Relative Clause Explanation and Handout to Help Greek Students

GreekOne of the important dependent or subordinate clauses to learn about in elementary Greek is the relative clause. In Greek, they are introduced by the relative pronoun ὅς (hos). These dependent clauses are sometimes hidden in translations, because authors, like Paul, can use a string of them where we would use separate sentences in English (see Col. 1:13-16). Someone who knows Greek, however, can spot a relative clause and realize that it is a dependent clause and should be associated with the antecedent of the relative pronoun (see below).

In English, relative clauses are introduced by “who,” “which,” or “that.” They are such an ordinary part of how we write that we do not notice them. “That” is not always a relative pronoun, of course. When it is being used as a relative pronoun, you can substitute “which” for “that” and the sentence will still make sense. For example: The relative clause that I am using here is easy to find. Replace “that” with “which” and you will get: The relative clause, which I am using here, is easy to find. “Which” relative clauses should be set off by commas due to the rules related to restrictive versus non-restrictive relative clauses (which you can look up online).

In Greek, relative clauses can be confusing to students. One main source of the confusion comes from failure to distinguish between the grammatical use of the relative clause and the grammatical use of the relative pronoun. The relative clause is the entire clause that begins with ὅς (“that” or “which”) and continues until the main clause of the sentence picks up again (see example sentence above). The antecedent of the relative pronoun will normally be right in front of “that” or “which” (ὅς). Relative clauses are adjectival clauses that normally modify the antecedent of the pronoun. In case you do not remember what an antecedent is, it is quite simply the noun to which the pronoun refers. In the example sentence used above, what is the antecedent of “that” or “which”? If the relative pronoun does not have an antecedent, then it will act as a noun (or think of it as a substantival adjective) and have noun functions.

To help Greek students with relative clauses, I have drawn up the paragraph below and have posted a helpful relative clause flowchart here.

Relative clauses can be tricky. (a) As with all dependent clauses, begin by finding the beginning and end of the relative clause (it always starts with the relative pronoun or a preposition if the relative pronoun is the object of that preposition). (b) The second thing you need to do is to look for the antecedent of the relative pronoun. The antecedent will normally be a nearby noun and the relative pronoun will normally agree with it in number and gender (not necessarily case). In this case, the relative clause is adjectival and modifies the noun. (c) If the relative pronoun does not have an antecedent (in the sentence), then the relative clause is usually acting substantivally. Identify the noun function of the relative clause (subject, direct object, etc.).

Below is an example of 2 relative clauses to which you can apply the material information given above. 1 Peter 1:8 contains 2 relative clauses that modify “Jesus Christ” at the end of 1 Peter 1:7.

ἐν ἀποκαλύψει Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὃν οὐκ ἰδόντες ἀγαπᾶτε, εἰς ὃν ἄρτι μὴ ὁρῶντες πιστεύοντες δὲ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε χαρᾷ ἀνεκλαλήτῳ καὶ δεδοξασμένῃ.

For more notes on the grammar, syntax, and translation of these verses, see my post on 1 Peter 1:8.