Relative Clauses The Basics



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Relative Clauses

The Basics

  • Relative clauses are who, whom, that,which, whose, where or what.

  • A relative clause is the part of the sentence which denotes which person

or thing your sentence is about.

e.g. 1. The woman who lives next door works as a nurse.

The sentence is referring to one woman, the woman living next door, therefore who is used.

  1. The chair that I am sitting on belonged to my grandmother.

The sentence is referring to a particular chair, the one which the speaker is sitting on, therefore that is used.

Remember:

Who is used with people.

That and Which are used with inanimate objects or unidentified living things.

n.b. When speaking about unidentified animals which and that are usually used, however, it is increasingly common to use who when speaking about named animals in English.

e.g. Red Rum, who won the derby, was a well bred race horse.

Extra Information Clauses.

Normally when using relative clauses in English they reinforce the person or thing the sentence is referring to. This is the case with the examples given above. This type of relative clause could be referred to as a necessary information clause or more commonly a defining relative clause, as without this information the reader would be unsure which person or thing is being spoken about.

Relative clauses are not only used to give necessary information however. Compare the following sentences.

  1. The essay which you are writing should be finished by Friday.

  1. Peter’s essay, which he is writing, should be finished by Friday.

The second sentence differs from the first because it does not give necessary information about which essay the sentence refers to (we are immediately told it is Peter’s essay). Instead the sentence gives us some extra information about the essay (Peter is writing the essay now). This is an extra information clause.

Relative clauses are used to provide extra information only when the person or thing referred to in a sentence is clearly defined immediately. This means that the person or thing will have a unique name or will have adjectives or other describing words attached to it. Study the following examples.

  1. Rachael Bradford, who you met at my birthday party, is a very pleasant girl.

The subject of the sentence is immediately named, therefore the fact that she was at the birthday party is extra information.

  1. The big blue ball, which we were playing with yesterday, is in the shed.

The subject of the sentence is immediately described, therefore the fact that it was being played with yesterday is extra information.

  1. Indian elephants, who are an endangered species, have very large ears.

The subject of the sentence is Indian elephants, therefore the fact that they are an endangered species is extra information.

Omitting Relative Clauses and Adding Commas.

In defining relative clauses who, that or which can sometimes be omitted. This depends on whether the relative clause is the subject or the object of a sentence.

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

The woman who lives next door works as a nurse.

We cannot say The woman lives next door works as a nurse, as the woman is the subject of the sentence.

When the relative clause is the object of the sentence it can be omitted.

The chair that I am sitting on belonged to my grandmother. =

The chair I am sitting on belonged to my grandmother.

That can be omitted as the chair is the object of the sentence.

In addition to this, when a defining relative clause takes a continuous or –ing form who, that or which can be ommitted.

e.g. 1. The dog that is lying on the grass is very viscious. =

The dog lying on the grass is very viscious.

2. The children who are doing the test are very intelligent. =

The children doing the test are very intelligent.

Remember if you omit the relative clause in this type of sentence, you must also leave out the is or are.

In extra information clauses nothing can be ommitted from the sentence. Instead, it should be remembered that commas are always placed around the extra information clause.

e.g. 1. David Keene, who plays for Birmingham City, is an excellent footballer.

2. London, which is the largest city in England, has a population of around ten million.

3. The Giant Woolly Mammoth, which is now extinct, used to populate Northern Siberia.

Exercise 1

Fill in either who, that or which in the following sentences:

  1. The man ____________ bought the car complained about the gearbox.

  2. The horse ____________ won the race was very fast.

  3. Richard Kelly, ____________ works at Siemens, has a company car.

  4. Our dog Rover, ____________ is a labrador, goes for a walk twice a day.

  5. My grandma, ____________ broke her hip last year, can’t walk very well.

  6. The house ____________ we have bought needs to be repaired and decorated.

  7. The clothes ____________ he was wearing were very nice.

  8. The curtains ____________ you damaged are still being repaired.

  9. Jenny, ____________ will be ten next year, is getting much taller.

  10. Snow White, ____________ is a children’s film, was animated by Disney.

Combine the following pairs of sentences using a relative clause.

  1. We met the man while we were on holiday. He was very nice.

  2. The Smiths have a very big house. They have a large family.

  3. I saw the dog in the pet shop. I decided to buy it.

  4. I like James. He is very intelligent and agreeable.

  5. We visited London. It was on our way home.

  6. Sandra was travelling by bus. She had a long way to go.

  7. John has plenty of spare time. He reads a lot.

  8. The university has a large number of facilities. It is one of the best in the country.

  9. Your shirt is very dirty. I only washed it yesterday.

  10. The cat wasn’t hungry. The cat normally eats quite a lot.

Exercise 2

Decide whether the following sentences are defining relative clauses or extra information clauses. Comment on why you have decided what type of clause they are.

  1. The man who is a doctor is sitting over there.

  2. My father, who is a doctor, is very professional.

  3. Jane, who is never on time, arrived late for our appointment.

  4. The boy who isn’t very organised planned the party.

  5. The huge house at the end of our street, which is derelict, is quite spooky and interesting.


  6. His house, which is very luxurious, was once featured in a magazine article.

  7. The desk which you are working on is made of solid pine.

  8. Our dreams, which can tell us a lot about ourselves, usually only occur in REM sleep.

  9. Australan kangaroos, who can move incredibly quickly, keep their babies in a pouch.

  10. The kangaroos which we saw in the zoo were very beautiful animals.

Use the information given to make sentences using extra information clauses. The first answer is given as an example.

