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.
Take an entrance test
Try these questions which show you some of the more common problems with relative clauses.
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?
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!
In extra information relative clauses we have two choices: who for people and which for things:
In defining relative clauses we can also use that for people (although some don’t like this) and things:
Can you do your subject 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.
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?
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.
These are some of the most useful relatives there are. You should note in particular the reason why.
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 live, is 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.
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”
can use that instead of who/which as a subject
don’t need an object pronoun
cannot use that instead of who/which as a subject
do need an object pronoun
do need comma(s)