Subject contact relatives

"I have a sister lives in Dublin."

(Henry 1995, p. 124)

"I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal."

(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

"Everybody lives in the mountains has an accent all to theirself."

(Wolfram & Christian 1976, epigraph)

A subject contact relative is a construction illustrated by the bolded part of sentence (1):

1) There’s a girl wants to see you.
(Doherty 1993, p. 155)

In standard English, sentence (1) could be paraphrased as sentence (2), which is the same as sentence (1) but with the word who inserted:

2) There’s a girl who wants to see you.

Subject contact relatives always involve a noun (such as man in sentence (1)) immediately followed by another phrase (such as wants to see you) that describes the noun. Specifically, this second phrase always begins with a verb for which the noun acts as the subject; for example, man acts as the subject of wants. For a more in-depth definition of subject contact relatives, see the section Comparison to other types of relative clauses.

Several more examples of subject contact relatives are given below:

3) a. I know a man lives in St. Louis.
(Ozark English; Elgin & Haden 1991, p. 9)

b. There’s no one pays any attention to that.
(Newfoundland English; Clarke 2004, p. 315)

c. It was a nurse and a nurse’s aid used to stand up at the door.
(African American English; Green 2002, p. 90)

d. My grandma’s got this thing tells me about when to plant.
(Appalachian English; Wolfram & Christian 1976, p. 121)

Who says this?

Subject contact relatives are observed in many different varieties of English. In North America, they are a property of Appalachian English (Wolfram & Christian 1976), Ozark English (Elgin & Haden 1991), African American English (Green 2002), and Newfoundland English (Clarke 2004). They have also been observed in the British Isles in Hiberno English (Doherty 1993, 2000) and Belfast English (Henry 1995).

Several authors suggest that subject contact relatives are also observed in many speakers of standard English, even though they are more common for speakers of the varieties mentioned above. For example, Wolfram & Christian (1976) state that the usage of subject contact relatives in Appalachian English results from “the regularization of a pattern which is observed to some extent in standard varieties of English,” while Lambrecht (1988) heard the following sentences from educated speakers who believed subject contact relatives to be absent from their speech:

4) Check to see if your feature matrixes came out OK. I got a couple of ‘em didn’t come out right.
(Lambrecht 1988, p. 319)

5) I have a friend in the Bay Area is a painter.
(Lambrecht 1988, p. 319)

Lambrecht’s observations suggest that this construction might be more widespread than popularly believed, and it might simply be stigmatized so that most speakers do not realize that they themselves use it on occasion.

Comparison to other types of relative clauses

A relative clause is a type of phrase that follows a noun and describes that noun. (There are also some types of relative clauses, called free relatives, that do not follow nouns, but this page only focuses on the relative clauses that follow nouns).

The noun preceding the relative clause always plays some role within the relative clause. Specifically, the noun is usually either the subject or the object of the verb within the relative clause. For example, in (6a), carpenter acts as the subject of sells, while in (6b) bookshelf acts as the object of made:

6) a. I know a carpenter who sells bookshelves.

b. I bought a bookshelf that my friend made.

Some relative clauses are introduced by the word that or by a wh-word (like who or which), while other relative clauses are not. For example, in (7a), the relative clause is introduced by that, while in (7b) that is absent:

7) a. This is the book that I told you about.

b. This is the book I told you about.

Relative clauses that do not start with that or a wh-word are called contact relatives. When the noun preceding a contact relative acts as the object of the verb in the relative clause, the relative clause is called an object contact relative, while a subject contact relative is what occurs when the noun preceding a contact relative acts as the subject of the verb in the relative clause. An object contact relative is shown in (8a), and a subject contact relative is shown in (8b):

8) a. I know a man John wants to meet.

b. I know a man lives in Reno.

All varieties of English allow object contact relatives like (8a), but subject contact relatives like (8b) are only allowed in some varieties of English.

Syntactic properties

Note that subject contact relatives are observed in many different varieties of English. Therefore, not all of the properties listed below necessarily apply to how this phenomenon behaves in all dialects.

Common environments

There are a few types of sentences most typically associated with subject contact relatives (e.g. Jespersen 1949, Doherty 1993). These environments are detailed below.