  1. Michael Jones, doctor, works nights.

Michael Jones, who is a doctor, works nights.

  1. Our house, large garden, outside Prague.

  2. My mother, sitting in the corner, is a teacher.

  3. The Astronomical Clock, tourist attraction, very old.

  4. Paris, capital of France, beautiful city.

  5. The pyramids, wonder of the world, mysterious.

  6. The book I have just read, interesting, written by Simon Disraeli.

  7. My best friend, I don’t see very often, always very busy.

  8. Coventry Cathedral, was very beautiful, bombed during the war.

  9. Cows, gentle animals, mainly eat grass.



Exercise 3
Omit the relative clauses where possible. Include commas where necessary.


  1. The parrot which I bought is very talkative.

  2. Winnie the Pooh which was written by AA Milne is a very famous children’s story.

  3. Alison Clark who is getting married in the summer lives in Bristol.

  4. Have you been in touch with the man who you met at the party.

  5. The common sparrow who is usually brown has a good survival instinct.

  6. Dogs who are trained properly can make wonderful pets.

  7. The dog which I own isn’t very well trained.

  8. The Nile which is Egypts main river floods every year.

  9. Prague which is the capital of the Czech Republic is very beautiful.

  10. The man who is sitting on your right is a famous Australian actor.


Answer Key Relative Clauses

Exercise 1

Fill in either who, that or which in the following sentences:

  1. The man who bought the car complained about the gearbox.

  2. The horse that/which won the race was very fast.

  3. Richard Kelly, who works at Siemens, has a company car.

  4. Our dog Rover, who is a labrador, goes for a walk twice a day.

  5. My grandma, who broke her hip last year, can’t walk very well.

  6. The house that/which we have bought needs to be repaired and decorated.

  7. The clothes that/which he was wearing were very nice.

  8. The curtains that/which you damaged are still being repaired.

  9. Jenny, who will be ten next year, is getting much taller.

  10. Snow White, which is a children’s film, was animated by Disney.

Combine the following pairs of sentences using a relative clause.

  1. The man who we met on holiday was very nice.

  2. The Smiths, who have a very large family, have a big house.

  3. I saw the dog which I decided to buy in the pet shop.

  4. I like James, who is very intelligent and agreeable.

  5. London, which we visited, was on our way home.

  6. Sandra, who had a long way to go, was travelling by bus.

  7. John, who has plenty of spare time, reads a lot.

  8. The University, which is one of the best in the country, has a large number of facilities.

  9. Your shirt which I only washed yesterday is very dirty.

  10. The cat, who normally eats a lot, wasn’t hungry.

Exercise 2

Decide whether the following sentences are defining relative clauses or extra information clauses. Comment on why you have decided what type of clause they are.

  1. The man who is a doctor is sitting over there. Defining Relative Clause

  2. My father, who is a doctor, is very professional. Extra Information

  3. Jane, who is never on time, arrived late for our appointment. Extra Information

  4. The boy who isn’t very organised planned the party. Defining Relative Clause

  5. The huge house at the end of our street, which is derelict, is quite spooky and interesting. Extra Information

  6. His house, which is very luxurious, was once featured in a magazíne article. Extra Information


  7. The desk which you are working on is made of solid pine. Defining Relative Clause
  8. Our dreams, which can tell us a lot about ourselves, usually only occur in REM sleep. Extra Information


  9. Australian kangaroos, who can move incredibly quickly, keep their babies in a pouch. Extra Information

  10. The kangaroos which we saw in the zoo were very beautiful animals. Defining Relative Clause

Use the information given to make sentences using extra information clauses. The first answer is given as an example.


  1. Michael Jones, doctor, works nights.

Michael Jones, who is a doctor, works nights.

  1. Our house, large garden, outside Prague.


Our house, which has a large garden, is situated outside Prague.
  1. My mother, sitting in the corner, is a teacher.


My mother, who is sitting in the corner, is a teacher.
  1. The Astronomical Clock, tourist attraction, very old.


The astromical clock, which is a tourist attraction, is very old.
  1. Paris, capital of France, beautiful city.


Paris, which is the capital of France, is a beautiful city.
  1. The pyramids, wonder of the world, mysterious.


The Pyramids, which are a wonder of the world, are very mysterious.
  1. The book I have just read, interesting, written by Simon Disraeli.


The book I have just read, which was very interesting, was written by Simon Disraeli.
  1. My best friend, I don’t see very often, always very busy.


My best friend, who I don’t see very often, is always very busy.
  1. Coventry Cathedral, was very beautiful, bombed during the war.


Coventry Cathedral, which was very beautiful, was bombed during the war.
  1. Cows, gentle animals, mainly eat grass.


Cows, who are gentle animals, mainly eat grass.
Exercise 3
Omit the relative clauses where possible. Include commas where necessary.


  1. The parrot I bought is very talkative.

  2. Winnie the Pooh, written by AA Milne, is a very famous children’s story.

  3. Alison Clark, who is getting married in the summer, lives in Bristol.

  4. Have you been in touch with the man you met at the party.

  5. The common sparrow, who is usually brown, has a good survival instinct.

  6. Dogs who are trained properly can make wonderful pets.

  7. The dog I own isn’t very well trained.

  8. The Nile, which is Egypt‘s main river, floods every year.

  9. Prague, which is the capital of the Czech Republic, is very beautiful.

  10. The man sitting on your right is a famous Australian actor.

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