The Use of Relative Clauses in Formal, Academic Discourse

One of the most fundamental goals of the English language teaching profession is the empowerment of our students (Lessard-Clouston, 2015). Developing advanced proficiency in English avails learners to a variety of opportunities that would otherwise be inaccessible. However, simply being proficient in English may be insufficient for reaching their goals; the English that learners are taught and strive to acquire must be suited to their future communicative needs. Qualification through education is the main pathway learners take toward accomplishing many of their goals, yet their mastery of academic English renders them ill-prepared to communicate effectively in academic contexts (Hinkel, 2013). In order for students to have the best chances for success, they must have an awareness of register difference and the necessary language skills – including a solid foundation in English grammar – to adapt their language usage according to context and communicative goals.

Hinkel (2013) points out that although a key motivation in investigating grammar historically centered on efforts to develop content for language course curricula and teaching materials, grammar instruction most currently is driven by a desire to hone learners’ expressive language skills to meet the standards of academic discourse. Celce-Murcia maintains that for learners seeking future careers that require mastery of academic English, accurate use of grammar is paramount (as cited in Hinkel, 2013, p. 4). Although L2 learners may take courses in more academic varieties of English, the amount of exposure they have to more informal, oral forms eclipses academic English in its influence of students’ production. Such disparity in influence and usage between more formal, academic registers and more informal varieties are of considerable concern as there is low tolerance for errors and deviations from academic discourse conventions (Celce-Muria cited in Hinkel, 2013, p. 4).

Although academic and more informal registers of English may not be so divergent as to necessitate acquiring completely new linguistic forms (Carter & McCarthy, 2006), learners should be aware of distinctions in usage of grammatical structures characteristic of academic discourse (Bennett, 2011; Carter & McCarthy, 2006; Hinkel, 2013). For teachers, prioritizing such forms during instruction may be the most effective and practical means of preparing learners to meet the communicative demands of academia (Bennett, 2011; Hinkel, 2013). For example, Bennett (2011) and Hinkel (2013) point out that lexical items, including nouns, are an important feature of academic language, as well as extensive use of complex sentences through subordination.

Relative clauses are not a grammatical feature exclusive to academic discourse; however, their preferred form and frequency of usage in this register make them an important feature for instruction. For example, in a study analyzing the distribution of relative clauses in fiction, news articles, academic texts, and spoken discourse, relative clauses beginning with the complementizer that were used most frequently across text types due to its “high grammatical potential” (Rafajlovičová, 2012, p. 23). Which was found to be the second most commonly used relativizer, though rarely used in spoken, conversational discourse (Rafajlovičová, 2012). Similarly, Bennett (2011) notes that although relative clauses featuring a preposition + which are fairly infrequent in academic discourse, they are represented more in this register than any other. Rafajlovičová’s (2012) study also revealed a greater frequency of non-finite relative clauses in academic text. While restrictive relative clauses occurred more frequently in informal, spoken discourse, there was no significant distinction in usage in academic texts (Rafajlovičová, 2012).

In addition to differences in frequency and variations in form of relative clauses in academic texts, learners should also be made aware of the different communicative and rhetorical functions they serve. Typically, relative clauses are used to modify or provide additional information for a noun antecedent (Rafajlovičová, 2012; Tse & Hyland, 2010). However, their function may extend beyond a purely informative objective. For example, Tse and Hyland (2010) found that relative clauses served more evaluative and persuasive purposes in the academic subgenre of journal description. In an increasingly competitive market of peer-reviewed publications, the evaluative function relative clauses may be a means of brand position and marketing (Tse & Hyland, 2010).

Empowering learners to achieve their goals is not simply a matter of helping them develop proficiency in English, but rather helping learners develop language skills and skills of discernment to adapt their usage to meet the communicative demands of a given context. As many L2 English learners enroll in educational institutions as their chosen path to reaching career and personal goals, advanced proficiency in academic discourse is essential (Hinkel, 2013). Recognizing significant characteristics of formal academic register, including the relationship between grammatical form and communicative aims, provides our learners with full access and participation in academic discourse.

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Lessard-Clouston, M. (2015). ELT and empowerment: Questions, observations, and reflections for
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Rafajlovičová, R. (2012). The distribution and role of relative clauses in different text types. In A.
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