With existentials

First, they commonly appear in existential sentences, both with copular existentials as in (9) and with have existentials as in (10):

9) a. There’s something keeps upsetting him.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

b. There’s nobody living now has this song but myself.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

c. There isn’t one of us really knows what she’s doing it for.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

d. There’s a lot of people don’t know that.
(Lambrecht 1988, p. 319)

10) a. I have this friend lives in Dublin.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

b. I have an idea might work.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

c. You get people in Green Park have never set foot in Battersea Park and vice versa.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

d. I have a friend from Chicago’s gonna meet me downstairs.
(Lambrecht 1988, p. 319)

With it-clefts

In addition, they are often observed in sentences with it-clefts, as in (11):

11) a. It was our laughter stung him worst.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

b. It was Bill did it.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

c. It’s money makes the world go round.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

As predicate nominals

Other types of sentences with copular verbs (verbs that are forms of be) are also observed with subject contact relatives:

12) a. Is that the boy was causing all the bother?
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

b. Here’s the one’ll get it for you.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

c. That’s the fella was breaking stones on the altar.
(Doherty 1993, p. 156)

d. That was the stormiest night was ever in this parish.
(Doherty 1993, p. 158)

e. The only one can do it is John.
(Doherty 1993, p. 158)

f. John’s the only one can do it.
(Doherty 1993, p. 158)

g. It was a thing came naturally to my mind.
(Doherty 1993, p. 158)

As verbal complements

Finally, subject contact relatives often occur with verbs that introduce a new person or thing to the discourse. Such verbs include meet, know, and invent, as in the following examples from Henry (1995):

13) a. I met a man can speak five languages.
(Henry 1995, p. 125)

b. I know a boy has never worked.
(Henry 1995, p. 125)

c. They’ve invented a drug can help jet lag.
(Henry 1995, p. 125)

With modals

Subject contact relatives may contain modals, such as would in (14a) and can in (14b):

14) a. I’d like to meet the man would play-act on Larry.
(Doherty 1993, p. 157)

b. I’m looking for somebody can speak Irish well.
(Doherty 1993, p. 157)

With quantifiers

Subject contact relatives may follow noun phrases quantified with every, all, and free-choice any, as in the following sentences (Doherty 1993):

15) Everyone lives in the mountains has an accent all to theirself.
(Wolfram & Christian 1976, epigraph)

16) She...gave me all the change was in the house.
(Doherty 1993, p. 158)

17) a. Any man can’t fight for his friends had better be dead.
(Doherty 1993, p. 158)

b. I gave a lift to anybody asked for one.
(Doherty 1993, p. 158)

However, when quantifiers are present, they must be universal. Thus, some and many are not allowed, meaning that the following sentence is unacceptable:

18) *Many people live in the mountains have an accent all to theirself.
(Doherty 1993, p. 161)

Preference for questions

Henry (1995) notes that, in many cases, a subject contact relative is acceptable in a question but is unacceptable in the declarative statement corresponding to the question. For example, (19a) is acceptable, while (19b) is not:

19) a. Did I tell you about my sister won first prize last week?
(Henry 1995, p. 126)

b. *I told you about my sister won first prize last week.
(Henry 1995, p. 126)

Restrictions on adverbials

Adverbials may not be inserted between the subject contact relative clause and the head it modifies. For example, although (20a) and (21a) are acceptable with non-contact relatives, (20b) and (21b) are unacceptable:

20) a. It was Mary who most of the time did it.

b. *It was Mary most of the time did it.
(Doherty 1993, p. 162)

21) a. That’s the girl who, just yesterday, was talking about you.

b. *That’s the girl just yesterday was talking about you.
(Doherty 1993, p. 162)

Semantic properties

In many cases, subject contact relatives seem to have the same meaning as their non-contact counterparts would. For example, as noted in the introduction, the following two sentences mean basically the same thing:

22) There’s a girl wants to see you.
(Doherty 1993, p. 155)

23) There’s a girl who wants to see you.

However, there are some ways in which subject contact relatives differ semantically from subject non-contact relatives. Doherty (1993) notes one of the clearest semantic differences, exemplified by the following two sentences:

24) a. We want someone who knows John.
(Doherty 1993, p. 160)

b. We want someone knows John.
(Doherty 1993, p. 160)

(24a) uses a non-contact relative, and it is ambiguous; someone who knows John could be referring to a specific person, who happens to know John, or it could have a more definitional reading as any person who knows John. However, in the contact relative counterpart in (24b), the ambiguity is removed because only the definitional reading remains. That is, (24b) must mean “We want any person (no matter who it is) who knows John” rather than “There is a specific person who I want, and that person knows John.” As noted in the sections about syntax, subject contact relatives are also much more restricted in their distribution than non-contact relatives are, and these restrictions may also be related to semantic differences.

