Explained: Relative clauses in English
Published on May 12, 2021 / Updated on November 10, 2022
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.
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.
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.
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.
When a relative pronoun is the subject of the defining clause, you can use:
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.
The dress that costs $200 is beautiful.
The instructor who taught that course was very knowledgeable.
Our company is looking for an employee who can work weekends.
She has a cat that only eats fresh fish.
When a relative pronoun is used as a the object of a sentence, you can also use:
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.
The people (who) we met yesterday were so funny.
The job (that) I got is a dream come true.
She ate all the cake (that) I bought.
I like that guy (who) you introduced me to.
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.
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.
For non-defining relative clauses, you can use:
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.
My dad, who will be 73 in May, has always been a hard worker.
Their car, which has a leather interior, is parked outside.
I live in Vancouver, which has some great walking trails.
Next month, I’m going to see my best friend, who has two kids.
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.
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.
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 company whose employees work from home is expanding.
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!
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