Relative clauses for ESL learners

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A relative clause can be defined as a subordinate clause containing an element that is interpreted by an antecedent upon which the subordinate clause is dependent grammatically. Relative clauses are the non-essential parts of a sentence that add meaning to it but if removed, the sentence will still maintain its grammatical function. Relative clauses modify nouns and noun phrases through the use of grammatical devices to refer to either the noun or noun phrase. According to Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman in the grammar guideline for ESL/EFL learners, relative clauses play pertinent roles in sentence development hence making it mandatory to observe the appropriateness of relative clauses in sentence construction. However, most of the ESL/EFL learners are faced with challenges in appropriately using relative clauses thus making them unable to make either or both logically and grammatically correct sentences. In the book, Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman list numerous factors responsible for errors with regard to relative clauses for both ESL/ENL speakers and appropriate class activities to help them overcome challenges regarding relative clauses.

Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman list down three categories of relative clauses. The three categories are bound and free relative clauses, restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses and finite and non-finite relative clauses. Bound relative clauses are the most commonly used clauses and refer o explicit or implicit elements in a sentence. A free relative clause lacks an explicit antecedent and instead replaces an argument in a sentence’s matrix clause. A restrictive relative clause changes the meaning of its key word while a non-restrictive relative clause offers additional information. Finite relative clauses refer to clauses that provide finite objects while infinite relative clauses provide information on infinite objects (Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman, (658).

Lightbown, Patsy and Spada (62) attribute second language complications to numerous factors. They state that learning a foreign language is one of the most complicated and tedious processes. The complication and tedious nature is a result of various factors such as language structure, mother tongue and similarities and differences between the first and second language among others. Due to the complicated nature of learning foreign languages, a learner is vulnerable to making mistakes due to the factors mentioned above. However, the process of learning a new language can be accentuated through highlighting likely mistakes to be encountered in the learning process and the causes of these mistakes. There are three primary focus factors with regard to identifying errors from ESL learners. The primary feature is the nature of the language learner, secondly, the errors the learners are likely to make and finally the implications of the errors on the overall learning process. The complicated nature of learning English as a second language is attributed to syntactic structure differences between different languages (Lightbown, Patsy and Spada, 62-63).

Studies by Ortega (128) have indicated that English second language learners sentence structural arrangement is primarily affected by mother tongue and first language sentence structure. A majority of English as second language learners start by acquiring knowledge on relative clauses but require a significant amount of effort and practice to correctly use them in modifying other sentence roles. The need for effort and practice is due to the fact that most the ESL learners construct sentences with relative clauses in the direct object or subject position hence making the use of relative clauses unnecessary. Constructive differences in English and other languages internal structure is also another reason for the commonality of errors by ESL learners (Ortega, 128).

When learning a new second language, students tend to develop a personal language system which is a mix of the first and second language system. According to Selinker (116-117), the new system is referred to as an inter-language. An inter-language is an intermediate language between the learners first language and the target language. Inter-language enables the new language’s tutor to better understand the source of the learner’s problems and effective solution.  Robert Lado (51) in his book ‘Linguistics Across Cultures’, states that the process of learning a second language is very different from learning the first language. According to Lado, the primary problem doesn’t arise from essential difficulties in the new language features but specially created first language habits. This is because the learner develops a tendency of transferring old language habits to the process of learning the new language thus making it difficult to learn the new language. Secondly, a learner’s mother tongue also plays significant features in the acquisition of the second language both positive and negative (Lado, 51-52).

Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman further states that since relative clause word order reflects the sentence’s logical operation, it is the primary cause of errors for ESL learners. Taking the example of Chinese in learning English as a second language, the Chinese learners will pay attention to the sentence parts first while English pays attention to entire stimuli material pattern. Based on such like differences, Chinese and other nationalities learning English as a second language will encounter various problems with relative clauses in the English language. ESL learners’ transfer of parametric values such as relative clauses from their first language is another reason for difficulties in correctly acquiring English’s target structure (Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman, 650).

The purpose of this paper is to explore the concept of relative clauses and typical examples of problems related to relative clauses encountered by English as second language learners from Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman’s Grammer book. The paper will also look at the significance of relative clauses in teaching.


