Sunday, December 11, 2011

Confusing words - Relations, relatives and relationships

These three nouns often have very similar meanings, but are sometimes used in slightly different ways. Judging by the number of questions asked about them on forums, learners can find them quite confusing. In fact I think it's even difficult for a native speaker to explain the difference; we just trust our instincts. So let's try to work them out.

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1. Relations and relatives - members of the family

1a. When both relation and relative can be used

When we are talking about people who are in the same family as somebody else, these two words are interchangeable (and countable):
  • They've invited all their friends and relations / relatives.
  • She's a relation / relative by marriage.
  • He's a close relation / relative of my wife's.

1b. Only relation (uncountable) used

In the following type of sentences, with no and any, we use relation, not relative:
  • She may look like me, but we're no relation.
  • Is Mary any relation to you?

1c. Only relative (countable) used

When we think of a family as a group of things, for example types of animal or plant, we use relative, not relation:
  • The lion is a close relative of the tiger and the leopard.
  • Despite their names, strawberries and raspberries are not close relatives.

Exercise 1 - Choose between relation, relative or either

1. I have several .......... in the Unites States.
relations     relatives     either
2. Debby is not any .......... to me, we're just good friends.
relation     relative     either
3. Peter isn't a .......... of mine, we're just classmates.
relation     relative     either
4. The newt is a close .......... of the frog.
relation     relative     either
5. Sammy often plays with Tommy at his house, but they're no ...........
relation     relative     either
6. She's a distant .......... of mine.
relation     relative     either
7. Mojoceratops was a .......... of the triceratops which lived 75 million years ago.
relation     relative     either
It's interesting to note that while relative is a fairly recent word, it seems to be gaining ground over relation, especially it would seem, in more formal writing.
ngram chart

2. Relations and relationships - the links between people, groups and countries.

2a. More general - relations

We use relations (plural) to talk in general about how countries and groups etc behave towards each other:
  • The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
  • Relations between the UK and the rest of the EU can get a bit strained.
  • Teacher-pupil relations in this school are very relaxed.
  • Much work is being done to improve doctor-patient relations.

2b. More specific - relationship

Relationship (usually singular) is more about a specific connection between two people and/or groups:
  • British politicians like to talk of the special relationship with the US.
  • The close relationship between France and Germany is at the heart of the EU.
  • This teacher has a particularly good relationship with his pupils.
  • The relationship between doctors and nurses is a crucial one in running a hospital.

Nouns and adjectives which collocate with relations

The following words are used with relations, but rarely with relationships, at least not in these contexts.

Exercise 2 - Complete the sentences with the appropriate words.

community   ·   race   ·   diplomatic   ·   press   ·   public   ·   investor   ·   industrial   ·   human   ·   customer   ·   labour
1.When referring to the relationship between management and workers generally in a country, we usually talk about relations.
2.But when we are talking specifically about management and trade unions, the term relations is often used instead.
3.After its embassy was attacked by government-sponsored demonstrators, the British government broke off relations with the Middle-eastern country.
4.Many countries have introduced relations legislation to counter discrimination against ethnic minorities.
5.The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a(n) relations disaster for BP.
6.Most retailers have (n) relations department to deal with queries and complaints.
7.Some organisations employ a(n) relations officer to deal with the media.
8.Helping different ethnic, religious, cultural, political, or linguistic groups live together is sometimes called relations.
9.One particular way of studying of how people interact with each other, especially in the workplace, is known as relations.
10.Many public companies have a(n) relations department to give information to existing and potential shareholders.
It would seem that with the expression between the two countries, relations is used more than relationship.
But as soon as we start talking of a close connection, relationship is now more usual.

3. Relations and relationships - the way in which things are connected.

3a. Either relation or relationship can be used (but see graphs below):

  • The relation(ship) between smoking and lung disease is well understood.
  • The relation(ship) of the fisherman to the sea.
  • He's studying youth unemployment and its relation(ship) to crime.

3b. Expressions with the verb bear

  • The low salary bears no relation(ship) to the long hours.
  • The French we were taught at school bore little relation(ship) to the language spoken in France.
  • If what he'd said had borne any relation(ship) to the truth, he might have got off.

3c. The expression in relation to

This expression can mean 'about / concerning' (rather formal), or 'compared with':
  • We have some doubts in relation to the wisdom of this move.
  • The giraffe's legs are very long in relation to its body size.
In this meaning, relationship seems to be taking over from relation.
But in expressions with the verb bear, relation seems to be more common.
The verb bear is often used with relation. It also collocates with certain other nouns.

Exercise 3 - Complete the expressions with the verb bear with suitable words from the box. Use the underlined prepositions to help you.

blame   ·   thought   ·   cost   ·   scars   ·   comparison   ·   way   ·   thinking   ·   grudge   ·   resentment   ·   repeating   ·   resemblance   ·   responsibility
1.I can't bear the of losing you.
2.It just doesn't bear about.
3.She had really hurt him, but he bore little towards her.
4.In fact he never really bore a against anybody in his life.
5.I can't bear the he's always smoking in the house.
6.His latest film bears no with his brilliant early work.
7.That joke just doesn't bear , it's so awful.
8.He bore a distinct to his father.
9.He had borne a lot of in his previous job.
10.We were all in the wrong, you shouldn't have to bear all the .
11.They had to bear most of the of their son's school fees.
12.He still bears the from his last, disastrous relationship.

