Consider a sentence like the one below.

Radioactive materials decay, which means that their atomic nuclei lose energy by emitting particles.

What grammatical classification and name would you assign the “which means […] particles” clause? It is a bit like a nonrestrictive appositive in that it elaborates on decay, but decay is a verb and the structure is a bit different.

  • 1
    The construction is a relative clause, non-restrictive, but the antecedent of the relative pronoun which is the entire previous clause.
    – KarlG
    Jan 21, 2018 at 19:38
  • @KarlG Thanks. Are you suggesting that the relative clause shouldn't be interpreted as a definition of decay, but an elaboration on the entire thing? If it matters, the original text italicizes decay, (I'll fix the question).
    – Sarah G
    Jan 21, 2018 at 19:42
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    I'm not sure it makes a difference, since the decay is specific to radioactive materials rather than, say, that tub of yogurt that got pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten. With which, one would ordinarily look for a noun antecedent, but there's only materials, and the clause describes the decay (n.) of radioactive materials, so in essence, the whole independent clause.
    – KarlG
    Jan 21, 2018 at 19:49
  • 2
    The clause is a supplementary (non-defining) relative, an additional unit of information. Supplementary relative clauses do not modify anything, but refer to a semantic 'anchor', which can be virtually any preceding element. In this case the anchor is the entire preceding clause "Radioactive materials decay"
    – BillJ
    Jan 21, 2018 at 19:50
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    No, it would still be the whole clause supplemented by the relative, at least according to BillJ (with different terminology) and me, but LuneKrltksr wants to anchor it more specifically to the verb.
    – KarlG
    Jan 21, 2018 at 20:49

1 Answer 1


I agree that the dependent clause is relative, but it clearly anchors to decay, not the entire independent clause. The relative clause defines decay. Restated: "Radioactive materials decay, which [term] means that their atomic nuclei lose energy by emitting particles."

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