I'm working for an ELT publisher that has a rule of "no relative clauses" in materials for beginners, which is reasonable. However, they will often use phrases such as:

"The man in the red shoes..."

I see this as a relative clause, as "in" simply replaces "wearing" or "who is wearing".

My argument is that if this is going to be allowed, then it's better to simply teach the full relative clause. That way, the students will be exposed to the most accurate lexical markers. Otherwise, they could likely take "in" literally, as if the man were inside the hat. If they are taught what "in" actually means in this context, then they are being taught the basics of a relative clause, and we may as well show them the most accurate grammatical form.

Am I correct that "in" here marks a relative clause? Or at the very least, it's simply a technicality for avoiding one?

  • No, "in" marks it as a preposition phrase. "In the red shoes" is preposition phrase modifying "man".
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 6:35

2 Answers 2


"The man in the red shoes" could be reworded to "the man who is wearing the red shoes". Both phrases mean the same thing, but "in the red shoes" is just a prepositional phrase modifying "the man".

Just like "the wheels on the bus" or "the rain in Spain". You could say "the wheels which are on the bus" or "the rain which falls in Spain".

Either way, they mean the same thing, but putting the modifying information in terms of a clause introduces a whole new level of grammar, and even though it doesn't change the meaning, it adds complexity (including a second verb in your sentence).

It makes sense to me that a prepositional phrase would be easier for beginners to understand than the same information stated in a relative clause.


First of all, be warned that there are multiple terminologies for English grammar, they often use the same words to mean different things, and adherents of one terminology often feel a need to publicly denounce any deviation from their preferred terminology as the irrational, depraved gibbering of devil-spawned subhumans with severe head injuries. Secondly, be warned that often grammar has simple patterns that apply most of the time, which are pretty simple to explain, as well as complexities and variations that violate the simple patterns and are very hard to explain.

I will answer your question in terms of traditional grammar, which is far from standardized, and I will ignore the aforementioned complexities. What follows is an educated guess about what your publisher has in mind.

No, in the red shoes is not a relative clause. A relative clause is a kind of subordinate clause, introduced by a relative pronoun that refers to a noun in the superordinate clause. For example:

The man who wore red shoes came to dinner.

This is a "clause" rather than a mere "phrase" because it has a verb of its own (wore): it states something about the man. A clause has all the elements of a whole sentence inside the main sentence: it has its own subject and verb, and in this example, its own direct object. It's a "relative" clause because it's introduced by the relative pronoun who, which stands for "the man"—the subject of the main clause.

This sentence has a prepositional phrase instead of a relative clause:

The man in the red shoes came to dinner.

The prepositional phrase in the red shoes functions as a big adjective, modifying "the man". The two sentences mean almost the same thing.

This sentence has a participial phrase:

The man wearing red shoes came to dinner.

This is not a subordinate clause because it doesn't make a sentence inside a sentence. Wearing is a present participle, which is a verb playing the role of an adjective—not the role of a verb like wore in the true relative clause above.

The most common relative pronouns in English are that, who, and which. Some more are where, when, and whom.

  • I would say that "wearing red shoes" is a subordinate clause, a non-finite one, more specifically a gerund-participial clause. Clauses don't have to have primary form (tensed) verbs to qualify as clauses.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 6:30
  • @BillJ Did you see my first two paragraphs?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 6:38
  • The existence of non-finite clauses is widely accepted by just about everyone and has been for at least two decades. There's little to be gained by reverting to out-of-date grammar. Even beginners are taught that the presence of a verb indicates the presence of a clause, be it finite or non-finite.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 6:43
  • @BillJ Did you see my first two paragraphs?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 6:51

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