Learning English as a foreign language is a complicated process that is majorly impeded by numerous factors such as foreign language structure, mother tongue effect and differences between the first language and the target language. The process of learning English as a second language is also influenced by numerous factors such as factors listed above. Communication and information in the English language is primarily influenced by a sentence’s structure thus making it pertinent to pay attention to aspects of sentence construction. The sentence construction aspect of interest in this case is relative clauses since it is responsible for the logic soundness of a sentence. The critical nature of relative clauses thus draws the attention of second language acquisition researchers to the role of relative clauses in the learning of English as a second language. Ellis Lourdes (18) argues that a focus on the mistakes and problems of ESL learners alongside the teaching of relative clauses enables better effective learning of English as a second language. An understanding of the errors is helpful in the teaching and learning process of both ESL and ENL learners since it enables both the teacher and student to identify the causes of the errors and appropriate solutions towards improving the student’s learning process. Relative clauses also provide an effective medium for investigating underlying rules, strategies and processes that are used by language learners in processing complex sentences. This investigation also provides relevant insights into positions acquisition with regard to the universal linguistic principles of ease and difficulty in acquiring a second language (Ellis, 35).

Relative clauses are taught in ninth grade in high school in the US. However, topics covering relative clauses re-appear in different forms along   the course of the national curriculum syllabus. My primary reason of interest in relative clauses is its flexibility hence allowing manipulation through sentence transformation and re-expression structures among others. Through sentence transformation and re-expression, one is able to utilize various literal devices and techniques such as metaphors, pathos and ethos among others. Through this study, literature students’ acquisition of English relative clauses will also be enriched. This will benefit the overall teaching of English relative clauses to both ESL and ENL globally. This is because the study reflects differences in the acquisition and processing of relative clauses which can be used by English course teachers in designing classroom activities. According to Maniruzzaman (107), classroom activites enable a teacher to determine weaknesses and strengths with regard to the acquisition of English as a second language. The teacher is thus effectively able to identify proper methods and teaching materials that maximize student benefit from the entire teaching process (Maniruzzaman, 108).

The expected difficulties in learning and acquiring English is a second language is due to the structural incompatibility between English and numerous other languages since ESL learners often try to transfer parametric values from their first language to English. The parametric transfer affects significant elements of a sentence such as relative clauses thus affecting the sentence’s grammatical correctness. ESL learners often interchange relative pronouns and nouns with relative clauses thus compromising the quality of a sentence’s structure. Ortega (148) argues that in the process of sentence construction, ESL students are likely to use wrong resumptive pronouns in the construction of relative clauses. This is usually followed by object relatives, indirect object relatives or oblique object relatives. However, through the study of relative clauses by ESL students in the English language, teachers are able to establish appropriate methods to be used in correcting the above named issues (Ortega, 143-144).

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A study by Celce Murcia (635-636) established English second language learners’ limited exposure to English relative clauses to be a major reason for interchanging pronouns and putting them in place of relative clauses. This is because the use of resumptive pronouns is closely related to the wh- relative clauses. However, frequent exposure increases a student’s ability and confidence in the English language thus enabling him/her to make grammatically correct sentence structures. This is attributed to the student’s realization of the regularity of resumptive pronouns in relative clauses which is difficult to discover when inadequately exposed. Based on this, English teachers are likely to adapt to the strategy of generated relative and null pronouns in the formation of English relative clauses as a way of increasing student participation and resulting confidence. This significantly improves the learners’ subject and object relative clauses use since it is primarily focused on subject and object relative clauses. With regard to the above, the accuracy of different relative clauses tends to improve with time as a result of exposure thus increasing the student’s accuracy. Over the course of time, the learner will develop significant relative clause skills resulting in their improvement in the mastery and use of the English language (Celec-Murcia, 610).

