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 Topic 7 (session A) - The grammar of complex sentences > More on nesting > Task C

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More on nesting

Task C - relative clauses (RCls) in 'The House that Jack Built'

It is arguable that one of the functions of the nursery rhyme 'The House that Jack Built' is to teach young children how to use relative clauses.

Look at one of the sentences from the nursery rhyme below (we have removed the lineation to make it easier for you to analyse) and, starting from the right-hand end, put brackets around each of the relative clauses.

To get you started, we have put brackets around the rightmost RCl for you. When you have sorted out your brackets and worked out what is going on in the sentence, compare your effort with ours.

our answer

Our answer:




This |

is |

the dog (that chased the cat (that killed the rat (that lived in the house (that Jack built)))).

Overall, this sentence has a very simple SPC structure. But the NP acting as the Complement of the sentence, and which has 'dog' as its headword has a relative clause postmodifying it (beginning with the relative Subject pronoun 'that'). That clause has the structure SPO, but the NP acting as O in the RCl then has another RCl inside that (with its own relative Subject pronoun), and so on. It is this ability to nest clauses again and again inside other clauses or phrases which enables us to construct truly complex sentences.

It is easiest to describe exactly what is going on by starting from the right, with the most deeeply nested RCl.

  • The RCl 'that Jack built' postmodifies 'house',

  • 'that lived in the house that Jack built' postmodifies 'rat',

  • 'that killed the rat that lived in the house that Jack built' postmodifies 'cat' and,

  • 'that chased the cat that killed the rat that lived in the house that Jack built' postmodifies 'dog', the headword of the Complement NP.

If you would like to look at the nursery rhyme then try this site:
The original and "improved" versions of The House That Jack Built



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