My running example is the sentence (from the VAT law of one country):

The building land is the plot in relation to which the building permit has been issued.

There are possible at least two views on this sentence:

  1. Natural view: this sentence describes the plot in relation to which the special action has happened that is described by the full sentence the building permit has been issued, so - the noun plot has relation to the full sentence the building permit has been issued and in relation to which acts as some kind of conjunction that relates noun with the sentence. I understand that this it somehow weird interpretation but it conforms to the axiom, that is taught in the secondary school, that subordinate clauses explains (ore replaces) some words in the main clause. My understanding is that such axiom is complete failure - see the next point.

  2. Grammatically correct view: one should perceive which as anaphoric pronoun and in relation to as the adverb (and there is pied-piping) and the full subordinate clause then can be rewritten as building permit has been issued in relation to which (i.e. plot). So - actually - subordinate clause never explains (never can be attributable) to some word in the main clause. In reality the subordinate clause is just another full sentence which can refer to some word in the main clause only by (possibly implied) anaphoric pronouns. And anaphora is the only mechanism through which the subordinate clause describes some word in the main clause. So - this should be the ultimate axiom of the compound sentences - compound sentences always can be separated as standalone clauses that are joined together by logical connectives (conjunction, disjounction, implication - and only these) and there are no other kind of logical connectives that can serve for modelling subordination: i.e. subordinate clause is just free standing clause that adds or negates some more information (as a separate sentence/proposition (in logical terms)) about some word in the main clause (via anaphora).

So - see point 2 for how I understand subordination. Is my understanding of subordination correct (as stated in point 2)? And what about point 1 analysis? Maybe that is quite sound analysis? Maybe there are sentences that should be analysed in that way and maybe there are sentences in whom the full subordinate clause explains some word in the main clause (without anaphora)?

Actually I am figthing this sentence for half a year (see my other questions - "in relation to which" - what type of subordinated clause and is this conjunction somehow distinct? What is the term for the formation of word groups with single meaning/function (e.g. "in relation to which") in lingustics Formal semantics of subordinate clauses (compound sentences) - in categorial and type logical grammars?) and just wanted to know - is this sentence really so weird and hard?

  • 1
    I reserve subordinate clause for conjuncted clauses -- they are adverbial (modify the verb). Your example is a relative clause (modifying a noun) -- the relative pronoun doesn't get stored (it just identifies a trace), but a conjunction does need to be stored.
    – amI
    May 2, 2018 at 22:11
  • Sorry for my knowledge, of course I was meant relative clause but as far as I know, then relative clause is just one variation of subordinate clauses: adjectival subordinate clause. It functions similarly - it adds some more details about nouns (as adjectives does and as adverbs does for verb and as adverbial clause does for verb in the main clause). I just wanted to know where my analysis 1. and 2. are sound notwithstanding the terminology relative clause vs adjectival subordinate clause.
    – TomR
    May 2, 2018 at 22:23
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    I checked Longman English Grammar by Alexander and it says that there are 3 types of subordinate clauses: noun, adjectival (relative) and adverbial.
    – TomR
    May 2, 2018 at 22:26
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    Relative clauses are not the only adjective clauses; there are also NP complement clauses, like the claim that the dean is going to resign, which describes the contents of the claim but is not a relative clause. They're not as common as relative clauses, but both types are subject to the Complex NP Constraint.
    – jlawler
    May 3, 2018 at 0:31
  • Please don't call relative clause adjective clauses. Just because they modify a nominal doesn't make them adjectives. They are 'modifiers', that's why we have that term.
    – BillJ
    May 3, 2018 at 18:54

1 Answer 1


No, anaphora is always involved in a relative clause construction, because relative clauses have relative pronouns (not necessarily explicit), and relative pronouns are anaphoric. The "which" of your example

The building land is the plot in relation to which the building permit has been issued.

is coreferential with the definite NP in the main clause:

the plot in relation to which the building permit has been issued

The relative clause itself is from the "if" clause of

If a building permit has been issued in relation to a plot of land, then `building land' is (refers to) this plot of land.

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