Syntactic analyses

Henry (1995) states that “It is, in fact, very difficult to characterise syntactically the class of contexts in which subject contact relative clauses are possible.” Given this fact, it should be unsurprising that many different analyses have been proposed for this phenomenon. An overview of these analyses is below.

One of the most contentious issues is whether subject contact relatives truly are relative clauses or not. Early accounts, such as Jespersen (1949), assume that subject contact relatives are no different from any other sorts of relatives. Chomsky & Lasnik (1977) also analyze them in the same way as they analyze a relative clause with an overt complementizer, namely as resulting from the wh-movement of some operator to the specifier position of the CP constituting the relative clause. Later, Doherty (1993) argues that subject contact relatives are true restrictive relative clauses, but they differ in distribution from other relative clauses because of semantic constraints and because they have an IP rather than a CP as their maximal projections. Doherty (2000) reexamines this hypothesis and modifies it slightly to place less of an emphasis on semantic constraints but still supports the main points, and Haegeman et al. (2015) as well as Haegeman (2015) support this analysis over several others.

By contrast, Harris & Vincent (1980), in a squib, argue that (at least in existential and clefted cases), subject contact relatives consist of “an independent clause...with some kind of superficially preposed, existential particle” such as There was. McCawley (1988) also denies that subject contact relatives are true restrictive relative clauses, using facts about parenthetical insertion to argue that subject contact relatives are actually what he terms pseudo-relatives, which are similar to true relatives but which have a weaker bond between the head and the relative clause. A couple of other authors in the non-relative-clause camp argue that subject contact relatives are a sort of topic-comment construction: Henry (1995) and den Dikkken (2003) both make this assertion.

Finally, several authors, such as Prince (1981) and Lambrecht (1988), remain agnostic as to whether these clauses are truly relatives, and instead they point to the restrictions on where subject contact relatives may occur and use these restrictions to argue that the distribution of this construction is dictated by pragmatic factors relating to what sorts of information is conveyed by the matrix clause and the relative clause.

Page contributed by Tom McCoy on August 23, 2016


Chomsky, Noam, and H. Lasnick. 1977. Filters and Control. Linguistic Inquiry 8: 425-504.

Clarke, Sandra. 2004. Newfoundland English: Morphology and syntax, pg. 315. In A Handbook of Varieties of English Vol. II: Morphology and Syntax, edited by Bernd Kortmann and Clive Upton, 303-318. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Den Dikken, Marcel. 2005. A comment on the topic of topic–comment. Lingua 115.5: 691-710.

Doherty, Cathal. 1993. The syntax of subject contact relatives. Ms., University of California at Santa Cruz.

Doherty, C., 2000 (second print: 2013). Clauses Without ‘That’: The Case for Bare Sentential Complementation in English. Garland/Routledge, New York.

Elgin, Suzette, and Rebecca Haden. 1991. A Celebration of Ozark English, pgs. 9 and 14. Hunstville, AR: OCLS Press.

Green, Lisa. 2002. African American English: A Linguistic Introduction, pgs. 89-91. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Haegeman, Liliane, et al. 2015. Against the root analysis of subject contact relatives in English. Lingua 163: 61-74.

Haegeman, Liliane. 2015. A Note on English Subject Contact Relatives. 50 Years Later: 133.

Harris, Martin, and Nigel Vincent. 1980. On zero relatives. Linguistic Inquiry 11.4: 805-807.

Henry, Alison. 1995. Belfast English and Standard English: Dialect variation and parameter setting. Oxford University Press on Demand.

Jespersen, O. 1909-49. A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, Vols. I-III. Allen & Unwin, London.

Lambrecht, Knud. 1988. There was a farmer had a dog: Syntactic amalgams revisited. Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society Vol. 14.

McCawley, J.D. 1988. The Syntactic Phenomena of English, Volume Two. The University of Chicago Press.

Prince, Ellen F. 1981. Toward a taxonomy of given-new information. Radical pragmatics.

Wolfram, Walt, and Donna Christian. 1976. Appalachian Speech, pgs. 120-121. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.