4. Relationships - friendship, love and sex.

4a. The way in which two or more people feel and behave towards each other

  • He has a very close relationship with his uncle.
  • It's a typical father-son relationship.
  • She has a very good relationship with her employees.

4b. A close romantic friendship between two people, which is often sexual

  • She's in a new relationship.
  • Have you had any serious relationships in the past year?
  • He's not really looking for a relationship right now.
  • he would love to have a relationship with her.

4c. The family connection between people

  • What's your relationship to Sandy? We're second cousins.
Note - Look at the difference between these two sentences:
  • The judge asked the witness what the relationship was between her and the defendant.
  • The judge asked the witness if she had had sexual relations with the defendant.
The second question is very specific, but the answer to the first question could be any of the following, and many more besides:
  • I don't know him from Adam.
  • We're old school chums.
  • He's my husband's best mate.
  • We're just good friends.
  • He's my husband.
  • He's my brother
  • We're lovers

Collocations - adjectives often used with relationship.

Exercise 4 - Complete the sentences with the most appropriete adjectives. Be careful with casual and causal.

causal   ·   love-hate   ·   stormy   ·   steady   ·   blood-   ·   casual   ·   caring   ·   business   ·   on-off   ·   strained   ·   failed   ·   working
1.I think they have quite a(n) relationship, they both see other people.
2.Britain and France have a bit of a(n) relationship. Historically they've been both allies and bitter enemies.
3.We have a good relationship with our suppliers.
4.They'e in a(n) relationship and have been going out for a few months now.
5.Do you think there's a relationship between computer 'shoot-em-up' games and street violence?
6.Ours is a strictly relationship. We hardly ever meet socially.
7.He's a bit fragile. He's recovering from a relationship.
8.It's a bit of a(n) relationship; they're always having rows.
9.We're related by marriage, but we don't have a relationship.
10.They seem to have rather a(n) relationship. One week they're seeing other, the next it's all over. And the next thing you know, they're back together again.
11.He has rather a relationship with his parents. They don't really approve of his life choices.
12.She has a very relationship with her granny and spends a lot of time with her.

Idioms connected to relationships

Exercise 5 - Complete the sentences with appropriate words from the box.

spot   ·   terms   ·   on   ·   trousers   ·   wing   ·   under   ·   foot   ·   in   ·   loggerheads   ·   length   ·   house   ·   call
1.We got off on the wrong when we first met, but now we get on really well.
2.Tim and the new chap are getting on a like a on fire. They'll make a great team.
3.I think you're well there, mate. You can see that she likes you.
4.It's a stormy relationship; they're always at with each other.
5.He's got a bit of a soft for the new girl.
6.But unfortunately for him, she's keeping him a bit at arm's .
7.Paul and Ryan don't often see eye to eye things.
8.Everybody has to be at the boss's beck and ; it's no way to run a department.
9.They've had an argument and aren't on speaking at the moment.
10.Martin has taken the new starter under his and will make sure he doesn't have any problems.
11.It's not difficult to see who wears the in that relationship.
12.She keeps him totally her thumb. Poor bloke!

Collocations - verbs to talk about relations and relationships.

Certain verbs are often used to talk about international and business relations, relationships etc.

Exercise 6 - Decide whether these verbs are positive or negative when talking about relations and relationships.

PositiveNegativePositiveNegative
1.break off 11.foster
2.build up 12.jeopardise
3.cement 13.maintain
4.cultivate 14.promote
5.cut off 15.restore
6.damage 16.resume
7.develop 17.sever
8.disrupt 18.sour
9.encourage 19.strengthen
10.establish 20.undermine
Which two of those verbs suggest starting relations again after some sort of break? Enter them in the same order as they appear in the list.
1.
2.
Which four verbs suggest that relations were stopped, even if only temporarily. Again enter them in order.
3.
4.
5.
6.
Which four verbs suggest that good relations are in danger. Again enter them in order.
7.
8.
9.
10.

Exercise 7 - Choose the correct options to complete the sentences.

1. We are trying to good relations through regular contacts with our opposite numbers.
jeopardise - cultivate - cut off
2. Relations between the two countries were when a spy plane was shot down.
cemented - disrupted - established
3. We like to close relationships with all our key clients.
maintain - sever - sour
4. Relations between management and unions have as both sides have increasingly retreated into their own corners.
strengthened - developed - soured
5. After a year's break they have their relationship with their previous supplier.
fostered - resumed - undermined
6. Although this is a new market for the company, they have already close relationships with local suppliers.
severed - established - damaged
7. Any more anti-British actions will seriously relations between the two countries.
cement - break off - jeopardise
8. They their new relationship by announcing a joint venture.
cemented - soured - undermined
9. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been after a two-year break.
broken off - restored - fostered
10. Cancellation of some debt as well as increased investment has helped good relations with this part of Africa.
sever - foster - damage
11. Relations between the UK and the rest of Europe are constantly by the anti-EU section of the British press.
restored - undermined - cultivated
12. The company has relations with the star of its advertising campaign after complaints about his drunken behaviour in public.
damaged - severed - encouraged

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