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Relative Clauses - Article

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Relative clauses are a type of subordinate clause that modifies or describes a noun or pronoun in a sentence by providing additional information. These clauses typically start with relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which, that) and contain “relative” words that tie the clause to an antecedent.


Relative clauses are dependent clauses, meaning they cannot stand alone as sentences; they must be connected to an independent clause to form a complete sentence.


For example, consider this sentence:


The dog who is brown has been missing since yesterday.

In this sentence, the relative clause “who is brown” provides additional information about the dog, tying it to its antecedent.


Without the relative clause, the sentence would simply read:


“The dog has been missing since yesterday.”

This illustrates how even though the relative clause is not essential for the basic meaning of the sentence, it provides context and more details about the subject.


In addition to connecting two related clauses, relative clauses also act like adjectives in a sentence, modifying one of its nouns or pronouns. In some cases, these adjectival clauses can also provide extra information about the nouns and pronouns they modify. However, in other cases, they may simply provide additional clarity to objects already mentioned in the main clause of the sentence.


Consider the following example:


“The man that I met on my trip was very friendly.”

Here, the relative clause “that I met on my trip” modifies “the man” and provides important information about who this person is. In addition, it also tells us when this meeting occurred.


There are three main types of relative clauses: defining relative clauses, non-defining relative clauses, and reduced relative clauses.


Defining relative clauses are used to specify which person/object is being referred to and provide essential information about the subject of the sentence; these sentences are typically introduced by “that” or “which”.


For example, consider this sentence:


“The cat which has four legs is mine.”

Here, the relative clause “which has four legs” distinguishes between this particular cat and any other cats that may have different numbers of legs; without this clause, the meaning of the sentence could easily be confused.


Non-defining relative clauses are used to give additional information about the subject of the sentence but are not essential for clarifying which object/person is being referred to. These sentences are usually introduced by “who,” “whom,” or “whose.”


Consider this sentence:


“Sheila, who is from Brazil, speaks Portuguese.”

Here, although the relative clause does provide some extra information about the subject of the sentence (namely, her country of origin), it does not help to distinguish Sheila from anyone else; it is also a non-essential part of the sentence.


Finally, there are reduced relative clauses. These are similar to non-defining relative clauses in that they are used to provide additional information but are not necessary for understanding the basic meaning of the sentence; like non-defining relative clauses, these are usually introduced by “who,” “whom,” or “whose.”


The key difference is that reduced relative clauses omit elements of speech such as relative pronoun, verb, and/or object, making them much shorter than their non-defining counterparts.


Consider this sentence:


“My friend Lisa, married last month, went on her honeymoon.”

Here, the reduced clause (“married last month”) provides some extra details about Lisa and her recent marriage but omits an article (the) and a verb (was).


In conclusion, relative clauses are a type of subordinate clause that modifies or describes a noun or pronoun in a sentence by providing additional information about the subject matter.


There are three main kinds of relative clauses—defining, non-defining, and reduced—each of which serves its own unique purpose in expanding upon existing sentences and conveying more detailed information.


Which versus That: Relative Clauses


A defining/restrictive clause is one that gives essential information in order to identify a noun. It doesn’t need commas to separate it from the rest of the sentence. These clauses are usually introduced by ‘That’.


For example:


The house that I grew up in was small.

A non-defining/non-restrictive clause is one that provides additional information but doesn’t identify the noun. It has commas on either side to separate it from the rest of the sentence. These clauses are usually introduced by ‘Which’.


For example:


The house, which was built in the 1970s, was small.

Defining Relative Clauses


Defining relative clauses gives essential information about a noun (a person, place, or thing).


Study this sentence:


That is the man who/that plays for Newcastle United.

‘who/that plays for Newcastle United’ is a relative clause. This sentence tells us what man we are talking about. The main clause doesn’t make sense without the relative clause.


Study this sentence:


This is the dress which/that I bought in the sale.

‘which/that I bought in the sale’ is a relative clause. It tells us what skirt we are talking about.


A relative clause follows the word that it defines


Use who or that to talk about people.


Steve Jobs is the person who/that co-founded Apple.

Use which or that to talk about things/animals.


The pasta which/that you cooked yesterday was delicious.

Use where to talk about places.


That’s the cafe where I usually have dinner.

We use whose to talk about possession by people and animals.


He’s marrying a girl whose family doesn’t like him.

WHO, WHICH, and THAT can be omitted when it is the object of the clause


Is that the dish (that) I ordered?

In this sentence ‘dish’ is the object of the verb (order). ‘I’ is the subject.


When the relative pronoun is the object, it can be omitted.


The woman (who) he met on the plane was a famous travel blogger.

In this sentence ‘woman’ is the object of the verb (meet). ‘he’ is the subject.


When the relative pronoun is the subject of the clause, it cannot be omitted.


That is my neighbour who has a Labrador.

NOT That is my neighbour has a Labrador.


Where and whose can never be omitted.


He’s marrying a girl whose family doesn’t like him

NOT He’s marrying a girl family doesn’t like him.


Non-Defining Relative Clauses


Non-defining relative clauses give extra information that is not important. If this clause is omitted, the meaning of the sentence doesn’t change without the relative clause, although we have less detail.


Look at this sentence:


The dress, which I bought in the sale, only cost £10.

‘which I bought in the sales’ is a non-defining relative clause. It adds extra information. If we take the clause out of the sentence, the sentence still has the same meaning.


Look at this sentence:


My phone, which is only one year old, broke down last night.

‘which is only one year old’ is a non-defining relative clause. It doesn’t tell us which phone we are talking about. It is clear from the sentence which phone is being talked about.


Study this sentence:


Anna, who was the best student in our group, passed her exam with distinction.

‘who was the best student in our group’ is a non-defining relative clause.


In non-defining relative clauses, you cannot omit relative pronouns.

In non-defining relative clauses, you cannot replace other pronouns with that:

NOT The dress, that I bought in the sale, only cost £10.


Use commas to separate a non-defining relative clause from the rest of the sentence.


Conclusion


Studying and utilizing relative clauses can greatly improve our capacity for expression, making it easier to effectively convey complex ideas in a few words.

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