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Adjectives: When to Use an Adjectival Clause

Updated on September 5, 2012

What is an Adjectival Clause?

Also called the adjective clause or relative clause, an adjectival clause is a grammatical construct in which the adjectival function of a sentence or phrase is carried out by more than one word. When used properly, adjectival clauses are hyphenated so that the two adjectival words are linked and shown to be distinct from the noun they are describing.

Punctuation marks
Punctuation marks

Example of an Adjective Clause

To allow you to understand better what is an adjectival clause and what is not, here are some examples of adjectival clauses:

chocolated-coated peanuts

eighteenth-century novelist

many-wondered thing

zero-tolerance approach

tussock-covered field

deep-veined arm


How Do I Use an Adjectival Clause?

There are some fairly simple ways to tell whether you're writing what is an adjectival clause, but for an in-depth study you might prefer to look into a few books on grammar.

If ever you're using two words to describe a noun and neither of them is an adverb, the chances are that you're using an adjectival clause and it ought to have a hyphen. You can tell if one of the words is an adverb because it will end in "ly". In the example below, for example, there is no need for a hyphen as the two words describing the noun ("man") are an adverb and an adjective, not an adjectival clause:

extremely fat man

In this example, "extremely" is an adverb describing the adjective "fat", so no hyphen is needed and this is not an adjectival clause. Another way to tell would be to ask yourself whether the sentence would still make sense if the first word was removed. In this instance a "fat man" would make sense, so the chances are that this is an adverb/adjective/noun combination. If this were an adjectival clause, the first word would not end in "ly", and the two words could then be hyphenated, as in this example:

barrel-chested man

Here, "barrel" is not describing the chest, "barrel-chested" is describing the man. You can tell because "chested man" would make no sense on its own, meaning that this is in fact an adjectival clause- it only makes sense together, and a hyphen is therefore required.

When Shouldn't I Use a Hyphen?

In order to need a hypen, the adjectival clause must come before the noun it is describing. If it falls after the noun in the sentence, a hyphen is not needed:

He was a barrel-chested man.

The man was barrel chested.

In the second example, because the compound adjective falls after the noun, there is no need for a hyphen. The key point here is whether the pair of words is actually acting as an adjective and describing the noun. If they fall after the noun, they aren't strictly describing it, they're just a statement of fact.

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