There are two different types of relative clause:
- A “defining” or identifying clause, which tells us which person or thing we are talking about. This kind of clause could often be information included in brackets (…)
- A “non-defining” or non-essential clause, which gives us more information about the person or thing we are talking about.
- The farmer (his name was Fred) sold us some potatoes. The farmer, whose name was Fred, sold us some potatoes.
It is important to see the difference between the two types of clause, as it affects:
As the name suggests, these clauses give essential information to define or identify the person or thing we are talking about. Obviously, this is only necessary if there is more than one person or thing involved.
- Dogs that like cats are very unusual.
In this sentence we understand that there are many dogs, but it is clear that we are only talking about the ones that like cats.
- Commas are not used in defining relative clauses.
The following relative pronouns are used in defining relative clauses:
- The relative pronoun stands in place of a noun.
This noun usually appears earlier in the sentence:
|The woman||who/that||spoke at the meeting||was very knowledgeable.|
|Noun, subject of
|relative pronoun referring to ‘the woman’, subject of ‘spoke’||verb + rest of relative clause||verb + rest of main clause|
- Who, whom and which can be replaced by that. This is very common in spoken English.
- The relative pronoun can be omitted when it is the object of the clause
|The woman||that||the man loved||was living in New York.|
|Noun, subject of main clause||relative pronoun, referring to ‘the woman’, object of ‘loved’||verb + rest of relative clause||verb + rest of main clause.|
(You can usually decide whether a relative pronoun is an object because it is normally followed by another subject + verb.)
4. Whose is used for things as well as for people.
- The man whose car was stolen.
- A tree whose leaves have fallen.
5. Whom is very formal and is only used in written English. You can use who/that, or omit the pronoun completely :
- The doctor whom/who/that/ I was hoping to see wasn’t on duty.
6. That normally follows words like something, anything, everything, nothing, all, and superlatives.
- There’s something that you should know.
- It was the best film that I’ve ever seen.
- A clown is someone who makes you laugh.
- An elephant is an animal that lives in hot countries.
- The plums that were in the fridge were delicious. I have eaten them.
- Where are the plums (that) I put in the fridge?
- Has anyone seen the book I was reading?
- Nothing that anyone does can replace my lost bag.
- Let’s go to a country where the sun always shines.
- They live in the house whose roof is full of holes.
- the choice of pronoun used to introduce the clause,
- the punctuation – you must use commas with a non-defining clause.