In most grammar books, adjective/relative clauses are limited to specific constructs involving words such as 'that' or 'which' (as two of multiple examples):

[1] The house that I grew up in

There are also examples of non-finite relative clauses, which use participles and infinitives:

[2] The man speaking on the stage

[3] The best time to be alive

However, there are other examples that are rarely spoken about. Consider these:

[4] The time before he found his calling

[5] The moment after she discovered the truth

[6] Life as we know it

In the grammar resources that I have read, these types of clauses are always presented as adverbial, usually modifying a verb. Clearly, this is not their sole function. That being the case, are the examples above (4–6) correct? They are often used in both informal and formal English, so why do most resources neglect to mention them? If they are correct, would we class them as relative clauses?

  • Does the question you ask in the final paragraph refer to only your examples [4-6]?
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 7:47
  • I've posted an answer which deals with the analysis of all your examples.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 12:12
  • @BillJ Yes, it does. I should've specified.
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 13:13

1 Answer 1


[1] the house [that I grew up in]

[2] the man [speaking on the stage]

[3] the best time [to be alive]

[4] the time [before he found his calling]

[5] the moment [after she discovered the truth]

[6] life [as we know it]

These are a mixed bag of noun phrases containing various modifiers (bracketed), but only two of the modifiers are relative clauses:

[1] is a genuine relative construction, where the modifier is a relative clause modifying "house".

[2] The modifier here is a non-finite participial clause modifying "man". It is semantically similar to the relative clause in the man who is/was speaking on the stage.

[3] contains the infinitival relative clause "to be alive", which modifies "best time". It has a modal meaning comparable to that expressed in finites by "can/could" or "should", cf. the best time that we could be alive.

The modifiers in [4] - [6] are not clauses at all, but preposition phrases where [4-5] have a temporal meaning, [6] a comparative one.

  • Do you have any resources that explain how clauses can be objects of a preposition? It appears that my understanding is limited by thinking that objects can only be derivations of nouns (including gerunds). I imagine this is a result of relying on outdated grammar.
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 13:20
  • @MJAda Traditionally, before, after and as in those examples would be called conjunctions rather than prepositions. I understand that the class of preposition has been considerable widened in recent work, particularly CGEL (which I'm still trying to decide whether I can afford to buy).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 13:24
  • @MJAda My answer is based on modern grammar, which rejects the claim that prepositions can only take NPs as complement. The clauses in your examples are complements of the preceding preposition, but they are not objects as such -- the term 'object' is used for those complements with the form of an NP.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 13:39
  • @BillJ In that case, what distinguishes these prepositions from regular conjunctions? Is it the fact that they are descriptive but not relative clauses?
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 20:22
  • @MJAda "Before", "after" and "as" are clearly prepositions in "I met him the day [before yesterday]"/ "I saw her [after the accident]" / "I regard her [as a friend]", where they have NP object complements. Modern grammar expands the classification to include other kinds of complement such as clauses. In other words, it's just a matter of complementation.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 10:54

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