"She had a book which she believed was bought by her father."

In this sentence, why we can insert a whole clause into the relative clause?


2 Answers 2


You're looking at it wrong. she believed is not a whole clause, just a fragment of one.
And you're not inserting it.

Relative clauses modify noun phrases, and there are always other noun phrases in relative clauses. One of those noun phrases has to refer to the same thing as the noun phrase the relative clause modifies. That noun phrase in the relative clause gets converted to a relative pronoun and extracted from wherever it is in the relative clause to the front of the clause, in order to mark it as a relative, and also give some information about what the clause is about.

So, we start off with two sentences, both referring to the same book:

  1. She had a book.
  2. She believed (that) her father had bought the book.
    (Note that things are clearer when you leave that in the complement clause; they're there to identify clause boundaries and types, so it's not always a good idea to get the shortest possible sentence.)

To make (2) into a relative clause, change the book to which

  • she believed (that) her father had bought which
    and move it to the beginning of the clause
  • which she believed (that) her father had bought
    and then put the whole clause after the noun phrase it modifies
  • She had a book which she believed (that) her father had bought.

So the question made some false presumptions and doesn't have an answer, as is. That's why we greatly prefer examples of the construction instead of amateur syntactic descriptions. Data comes first. But the interesting part of this rule is where the relative pronoun comes from -- it isn't always the next clause. It can be indefinitely far away, like

  • He's never heard of the book which Mary was horrified they told him they were thinking of reading _____ to his son.

where the relative pronoun which originates as the object of reading, several clauses down the chain.

This is also the reason for the problems with whom, because using whom requires that the relative pronoun originate as a non-subject, and if the clause is long, the speaker may not anticipate at speech time how the syntax is coming out.

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    – NVZ
    May 12, 2023 at 14:20

She had a book [which she believed [ __ was bought by her father]].

The important point here is that "she believed" is just part of the relative clause (in outer brackets).

The inner brackets enclose a declarative content clause embedded within the relative clause, where the gap notation '__' indicates the position of the relativised element, which is linked to "which", which derives its interpretation from "book".

Thus, "which" functions not as subject of the relative clause itself but of the content clause embedded within it.

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