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Relative clauses – key IELTS grammar

This lesson looks at a key piece of grammar in IELTS writing: the relative clause. It is an essential piece of grammar to master because it doesn’t just help your band score for range of grammar, it can also significantly improve your writing.

Why relatives matter

The first point to understand is that relatives are not just another bit of grammar to show off – they will actually improve your writing. How so? They help you do 3 important things:

  1. link short sentences together – too many short sentences is a “bad thing”, linking sentences is good for cohesion
  2. be more precise by defining your terms – precision is almost always a “good thing”
  3. add more information in a concise way – concision too is almost always a “good thing”
And yes examiners do tend to notice if you have used relatives and that is good for your range of grammar.

Test yourself first

Try this quick quiz to see how your knowledge of relatives is.


Understanding the different types of relative clause

There are two main types of relative clause: defining and extra information relatives. It is important to distinguish between them as they have slightly different grammar.

The defining relative

This relative defines a noun – an important idea for IELTS and academic writing. So:

In spite of this, there are two major points to make in favour of promoting a senior member of staff who has been working in a corporation for a long time.

in this example we know which type of member of staff is being referred to.

The extra information relative

This relative does what it says on the tin:  it gives more information about the noun – information that is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence. So

Some companies, especially those which have fewer employees, may decide to implement their own promotion policies.

In this example, the sentence “Some companies may decide to implement their own promotion policies.” is complete and the relative bit just adds more information.

You should also  noter that it is possible to use this type of relative to refer to whole clauses and not just nouns/noun phrases. So in

Some companies have a policy of only promoting on the basis of seniority, which can be appropriate especially in smaller businesses.

which refers to the whole clause Some companies have a policy of only promoting on the basis of seniority,

Getting the grammar right

If you want to use relatives, and you do, it is important to get their grammar correct. These are the essential points:

Grammar Notes

Who, that and which

Who refers to people and which to things. That much is easy. That is a little harder. In defining relatives, it can be used both for people and things. In extra information relatives, you cannot use it.

Leaving out the relative pronoun

Sometimes, we can leave out the relative pronoun in defining relative clauses. This happens when the relative is the object. So, in

However, it does not seem appropriate for a company to promote every member of staff [that] it has employed for a long time.

That can be left out. However, in

However, it does not seem appropriate for every member of staff that has employed for a long time to be promoted.

That cannot be left out because it is the subject of the verb to be promoted.


You always need to use commas in extra information relatives. Sometimes it helps to think of these commas as brackets (), as all you are doing is giving non-essential info of the type you might use brackets for. So

It is also true that some employees,who may perhaps be less ambitious and well-motivated, may not wish the extra responsibility that comes with promotion.

,who may perhaps be less ambitious and well-motivated, is put in commas, while that comes with promotion is not because it defines responsibility.

Don’t forget when, where and why

Often when people think of relatives, they stop at who, that and which. This is a mistake. Some of the most useful relatives are when, where and why as they allow you to write about times, places and reasons. I particularly recommend the combination the reasons why:

One of the reasons why some people do not receive promotion is that they lack ambition.

Some problems

1. Don’t use to many relatives

Relatives are quite complex for a reader to process/understand. It is not a good idea to fill your essay with too many relatives as it will be harder to understand. I also suggest trying to avoid using more than one relative per sentence.

2. Keep the relative as close as possible to the noun it refers to

The idea is that the relative pronoun should immediately follow the word it refers to.

3. Be careful with prepositions and word order

There is a strange grammatical practice when people attempt to place prepositions before the relative – even when there is no need to and it is more natural to leave the preposition after the verb. Consider these 2 sentences:

This can happen if the company  to which they move is a competitor in the same field.

This can happen if the company which they move to is a competitor in the same field.

For me, the first sentence is very awkward and it is best to avoid this construction.

4. Who’s and whose

These are two very different words. Who’s is short for who is or who has. In IELTS writing you are unlikely to want to use it as we avoid short forms except in informal writing. Whose , which sounds identical, is of who or of which.

5. Who and whom

Pretty much the only time you will want to use whom is when it comes directly after a preposition such as to or for.

Test yourself again

Try and decide which is the correct relative in these sentences

To see how relatives work in action, try this brief exercise showing how relatives link different ideas in a paragraph

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