A relative clause is a way to add essential information to a sentence. Imagine that you are at a social gathering with some friends and some other co-workers. You see your friend Charles talking to a girl that is unknown to you and you want to know who she is. You could say to your friend
“A girl is talking to Charles. Do you know the girl?”
But it sounds quite formal and abrupt. A better way to ask this question, would be to start with the most relevant piece of information,
“Do you know the girl?”
But that doesn’t give us quite enough information; there are probably a lot of girls in the room. So how do we distinguish this particular girl? The girl is talking to Charles, but instead of repeating the words ‘the girl’, we use a relative pronoun, in this case you use who (the relative pronoun used for people). So the final sentence is:
“Do you know the girl who is talking to Charles?”
Have a look at these chart related to the use of relative pronouns:
How do we distinguish between subject pronouns or object pronouns?
You cannot distinguish between object and subject pronouns simply by form, as that, which and who can be used in both cases. Instead you must look at what is next to the relative pronoun to discover what form it is in:
A subject pronoun is always followed by a verb: eg. Have you seen the cat that was sleeping on the neighbour’s porch?
An object pronoun is followed by a noun or a pronoun.
In defining relative clauses, the object pronoun can be dropped from the sentence, which is then called a contact clause: eg. The cat (that) Ann saw asleep on the neighbour’s porch.
1. Relative Adverbs:
A relative adverb is sometimes used instead of a relative pronoun + preposition to make the sentence clearer. Have a look at this example: This is the day on which I left for France / This is the day when I left for France.
2. Defining relative clauses
Defining relative clauses give information to be clear that both you and the person you are talking with know exactly who or what it is you are talking about. They give essential information (Note that that can replace who or which).
Imagine there are now two girls talking to Charles, but you don’t know one of them and you want to ask your friend if he does, how do we differentiate between them? Perhaps you could look at what they are wearing. The unknown girl has a red dress on, so we would say :“ Do you know the girl that is wearing the red dress?”. If further clarification is needed: “The one wearing the red dress who is talking to Charles”.
Now you and your friend are absolutely clear who it is you are talking about. The girl is defined through the extra attributed given to her, without these, it would be unclear which girl we were talking about.
Defining relative clauses do not give extra information, so they are not put into commas.
Defining relative clauses are often used in definitions, as in: A miner is someone who works in a mine.
Object pronouns (who, which or that) in defining relative pronouns can usually be dropped from the sentence without a change in meaning. For example: The girl (who/whom) I met last night was very pretty.
3. Non-defining relative clauses
In a non-defining relative clause, extra information is given about a subject, but it is not necessary to make the subject of the sentence clear. They give non-essential information. They are put into commas (or pauses in spoken English).
If there is only Charles and one girl in the room talking, then it is not necessary to add in extra information about her. We would simply say:
“Do you know the girl, who is talking to Charles?”
In non-defining relative clauses, who/whom cannot be replaced with that: Jill, who/whom I went out with last week, is a fully trained nurse.
Object pronouns cannot be removed from non-defining relative clauses: The girl, who/whom I met last night, is very pretty.
Defining relative clauses:
- have no commas;
- can replace who, or which with that;
- can omit who, which or that when they are the object of the clause.
Non-defining relative clauses:
- use commas (or pauses in spoken English);
- do not use that;
- cannot omit relative pronouns.
Are these sentences containing defining or non-defining relative clauses?
1. The girl, that I met last week, works at a shopping centre.
2. Can you spot the lion which is lying on the rock?
3. An Etymologist is a person who is a specialist in the history of words.
4. My cousin, who you met last week, will be visiting me this weekend.
Choose the best relative pronoun or relative adverb for these sentences. Sometimes more than one is possible.
1. I have a daughter who/where/that makes her own clothes.
2. I met an old man that/which/where had known my grandmother.
3. My favourite shirt, which/that/where I brought in Edinburgh, was ruined.
4. I have a cat who/that/whose likes to hide in boxes.
5. This is the office whose/in which/where I had my first real job.
6. Whose/Where/Which is that bag lying there on the table?
7. On my last holiday, when/that/where we went to Greece, I learnt how to make the perfect Greek salad.
8. On the Sundays of my childhood, in which/when/that the afternoons were long and golden, we always went swimming.
9. An accountant is often a person which/that/who loves counting money.
10. An old friend, whom/who/that I saw at a recent garden party, has a grandson.
Make sentences in either the defining or non-defining relative clause using the words given.
1. Who/my sister (non defining)
2. That/assistant director (defining)
3. Whom/a man (non defining)
4. Where/the park (defining)
5. Why/umbrella (non defining)
7. When/last week (non defining)
8. Whose/gloves (defining)
9. Which/horse (non defining)
10. At Which/time (defining)
Pick out whether the sentences contain subject pronouns or object pronouns.
1. I was talking to the old lady who lives across the street yesterday.
2. I was talking to that old lady living across the street yesterday.
3. I saw Harriet who was a friend from school.
4. I saw Harriet who I knew from school.
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