Celce Murcia further states that it is psychologically easier to relativize subjects than objects for English second language learners since emphasis is mostly placed on subjects in the learning process. Based on this stipulation, emphasis should be placed on both objects and subjects in the learning process for English as second language learners. The second attribute for easiness of relativizing is the logical property shared with sentence subjects with the exclusion of non-subjects. The logical property shared by heads and subjects is of independent reference, a revitalized subject’s structure contains only one necessary independent expression used to refer. However, when an object is revitalized, there will be two or more independently referring expressions. With reference to this, subject relatives are easier to relativize than non-subject relatives. Knowledge of the above information would enable a teacher to dedicate a majority of his/her time on non-subjects relativization than subjects since non-subjects require much effort in understanding the relativization process (Celec-Murcia, 725).

The function of a relative clause is noun phrase modification. According to Reinders (50-80), the modification process provides additional information on the noun phrase or limits the noun phrase’s meaning. Through this study, both ESL learners and teachers will be able to understand and distinguish features and effects of inter-language attributed to language transfer from a first language to a second language. This is because relative clauses differ with regard to the language in terms of position and structure. In the English language, relative clauses are post-modifying while in other languages such as Chinese, relative clauses are pre-modifying. Based on this structure, relative clauses are realized through nominalizations while the Chinese language lacks pronouns relative clauses. In the Chinese language, pronoun relative clauses are not distinguished by their finiteness. This enables ESL learners to effectively use relative pronouns since inappropriate use of relative pronouns is the most common problem for English Chinese learners. Knowledge of pronouns use is also effective in facilitating the acquisition of efficient comprehension and writing skills by ESL learners (Reinders, 57).

Reinders further states that the acquisition of English as a second language by learners is impaired by numerous factors whose interaction causes difficulties for foreign students in the acquisition of English relative clauses. These factors include parametric differences between English and the learners’ first language, difficulties in the resettlement of the wh-movement parameter and the parameter agreement between the head and specifier. Knowledge of these factors enables the teacher to effectively identify learner’s weaknesses and appropriate ways of overcoming these weaknesses towards holistic development of the learner’s skills (Reinders, 68).

ESL Problems Encountered With Relative Clauses

Due to the various factors involved in the acquisition of English as a second language by ESL learners, these factors include language parametric and structure among others. This part of the research paper will highlight typical relative clause problems to be encountered by learners of English as second language.

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Selinker’s Inter-language theory

According to Selinker (116), learners often build a personal system from both the native language and second language systems. Although various names have been designed for this system, Selinker called it interlanguage. Selinker defines interlanguage as the learner’s intermediate language system that falls between his mother tongue and the second language. Interlanguage helps tutors and teachers in better understanding learners’ problems as well as providing timely and effective help to second language learners so that they may achieve competence in the new language they are learning (Selinker, 115).

The transfer of training

A common strategy utilized by ESL learners in the use of English relative clauses is transfer training. This normally takes place when ESL learners apply rules learned on textbooks or their teachers in the learning process. However, if the instructions or textbooks put emphasis on specific grammar point structures at the expense of others, learners tend to develop their language acquisition skills in one side. This is because knowledge from the teacher’s instruction or textbooks overproduces what they have learned and makes them unaware of other advanced constructions. In the event that either the book or the teacher’s instructions are incorrect, learners will also be inclined to make wrong use of the taught structures. Based on this, Chinese ESL learners are likely to overproduce the subject relative and under produce other English relative constructions such as the direct object relative. This is attributed to the consequence of their exposure through textbook contents which emphasizes on subject relative. Using the textbooks, Chinese teachers follow the same trend from textbooks by emphasizing on subject relative and advocating for low frequency on the direct object relative. According to Selinker (121), teachers should focus on the overall structure of the English relative clauses as a way of facilitating holistic development of English skills. This creates a balance of all language structures and proper acquisition of the relevant skills (Selinker, 121-122).


Overgeneralization is a language acquisition strategy used by learners acquiring their native language alongside another official language such as English. Richards et al. (114) defines overgeneralization as a process through which the learner extrapolates the use of a grammatical rule of a linguistic item past its acceptable uses in a second language. This phenomenon takes place when learners formulate a linguistic rule based on the exposed language data or instructions with no considerations for exceptions. An example of the above the frequent use of past tense of go to goed instead of went as a result of seeing the past tense of regular verbs ending with –ed hence assuming that this rule is applicable irrespectively. With regard to English language relative clauses, English learners tend to be unaware of the existing differences between restrictive relative clauses and non-restrictive relative clauses (Richards et al., 117).


