: “The new junior executive, working quietly to form alliances with the various division managers, has been very astute in his moves.” And the third puts it at the very tail end: “The new junior executive has been very astute in his moves, quietly working to form alliances with the various division managers.”
The wonder is that all three constructions yield elegant sentences that mean precisely the same thing—sentences that look, sound, and feel much better than when they are forced into bound-modifier straightjackets like this: “The new junior executive who is working quietly to form alliances with the various division managers has been very astute in his moves.”
We can see clearly now that free relative clauses work in much the same way as resumptive and summative modifiers: they allow us to effortlessly extend the line of thought of a sentence without losing coherence and cohesion and without creating unsightly sprawl. However, free relative clauses differ from them in one major functional attribute: they specifically modify a subject of a particular verb.
In contrast, resumptive modifiers pick up any noun, verb, or adjective from a main clause and elaborate on them with relative clauses, while summative modifiers make a recap of what has been said in the previous clause and develop it with another line of thought altogether. Free relative clauses specifically need verbs to start off thoughts that elaborate on the subject of the main clause: “She loves me deeply, showing it in the way she moves, hinting it in the way she looks at me.”
We can attach more and more free relative clauses to that sentence, but the point has been made: using free relative clauses is—short of poetry—one of the closest ways we can ever get to achieving elegance in our prose.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 26, 2004 issue © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 64 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.