Consider the sentence:

My uncle who lives in Australia has sent me a present.

It is my understanding that who lives in Australia is a sub-clause in this context. However, if you isolate the clause, does it become a question and therefore an independent clause? Consider this:

Who lives in Australia?


  • 1
    In a way, all relative clauses are questions -- we just use 'that' instead of 'what' (if you use colloquial 'what', you will still be understood).
    – AmI
    Dec 4, 2018 at 9:02
  • 2
    Technically, it can either be a relative clause in a sentence or an independent clause standing on its own. They are unrelated issues, so there's no reason why it should not be so.
    – Kris
    Dec 4, 2018 at 10:25
  • 1
    If you isolate it as an independent clause, then it becomes interrogative with the interrogative pronoun "who" as head. As the relativised element in a relative clause, "who" is a relative pronoun, not an interrogative one.
    – BillJ
    Dec 4, 2018 at 12:51
  • Could you drop that example and consider logically whether your relative clause could either, or alternatively, be independent? Dec 4, 2018 at 21:51

3 Answers 3


There are two homonyms with the same form 'who': 1. Relative pronoun /it is used in the clause of your sentence/. 2. Interrogative pronoun /in the question about the subject of the sentence, where there's direct order of words similar to the word order in your relative clause/. So, the difference between the question and the relative clause is the punctuation /the capitalised 'Who' and the question mark '?'/.

  • Good point. But it can't be an answer because the question itself is untenable.
    – Kris
    Dec 4, 2018 at 10:27

There are actually two possibilities, just not the two you suggest. In My uncle, who lives in Australia, has sent me a present, "who lives..." is indeed a sub-clause; it cannot be separated from the rest of the sentence, but it has a meaning of its own. But in your actual example. My uncle who lives in Australia has sent me a present, the words are not a sub-clause, but an adjectival phrase; your could replace it by My Australian uncle has sent me a present without changing the meaning, which you could not do with the first.

As the other answer says, it is mere coincidence that there is another phrase, using the same words but different punctuation, that can stand as an independent sentence. This is wny it is important to study punctuation as well as words.

  • "who lives in Australia" is a relative clause whether or not it's surrounded by commas. A clause does not stop being a clause just because it is integrated: there's the whole terminology of "restrictive" vs. "non-restrictive" or "integrated" vs. "supplementary" relative clauses.
    – herisson
    Dec 4, 2018 at 11:39
  • @sumelic is right, Tim. 'Relative clause' is the normal term for the OP's "who lives in Australia", whether it is integrated (defining) or supplementary (non-defining).
    – BillJ
    Dec 4, 2018 at 12:57


The question "Who lives in Australia?" is a simple sentence containing one independent clause.  This "who" takes an interrogative role, marking the heart of the question. 

In the phrase "my uncle who lives in Australia", the "who" takes a relative role, marking its entire clause as a modifier of "my uncle".  We have a noun phrase containing one subordinate clause. 

We can see similar behavior with the pronoun "that".  Used in an independent clause, "that" can take a demonstrative role: "That seems sensible".  Used in a dependent clause, "that" can take a relative role: "The thing that seems sensible is that anaphors can play different roles in different clauses." 

One thing that matters is how (and whether) the anaphor's antecedent is presented.  Words like "that" and "who" need some other reference to give them meaning.  In the interrogative case, that other (temporarily missing) reference is the question's answer. 

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