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Getting relative clauses right

Relative clauses are an essential piece of English grammar. They are though tricky to get right. This lesson guides you through some of the problems – teaching you a little bit a time and then testing what you have learnt.

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Try these questions which show you some of the more common problems with relative clauses.

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Types of relative clauses

We use relative clauses to combine two bits of information. In that way, they are similar to words like and or but. They are different though because we use them in two special ways:

1. to define/explain what we are talking about

e.g. I run a website which is designed to help learners of English 

here I am explaining what type of website I run – without this the sentence changes meaning completely

2. to give more/extra information about something

e.g.  My website, which I’ve run for 7 years now, is called  DC IELTS. 

here I am just telling you something else – I don’t need to tell that the website is 7 years old – it’s extra information

Can you identify your relative clauses?

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Pronouns

The most basic rule is that we use who for people and that/which for things. That though is a little too simple as there are differences between the types of relative clause and the type of pronoun!

Subject pronouns

In extra information relative clauses we have two choices: who for people and which for things:

subject pronouns ei

In defining relative clauses we can also use that for people (although some don’t like this) and things:

subject pronouns def

Can you do your subject pronouns?

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Object pronouns

These are just like subject pronouns – except that you can use whom instead of who when it follows a preposition. You don’t need whom when there is no preposition and increasingly we only use it directly after a preposition. You should also note that we can put the preposition at the end of sentence.

Again, this is similar to subject pronouns.

opbject pronouns ei

object pronouns def

Leaving object pronouns out

This bit is more tricky. Sometimes the relative pronoun is the object of the relative clause. When that happens in a defining relative clause we can leave it out:

The grammar that I find hardest to explain is relative clauses (here “that“is object of “find” and this is a defining relative clause)

The grammar  XXXX I find hardest to explain is relative clauses (this is perfectly good)

We can’t do the same thing in extra information clauses though

Relative clauses, which I find hard to explain, have quite complex grammar (here “which” is the object of “find” and this is an extra information relative clause)

Relative clauses, XXXXX I find hard to explain, have quite complex grammar (this doesn’t work at all)

How about your object pronouns?

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Possessive relative pronouns

There’s more. We also use possessive pronouns with relative clauses too. In this case we use whose for both people and things. You should note though that we try and avoid using whose for things. In the example below, for instance, you could say I prefer computers which have larger screens or I prefer computers with larger screens.

possessive relatives

Relative adverbs

These are some of the most useful relatives there are. You should note in particular the reason why.

adverbs

Punctuation problems

You don’t want a comma when you use a defining relative clause.

The city where I live is Cambridge.

You do want commas in extra information relative clauses

Cambridge, where I currently liveis famous for its university.

These commas work like brackets ( ) and the idea is that you can take the relative clause out and the sentence is complete

Cambridge ( ) is famous for its university.

Note

Sometimes you have a choice whether to put the commas in or not. The same sentence can be defining something or simply giving more information:

My brother, who lives in London, is an accountant (here I’m just saying a little bit more about my brother)

My brother who lives inn London is an accountant (here I’m saying it is my brother who lives in London that is the accountant, not my brother who lives in New York!)

Avoid a common mistake

One of the more common mistakes with relative clauses is that sometimes people forget to take out the subject pronoun:

Peter, who I went to school with him, now runs his own business.

We don’t want “him” because we already have “who

Quick summary

Defining 

can use that instead of who/which as a subject

don’t need an object pronoun

no comma

Extra Information

cannot  use that instead of who/which as a subject

do need an object pronoun

do need comma(s)

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4 Responses to Getting relative clauses right

  1. Vitalii March 24, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    Thanks you for posting such articles.
    This one was so needed to me.
    At first test I’ve got 0 score. Now It’s significant better.

  2. Phúc Hảo Lê Thị March 24, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    Hi,teacher !

    Your relative clauses are very good. Grammar skill is excellent. So you teach wonderful all 4 skills. I hope that you will send me to practice a lot of different types. I also like to find out difficult grammar very much. I do correct 83% percent. Thanks for your sharing.

  3. Vahid March 25, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    Hi Dominic

    Thank you for your very useful posts.

    You have written ‘Peter, who I went to school with, now runs his own business’.
    In my view, in this position we should use ‘whom’ owing to use of preposition (with).
    In extra information relative clauses, are ‘who’ and ‘whom’ equal?

    • Dominic Cole March 25, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

      Language changes. When I was at school (over 30 years ago now), my teacher would have insisted on the “whom”. Now, the tendency is to ONLY use it when it is DIRECTLY after the preposition – it sounds nicer. That said, there are some traditionalists about who would say that that is wrong. I’d suggest though that most would agree with me. Take this example from the BC site:

      Who was the woman who you were talking to?

      It’s a good resource and the link is https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/clause-phrase-and-sentence/verb-patterns/relative-clauses

      ps I actually found it difficult to find a natural sentence where I would use “whom”.

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