In the acquisition of English skills by ESL learners, avoidance plays a key role in the acquisition of relative clauses in second languages. According to Ellis (83), learners tend to avoid using difficult linguistic structures as a result of differences between their native language and the target language. ESL learners’ native language causes them to produce numerous errors in the English language. Avoidance technique makes ESL learners to omit some aspects of the English language construction features they are unsure of. Through the use of fewer relative clauses in sentence construction, ESL learners are unlikely to make a high number of errors. According to Gass (75), English language structure avoidance by ESL learners is related to the relative clause level of frequency.  In this sense, more frequent relative clauses have a higher likelihood of being avoided.  Zhao (35) utilized a translation to compare relative clauses frequency in both English and Chinese languages. His study revealed that a number of English relative clauses such as non-restrictive relative clauses lack equivalents in the Chines language thus making it mandatory to utilize avoidance  in the transfer process (Zhao, 29).

Native language transfer

Lado (1957) states that second language learners rely on mother tongue knowledge when faced with specific problems in the process of communicating in a new language or in the communication process. In comprehending the language, second language learners use mother tongue language by direct translating then figuring out the meaning. The process is the same in communication. Through native language transfer, ESL learners are able to transfer the forms and meanings from the native language to the production and comprehension of the English language. An example of this is the acquisition of English in Thai learners. This is because all the relative clauses in both Thai and English share similar head directions i.e. follow the modified head. Secondly, both Thai and English form relative clauses through the relative-pronoun strategy. Similarly, relative clauses in both English and Thai begin with a relative marker. Resumptive pronouns are also allowed in both English and Thai. The highlighting of these similarities are aimed at showing how Thai ESL learners could utilize native language transfer in comprehension and communication process (Lado, 158).


Richards et al. define fossilization as a linguistic phenomenon whereby the speakers of a specific native language maintain the linguistic items, subsystems and rules. The specific native language speakers tend to maintain the linguistic items, subsystems and rules in their inter-language. This is in relation to a particular target language irrespective of learner’s age and amount of explanation from the target language (Richards et al., 85).

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ESL Sentences that Illustrate the Problem Associated with Relative Clauses

Native language transfer

  1. The man who I loaned my guitar to him is my friend.
  2. The man who I loaned my guitar to is my friend.

In the example provided above, the incorrectness of the sentence lies in the resumptive pronoun him. Additionally, the relative marker him is coreferential with the sentence’s head which is the man. In this example, failure to observe a sentence’s semantics is primarily attributed to structural incompatibility between the two languages as a result of native language transfer.

  1. Student constructed text: She has a novel which I am in.
  2. Correct: She has a novel that interests me

In the above sentence, the sentence is grammatically incorrect as a result of wrong structural arrangement. The sentence stranding of the subject and relativizer at the relative clause’ end makes the sentence incorrect. The sentence’s grammatical incorrectness in sentence number two emanates from instances such as lack of possessive relative markers.


  1. Student constructed text: The daughter to the man I know is currently studying in London.
  2. Correct: The daughter to the man who I know is currently studying in London.

In the above sentence, the writer has been to effectively use avoidance without having to compromise the grammar or logic of the sentence. In this instances, the learner as an ESL learner is unsure of relative clause to be used in the sentence thus advocating for avoidance.

  1. Student constructed text: That’s the man managing the farm
  2. Correct: That’s the man that manages the farm.

In the second example avoidance is used to avoid making several grammatical and logical mistakes by ESL learners.


  1. Student constructed text:My uncle who works in New Zealand is rich
  2. Correct: My uncle, who works in New Zealand, is rich

In the acquisition of a new language, ESL learners tend to overgeneralize rules and in most instances wrongly apply a language principle. In the acquisition of English as a second language by ESL learners, ESL learners are likely to fail to notice differences between a restrictive and non-restrictive relative clause. In the above two sentences, the first one has used a restrictive relative clause while the second one has utilized non-restrictive relative clauses.

