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Relative Clauses

There are two types of relative clauses in English: those that add extra information (non-defining relative clauses) and those that modify (or define) the subject of the sentence (defining relative clauses).

Defining clauses

These clauses define the noun and they identify which thing or person we are referring to. Use a relative pronoun to refer to the noun: "who" for a person, and "which" or "that" for a noun.

Things

"The present which he bought me is beautiful."

People

"The man who has started an English course is from Spain."

Using whom

Whom is used to refer to the object of the verb.

"The people with whom I was sitting were very noisy."

However, it is hardly ever used in spoken English. Instead, "who" is used with the preposition (with the preposition coming at the end of the clause):

"The people who I was sitting with were very noisy."
To whom are you speaking? = "Who are you speaking to?"
For whom are you buying the present? = "Who are you buying the present for?"

Using that

In spoken English, "that" is often used instead of "which", "whom" or "who".

"The present that he bought me is beautiful."

"The man that has started an English course is from Spain."

When, where and whose

When: "Is there another time when (that) I can call you?"

Where: "Can you tell me where I can buy wrapping paper?"

Whose: (possessive) "Have you seen the TV show whose catchphrase is "Deal no deal?"

Omitting that, who and which

If the pronoun ("that", "who", "which") is the object of the verb, it can be omitted.

"The company that she works for is based in London." ("That" is an object pronoun.)

= "The company she works for is based in London." ("That" can be omitted.)

But:

"The company that employs her is based in London." ("That" is a subject pronoun.)

The company employs her (the company is the subject). In this case, it is not possible to omit "that". You need the pronoun because it is the subject of the verb.

Non-defining relative clauses

These clauses add further information.

"My students, who are all adults, are learning English to get a better job."

"The textbooks, which the students like, have lots of helpful examples."

Commas are used to separate the relative clause from the rest of the sentence.

"That" cannot be used instead of "who"or "which" in non-defining relative clauses.

You can use "some", "none", "all" and "many" with "which" and "whom" to add extra information:
"My students, many of whom are from Europe, are learning English to get a better job."
"The textbooks, some of which the students like, have helpful examples."

Comparing defining and non-defining relative clauses

The meaning of the sentences changes if you use a non-defining clause rather than a defining clause. Compare the following:

Non-defining
"The students, who had revised hard, passed the exam." (All the students revised and they all passed the exam.

Defining
"The students who had revised hard passed the exam." (Only some of the students revised, and these were the ones who passed the exam.)

Relative Clauses Exercise

Level: Pre-Intermediate and above

1. The new car __ he bought is beautiful.
2. That woman __ works in the supermarket is my neighbour.
3. The man to __ I was talking works in New York.
4. The man __ you were talking to is a policeman.
5. The programme __ you watched last night is on again tonight.
6. The person __ she spoke to was very helpful.
7. The person __ spoke to her had a Scottish accent.
8. Seaside holidays, __ children love, are often less expensive in the UK than abroad.
9. The desserts on the menu, none of __ I liked, were all too expensive.
10. The students __ she shared a house with were studying Medicine.
11. The doctor __ examined her gave her a prescription.
12. The car __ she drives is a Ford.
13. The school __ she attended is very good.
14. The company directors, __ all attended the meeting, agreed to the proposal.
15. The great holiday __ we had was organised by our travel agent.
16. The trips __ he organised for us were fantastic.
17. The girl __ helped you lives on my street.
18. The company __ invited me to an interview is based in London.
19. The house __ I wanted to buy is too expensive.
20. The man to __ you spoke will be your next boss.



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8 comments

Rashid
thanks a lot
David Boydon, Principal Lecturer in English langugae
Excellent overview!
Mohammad
thanks
Dan
Excellent
Romeo
The information is priceless.
Maria Rodrigues
I would be very grateful if you could clarify me which the sentences below are more correct. The exercise is to link two sentences by using a relative pronoun:1)The motorcycle has been there for ages. It was abandoned last week.The motorcycle, which was abandoned last week, has been there for ages.orThe motorcycle, which has been there for ages, was abandoned last week.2)I bought this dress at Zara. It has my favourite cut and colour.This dress, which I bought at Zara, has my favourite cut and colour.or I bought this dress, which has my favourite cut and colour at Zara.
Clare
Hi Maria. In 1) I'd say both sentences are fine, though perhaps the second sounds more natural. In 2) I'd say that the first is better.
Elpidio
It's excellent!!

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