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What Are Contact Clauses?

Michael Davis-Burchat/Flickr

Although they are a fairly common feature of spoken and written English, contact clauses, a relative clause sub-type, may be difficult to grasp for students learning English.

Relative Clauses

Before investigating contact clauses, let’s first define the relative clause. A relative clause is a subordinate clause that consists of a subject and a verb, and it functions as an adjective (e.g. “The dog that barked” or “The boy who lived”).

They use relative pronouns such as “that,” “which,” “who,” or “whom,” and relative adverbs such as “where” and “when” to relate two ideas. Relative clauses are helpful in clarifying sentences, but they cannot stand alone.

So What’s a Contact Clause Anyway?

Native speakers take them for granted, but they can be a baffling language feature to people learning English. A contact clause is a relative clause that omits the relative pronoun (i.e that, which, whom, who, etc.) and must be adjacent to the noun phrase.

Linguist Otto Jespersen introduced the term in his book Essentials of English Grammar (1933)  but the structure has existed in the English language for centuries, to the chagrin of some grammar purists. In fact, 18th century grammarians hotly debated its use, and Lindley Murray argued that English grammar should be modeled after Latin. Still, the contact clause persisted and remains common to this day.

It is important to note that with the usual construction, the contact clause is the object of the sentence, not the subject. For example, you would normally say “The blog I read,” so that “I read” is the contact clause.

However, generally speaking, you would not say, “There’s a girl told me to read the blog.” The second example omits the “who” and makes “told me” the contact clause. The “told me” also serves as the subject because it performs the action. Though irregular, this type of contact clause is found in various forms of vernacular English.

In Standard English, we would typically use the first construction, with a relative pronoun only being omitted when the contact clause serves as the object of the sentence.

More Examples Please

This is what a sentence would look like with the relative pronoun “that.”

“She told me that English was difficult.”

If you omit the relative pronoun, “English was difficult” becomes a contact clause.

“She told me English was difficult.”

Here are some examples of contact clauses used in literature:

"Unfortunately we had to sack Lydia after that incident you know about.”
(Cliff Green, Rainbow Academy. Trafford, 2009)

In this example, the relative pronoun “that” is omitted after “incident”; including it would make the sentence too clunky.

"I was jealous; therefore I loved. And the woman I loved was Maud Brewster."
(Jack London, The Sea-Wolf. 1904)

Here, either “that” or “who” is omitted after “woman.”

"'Well,' he said, 'the reason I ask is that I'm afraid I can't recall ever doing business with this man who implies things. No, I don't remember him at all."
(Philip Singerman, Proof Positive. Forge Books, 2001)

In this case, “that” is omitted” after “reason.”

As illustrated above, contact clauses were developed in part because they simply look better on the page and sound better out loud. In each of these examples, relative pronouns could be used but are left out mainly for stylistic reasons.

Removing unnecessary words (within grammatical rules!) allows us to communicate more succinctly and effectively. Consequently, grammar tends to adapt to regular usage throughout the years, changing with culture, society, and literature.

Do Contact Clauses Exist Elsewhere?

Though most languages have relative pronoun systems of varying complexities, contact clauses are a uniquely English phenomenon. However, they can be found in English-based languages such as Hawaiian Creole English.

Learning English is no easy feat. With its complex and irregular grammar, it helps to have a network of people to refer to for guidance. If you want to improve your English with supportive, personalized instruction, Contact Us to learn more!