I am trying to explain the meaning of restrictive clause of relative pronouns to my students. I’ve made up these sentences in bold and try to explain their meanings from the point of the r view of English grammar. Are my interpretations correctly expressing the ideas?

Example 1

He has been confirmed to be the suspect. These are the big knives he used to kill his wife.

=> Among the big knives in the world, these are the ones he used to kill his wife. The clause “he used to kill his wife” separates these items from the other big knives in the world.

Example 2

Several knives of different sizes were found on the scene. These are the big knives they used in the conflict last night.

=>Among the knives they used in the conflict last night, these are the big knives. The adjective “big” separates these big knives from the other knives of different sizes found on the scene.

Am I right about the meaning of these two sentences?

  • Are pepper sprays 'deadly'? Commented May 28 at 12:22
  • 1
    In example one, 'deadly' is superfluous, because it says they were used to kill. You can also use something as a lethal weapon, which isn't inherently deadly, such as a baseball bat, which isn't usually described as "a deadly weapon". Commented May 28 at 12:26
  • Do I interpret these sentences correctly?
    – Skywarrior
    Commented May 28 at 13:03
  • Example 1: no. You assume more than it actually says. Example 2: possibly although the sentence is clunky. Ex 2 also also changes the statement from 'found' to 'used'. Commented May 28 at 13:08
  • 1
    "These knives (the ones I am pointing to, or a picture of them) are the ones he used to kill his wife". Commented May 28 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


In "... the knives they used in the conflict last night" the italicized clause distinguishes the knives from those used in conflicts by other people in the conflict last night, used by them on other nights, used by them for purposes other than conflict, etc. All elements of the declaration in that clause contribute to a set of distinguishing characteristics.

  • I think the relationship of inclusion is like this for example 1: Knives in the world=>Big knives in the world=> Big knives he used to kill his wife. For example 2, knives in the world=>knives they used in the conflict last night=>The big knives they used in the conflict last night. I hope you understand what I want to express here. It’s really hard to explain. It’s like the Matryoshka dolls. The restrictive clauses, though identical, can refer to different groups of things depending on the contexts.
    – Skywarrior
    Commented May 28 at 16:12
  • You can think of it as filter checkboxes on a e-tail product website search. Each checkbox results in a set, and the intersection of all of the sets, however many there are, is the "definition" of the "restriction". Each element in the defining relative clause produces a set, and you intersect them all, and all other knives are excluded from the resulting intersection: knives not wielded by him, knives wielded for any purpose other than (the achieved end) of killing his wife.
    – TimR
    Commented May 28 at 17:21
  • You asked about the relative clause, so that is what I've focused on. But the adjective "big" also is a filter in its own right, as a modifier of "the knives". He might also have used some smaller knives just to cause superficial wounds, if he is a psychopath.
    – TimR
    Commented May 28 at 17:27
  • The interesection of the modifiers is the result.
    – TimR
    Commented May 28 at 18:18
  • Oh Tim, you made by day: a small knife is for superficial wounds from psychopaths. [It's exasperating, isn't it?]
    – Lambie
    Commented May 28 at 19:40

All restrictive clauses refer to what comes before them.

  • These are the big knives [that] he used to kill his wife.
  • These are the big knives [that] they used in the conflict last night.

Whether or not there were little knives found on the scene cannot be determined from those sentences.

restricted refers to the fact they refer to the antecedent. They can't ever refer to what comes afterwards.

  • Those were the balls in the yard that were used to play football that day.

Were there other balls or things in the yard? Undeterminable...as written.

  • How about this: There were several cars in the deal. These were just the big ones I bought. Cars I bought=>big ones. The adjective “big” separates these cars from other others.
    – Skywarrior
    Commented May 28 at 14:28
  • Can't you see that "[that] I bought" only refers to the prior clause? The fact there may have been smaller ones is outside the sentence. But several usually only means up to two. But I see what you mean. You need to teach your students about larger contexts and sentence contexts. "There were many cars in the deal. These were just the big ones [that] I bought". Repeat: Restrictive clauses only refer to what precedes them.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 28 at 14:51
  • I think it’s interesting that the effect of the restrictive clause sometimes has a different range. For example, “This is the biggest car I bought last night” clearly implies that the among the cars I bought, this is the biggest one and there are actually more. On the other hand, “This is the big ax he used to kill his wife implies that they among the big axes in the world, this is the one used to killed his wife, and there’s only one.
    – Skywarrior
    Commented May 28 at 15:12
  • No, a textual context is not a sentence context. I only answer questions that I like. Maybe I like them all, maybe I don't. I don't think one can say that the restritive clause is making this happen. In fact, it's the adjectives biggest and big in your examples are not even in the restrictive clause...
    – Lambie
    Commented May 28 at 15:54

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