  1. Student constructed text: The cat who has brown fur is my favourite pet
  2. Correct: The cat that has brown fur is my favourite pet.

In the above examples, the writer’s overgeneralization has made him/her to use a relativizer on human objects on an animal thus making the sentence grammatically wrong. This is primarily attributed to overgeneralization of the relativizer who to non-human subjects.

Student constructed text: My brother who lives in New York has two Chevrolets.

Correct: My brother, who lives in New York, has two Chevrolets.

Ellis states that a restrictive relative clause is used in the description, identification and definition of an indefinite head while a non-restrictive relative clause provides extra information with regard to the modified head. In the two above sentences, the first writer is referring to a specific brother who resides in New York. The second writer is referring to his only brother who lives in New York. The primary difference between the above two relative clauses is the use of wh-relativizers has been used as opposed to using the relative word that. It is most likely that English learners with a relatively low English proficiency may fail to realize the prohibition of that in non-restrictive clauses hence overgeneralize its usage to include non-relative clauses.

Native Language Transfer

  1. Student constructed text: He provided to me the best care that I never thought
  2. Correct: He provided me with the best care I ever thought of.

The error in the first sentence above is caused by the absence of the relativizer and the object position. ESL learners often omit necessary prepositions while forming relative clauses in English.

  1. Student constructed text: My favourite pastime that I tell you _ first is playing internet in my free time
  2. Correct: My favourite pastime I would tell you about is browsing the internet.

According to Zhao (48), the error in the above sentence is caused by poor sentence structure, lack of the preposition of or about and repetition. The relativizer ‘that’ has been wrongly used and the use of past and free time is repetitive. The misuse of a relativizer and lack of preposition is attributed to the non-essentiality of prepositions in a number of native languages such as the Chinese. Poor use of the relaiviser is attributed to incompatibility in the subject-verb structure between English and the writer’s native language. Additionally, the poor use of the relativiser is also attributed to the ESL learners’ receptive knowledge of English relative clauses. ESL learners lack knowledge on the need for a preposition in the object-of-preposition relative as a result from mother tongue and first language influence (Celce-Murcia, Marriane and Larsen-Freeman, 650).

  1. Student constructed text: There are numerous unexpected problems taking now
  2. Correct: There are numerous unexpected problems that are happening now
  3. A. Student constructed text: Vehicles have provided us with a lot of convenience that we require it very much
  4. Correct: Vehicles have provided us with a lot of convenience that we require very much

In the above provided examples, example (1a). doesn’t have the relativiser and has been provided in 1b. while in example (2a). , the object pronoun used is unnecessary. Such like errors arise as a result of factors which interfere with the development of the writing skills. In this case, the most significant factor is inter-language. Teachers of ESL learners need to understand the interchange language of ESL learners as a way of improving their command of written English. This is because ESL speakers rely on the structure of either the first language or the mother tongue in formulating English sentences (Selinker, 61).

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Classroom activities aimed at improving ESL learners’ comprehension and application of relative clauses requires learners to get adequate exposure and practice in the usage of relative clauses. The teacher should actively engage students by questioning them on types and uses of relative clauses. This is aimed at pointing out sentences with relative clauses and the different types of relative clauses. Practice is best provided through essay reading and writing.

Procedure: The teacher structures sentences with and without relative clauses on the board then proceeds to ask the students to identify the relative clauses and types of clauses. This activity enables ESL learners to get used to the correct use of relative clauses repeatedly. Writing on the board provides adequate exposure alongside facilitating additional reinforcement on the minds of the learners. Once students have had adequate practice, the teacher changes the method and ensures that students take part in essay writing. Essay writing enables them to apply learned concepts in learning as well as enabling the teacher to assess student comprehension.

Procedure 2: Have the students listen to or watch different forms of media such as audio and video broadcasts and movies then have each student make a presentation on the media watched or seen. Doing this enables ESL learners to improve their communication skills. This activity will also improve student self-monitoring practice by exposing them to various types of relative clauses hence increasing identification of various relative clauses in a sentence.

