Succeeding at TOEFL requires a high degree of English proficiency, which in turn requires a good knowledge of grammar. One of the grammatical features that often distinguishes between a higher and a lower level English user is the adjective clause. These are important but tricky structures that can really add a lot of detail and complexity to your written or spoken English.

In this article, I am going to show you what an adjective clause is, how to use it carefully, and then why it is so useful for TOEFL success.

What is an Adjective Clause?

To put it in its most simple terms, an adjective clause is a clause that functions as an adjective. A clause is a group of words comprised of a subject, a verb, and an idea, while an adjective is essentially something that gives more details about a noun.

Adjective clauses are also called relative clauses because they begin with relative pronouns or relative adverbs, such as who, that, which, whose, whom, and where. This makes them quite easy to recognize in a piece of writing, but of course you still need to know the various rules in order to produce that sort of sentence correctly.

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Here are two examples of adjective clauses:

  • People who attend college are more likely to earn higher salaries by the time they are thirty.
  • Professions that require college degrees attract more candidates from the privileged classes.

In each case, the adjective clause is underlined. It contains a subject (in these cases, the relative pronoun), a verb (attend and require) and they provide information about the noun that directly precedes them: people and professions.

Adjective clauses typically follow the noun that they describe, or else a sentence can be very confusing:

  • Places get more tourists where the weather is always warm than colder locations.
  • Places where the weather is always warm get more tourists than colder locations.

In the second example, the extra information (“where the weather is always warm”) directly follows the noun “places” so that the reader knows what is being modified.

For this reason, an adjective clause can technically appear at almost any place in a sentence except for the very beginning. They should simply come as close to the noun they describe as possible.

How to Punctuate an Adjective Clause

You may have noticed that in my previous examples, there were no commas used with the adjective clauses. This is because in each case, the adjective clause was considered essential to the meaning of the sentence. Without the adjective clause, the sentence would not really have made sense. It would perhaps have been grammatically correct, but the reader or listener would not have understood exactly what was meant.

Let’s take the first example again, but this time I will delete the adjective clause:

  • People are more likely to earn higher salaries by the time they are thirty.

Now the sentence is confusing because “people” is so uncertain. If all people are earning higher salaries, then who is earning the lower salary? It doesn’t make sense. Therefore, we cannot omit the adjective clause and it is therefore considered essential. When we encounter this situation, the adjective clause is not punctuated.

On the other hand, if the meaning of the adjective clause is additional – in other words, non-essential – then we should include commas. For example,

  • College graduates, who are in high demand these days, are more likely to earn higher salaries by the time they are thirty.

In this case, the adjective clause is set apart from the rest of the sentence by two commas because the information contained within it is purely extra. It is not necessary to the full meaning of the sentence because the sentence makes perfect sense without it:

  • College graduates are more likely to earn higher salaries by the time they are thirty.

This is because “college graduates” is a more specific term than “people.”

Here are two more examples:

  • College students often choose to live off-campus, where they have more freedom than in the dorms.
  • Students who choose to live off-campus usually have more freedom than those who live in the dorms.

Common TOEFL Mistakes with Adjective Clauses

In both speaking and writing, it is common to make errors with adjective clauses. One of the most common errors in writing is the above-mentioned confusion between essential and non-essential clauses as this can cause the candidate to use incorrect punctuation. You should do plenty of practice with these to make sure that you won’t make any mistakes in the exam.

Another major error that I already mentioned is placing the adjective clause far away from the noun that it is supposed to modify. This can make a sentence really confusing, and you should also strive to avoid this.

There are also issues with choosing the correct pronoun that can trip up some TOEFL candidates. Sometimes they refer to people as “that” instead of “who” or refer to a time as “where” instead of “when” (which is a feature of very informal English).

In general, we should remember to choose the appropriate relative pronoun according to the type of noun that is being described. For example, “who” and “where”:

Person = who

  • The people who study hardest in high school typically get access to scholarships that make university more affordable.

Place = where

  • At the university library, where hundreds of students meet to discuss their group assignments, there are a mix of quiet and noisy areas.

It is also very important to not confuse “who” and “whom,” as these words are often mistaken even by native speakers. “Who” refers to a subject, while “whom” is an object pronoun, as in the following sentences:

  • Most students thank their parents, who helped them get to university, in their graduation speech.
  • Parents are the people whom students usually thank in their graduation speech.

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In the second example, “students” is the subject of the adjective clause, while “whom” is the object. The students are thanking their parents (who therefore receive the action). In the first sentence, “who” is just the subject. As such, “whom” is considered a quite difficult word to use and many people try to avoid it.

If you find this sort of mistake affecting your writing, you can try using our TOEFL writing correction service.

Why are Adjective Clauses so Important for TOEFL?

As you have probably guessed by now, adjective clauses are really useful at adding extra information into a sentence in an efficient way. As such, they are indicators of a high level of grammatical proficiency. This means that they are clearly a feature of good English use in written and spoken language. For that reason, they are quite important for anyone sitting the TOEFL speaking or writing tests.

It is not just grammatical accuracy that is important for these exams, but variety as well. One of the great features of adjective clauses is that they can help you express ideas without descending into repetitive language. Using too many simple sentences would definitely tell an examiner that your English is not of a high standard, and so being able to incorporate some adjective clauses will ensure that your abilities are judged highly.

Finally, it should be remembered that adjective clauses are also important in the other parts of the exam, such as the reading section. Here, you will be given very dense passages that contain huge amounts of information. This will naturally include quite a few adjective clauses, and having a good understanding of this grammatical construction can greatly assist you in picking apart the difficult sentences to get the valuable information. Just knowing the information that I have given you above can really help you to better understand the relationship between different clauses, and therefore give you a better chance of finding the right answers.

In conclusion, if you want to get a good score for TOEFL, it is really important to learn how to use adjective clauses.

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