Explained: Relative causes in English

by Andrea Byaruhanga
May 12, 2021
woman studying relative clauses in English

What are relative clauses, anyway?

If you’re not sure how to answer that question, you’re in the right place! Follow along as we discuss the different types of relative clauses in English, what they do and how to use them properly.

Relative clauses in English

A relative clause is a part of a sentence that adds meaning or extra details. 

If you remove a relative clause from a sentence, the grammar of the sentence will still make sense. However, the meaning could change a lot (depending on the type of clause). 

There are two general types of relative clauses in English: defining/identifying clauses, and non-defining clauses.

Top 50 adjectives in English you need to know! 

Defining relative clauses

The job of a defining or identifying clause is to give us useful information about which person or thing the sentence is referring to.

As you’ll see below, defining relative clauses are not separated by commas

Here’s what that looks like (the defining clause is in bold):

The cat that scratched me was very mean. 

  • The clause gives us useful information. 
  • It answers the question, ‘Which cat was very mean?’

As we mentioned earlier, you can remove the clause from the sentence and the grammar will still make sense. But in this case, the meaning of the sentence will really change: 

The cat that scratched me was very mean.  → The cat was very mean.

While the sentence still makes sense, we’ve lost some important information by removing the identifying clause (we no longer know which cat was very mean). 

Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s see what it looks like when a relative pronoun – the pronoun that introduces a relative clause – is the subject or object of a defining relative clause.

Possessive determiners in English

1. Relative pronoun as the subject

When a relative pronoun is the subject of the defining clause, you can use:

  • Who for people
  • That for people and things

A defining relative clause (which contains these pronouns) can come after the subject or the object of a sentence.

Note: You cannot remove these pronouns from a defining relative clause. 

Clause after the subject of a sentence

The dress that costs $200 is beautiful.

  • ‘The dress’ is the subject of the sentence. 
  • The relative pronoun ‘that’ is the subject of the defining clause.

The instructor who taught that course was very knowledgeable.

  • The ‘instructor’ is the subject of the sentence.
  • The relative pronoun ‘who’ is the subject of the defining clause.

Clause after the object of a sentence

Our company is looking for an employee who can work weekends. 

  • ‘An employee’ is the object of the sentence.
  • The pronoun ‘who’ is the subject of the defining clause. 

She has a cat that only eats fresh fish.

  • ‘A cat’ is the object of the sentence.
  • The pronoun ‘that’ is the subject of the defining clause. 

2. Relative pronoun as the object

When a relative pronoun is used as a the object of a sentence, you can also use: 

  • Who for people
  • That for people and things

Once again, a clause containing these pronouns can come after either the subject or the object of a sentence.

Note: This time, you can remove the pronoun and the sentence will still make sense. 

Clause after the subject of a sentence

The people (who) we met yesterday were so funny.

  • ‘The people’ is the subject of the sentence.
  • The pronoun ‘who’ is the object of the defining clause.
  • You can also say: ‘The people we met yesterday were so funny’.

The job (that) I got is a dream come true.

  • ‘The job’ is the subject of the sentence.
  • The pronoun ‘that’ is the object of the defining clause.
  • You can also say: ‘The job I got is a dream come true’.

Clause after the object of a sentence

She ate all the cake (that) I bought.

  • ‘The cake’ is the object of the sentence.
  • The pronoun ‘that’ is the object of the defining clause. 
  • You can also say: ‘She ate all the cake I bought’.

I like that guy (who) you introduced me to.

  • ‘That guy’ is the object of the sentence.
  • The pronoun ‘who’ is the object of the relative clause.
  • You can also say ‘I like that guy you introduced me to’.

2. Non-defining relative clauses 

Non-defining relative clauses are different from their defining relative clauses: they give extra information that isn’t necessary (interesting, sure – but not important). If the clause is removed, the meaning of the sentence will be about the same.

Another difference is that non-defining relative clauses should be surrounded by commas or parentheses. 

Here’s an example for you: 

The pizza, which is my son’s favourite, is from that shop.

  • Gives extra information about the speaker’s son. 
  • The information is not necessary.

If we remove the non-defining clause, we still keep the main meaning of the sentence:

The pizza, which is my son’s favourite, is from that shop. → The pizza is from that shop.

How to use indirect speech in English

Relative pronouns

For non-defining relative clauses, you can use: 

  • Who for people
  • Which for things

Note: You cannot drop the pronouns from non-defining relative clauses. 

As in all other cases we’ve discussed, the relative clause containing these pronouns can come after the subject or object of a sentence. 

Clause after the subject of a sentence

My dad, who will be 73 in May, has always been a hard worker.

  • ‘My dad’ is the subject of the sentence. 
  • ‘Who’ is the relative pronoun of the non-defining clause. 

Their car, which has a leather interior, is parked outside.

  • ‘Their car’ is the subject of the sentence.
  • ‘Which’ is the relative pronoun of the non-defining clause. 

Clause after the object of a sentence

I live in Vancouver, which has some great walking trails. 

  • ‘Vancouver’ is the object of the sentence.
  • ‘Which’ is the relative pronoun of the non-defining clause.

Next month, I’m going to see my best friend, who has two kids. 

  • ‘My best friend’ is the object of the sentence.
  • ‘Who’ is the relative pronoun of the non-defining clause.

A few more things to know

We’ve covered a lot and we’re almost done! There are just a few other things you should know about relative clauses in English. 

Prepositions

If your relative clause has a preposition, put it at the end of the clause. Otherwise, you’ll sound very formal and unnatural:

The hospital (that) he works at is huge. 

NOT: The hospital at which he works is huge.  

Sometimes, you can replace the preposition with a question word. So, using our example above:

The hospital where he works is huge. 

We use “where” here because we’re talking about a location.

When and how to use a hyphen in English

Possession

If you need to indicate possession (the ownership of something), use ‘whose’ for both people and things: 

The woman whose dog ran away is crying. 

  • The woman’s dog ran away.
  • The woman is crying.

The company whose employees work from home is expanding. 

  • The company’s employees work from home. 
  • The company is expanding. 

It’s all relative

Relative clauses are everywhere! Remember the tips above and start adding them to your everyday conversations. You’ll be using them effortlessly before you know it! 

Want some extra support? Pick the Lingoda course that’s right for you. 

Share this post on
Choose your language and take your free Lingoda placement test

Ready to start learning with Lingoda?

Customise your learning experience and enjoy the journey to fluency.