Procedure: The teacher formulates sentences with wrong relative clauses and asks students to identify issues with the statements. This procedure enables learners to avoid usage of wrong relative clauses by being knowledgeable on the wrong relative clauses and how to correct them. The sentences should at first be corrected at the student’s pace, then a natural speed and finally a swift speed.

Procedure: The teacher uses audible cloze tests to gauge students’ understanding of the relative clauses concept. The cloze test allows ESL learners to fill the blank spaces with the correct relative clauses. Upon completion of the test, the teacher reads out the correct answers thus enabling students to counter check and correct.

Procedure: The teacher asks the students to play the teacher’s role in which they identify role by reading each other’s written essays then correcting them with regard to phrasal verbs and providing advice. According to Carter and McCarthy (48), student and teacher working on same structures helps to highlight differences with regard to written and oral grammar.

Procedure: Since adherence to grammatical structures is amongst the key reasons for errors with regard to relative clauses, it is important for ESL learners to learn of the grammatical structures. In this sense, the teacher should provide sentence structures with gaps on the part of relative clauses that require students to fill. According to Spada and Lightbown (46), the introduction of structures that don’t occur out of the classroom provides students with experience.

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This study focused on relative clauses for English second language learners. The study highlights typical problems likely to be encountered by English as second language learners in the learning of English relative clauses and examples that illustrate these problems. Most of the problems were as a result of the learning strategies applied in learning English relative clauses and aspects of inter-language. This is because the use of the mother tongue or native language results in inter-language structures that reflect the learners’ reliance on the native language in English language relative clauses. ESL learners also employ avoidance strategies when faced with complex English language structures especially marked ones. This is high in learners with low proficiency than those with high proficiency. The English learning process was also found to be significantly affected by the learning process. Limited textbook contents or teacher instructions results in overuse of specific relative clauses and underuse or no use of relative clauses not taught. The research paper also highlighted overgeneralization of specific relative clauses such as that in non-restrictive relative clauses resulting in wrong grammatical structures of the English language. The researcher hopes that the findings of this research would greatly benefit English as second language teachers in the preparation of appropriate teaching methods to solve student problems associated with relative clauses. The research would also help ESL learners in solving problems related to the acquisition of the English language. This will be by preventing the occurrence of common English relative clause errors in the learning and communication processes. The study also advocates for effective practice as a way of facilitating communication and comprehension effectiveness in English relative clauses.

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  1. Celce-Murcia, Marianne, and Diane Larsen-Freeman. The Grammar Book: An Esl/efl Teacher’s Course. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1999. Print
  2. Celce-Murcia, Marianne. “Teaching English as a Second or For-eign Language.” (2001).
  3. Ellis, Rod. OAL: Understanding Second Language Acquisition 2nd Edition: Oxford Applied Linguistics. oxford university Press, 2015.
  4. Gass, Susan. “A review of interlanguage syntax: Language transfer and language universals.” Language Learning, 1984.
  5. Lado, Robert. “Linguistics Across Cultures: Applied Linguistics for Language Teachers.” (1957).
  6. Lightbown, Patsy M., and Nina Spada. How Languages are Learned 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2013.
  7. Lightbown, Patsy M., and Nina Spada. How Languages are Learned 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2013.
  8. Maniruzzaman, D. M. “Avoidance Behaviour in Efl Learning: a Study of Undergraduates.” Journal of PUB 2.2 (2005).
  9. McCarthy, Michael, and Ronald Carter. “Size isn’t everything: spoken English, corpus, and the classroom.” Tesol Quarterly 35.2 (2001).
  10. Ortega, Lourdes. Understanding second language acquisition.Routledge, 2014.
  11. Platt, J., H. Platt, and J. C. Richards.”Dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics.” Essex: Longman (1992).
  12. Reinders, Hayo. The effects of task type and instructions on second language acquisition.Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.
  13. Selinker, Larry. “Rediscovering interlanguage: Applied linguistics and language study.” (1992).
  14. Zhao, Rong. “A Discourse Analysis of Relative Clauses in Chinese and English: An Error in” An Error in Error Analysis.”.” Ideal.Vol. 4. 1989.
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