Editing with Relative Clauses

Relative clauses, also known as adjective clauses, are troublesome grammar points for ESL writers at every level. Beginner students often try using them before they have studied them. Intermediate students add them to sentences with frequent errors in subjects or verbs. Advanced students may include so many embedded clauses that one small error makes the whole sentence difficult to understand.


Our new grammar page on Subjects in Relative Clauses shows students several examples, along with common errors and how to edit for them. Not intended to teach the grammar, this page can be used as a resource for targeting errors that you see in student papers. Send students the page, link it in digital feedback or comments, or download a pdf version of the page.

The page includes examples of errors in subject-verb agreement, repeating a subject after the relative clauses, or omitted relative pronouns. Instructors can help students edit for these errors by encouraging effective proofreading strategies for ESL adults. Ask students to underline or change the font color for all verbs in the essay. Then, ask them to circle or use a different font color for the subject for each verb. Sentence-by-sentence, or one paragraph at a time, students should focus only on the clause structure, checking that all verbs have a subject and that they match in number (third person singular ‘s’ is often forgotten, particularly for complex clauses!)

This won’t fix every error in a paper, but it will help teachers identify which errors students can correct on their own, and which need focused instruction. Visual and tactile editing is generally more effective for ESL writers than reading the paper out loud, as native English speakers do.

What errors in relative clauses do your students make, and how do you help them correct it?

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