Relative clauses in English - article
An article on ways to approach teaching relative clauses in English.
One of the most (in)famous grammar rules has always been never end a sentence with a preposition. As a teacher, which of the following sounds better to you? Which form would you teach your students?
Similarly, when was the last time you used the word whom? What’s the difference between these two sentences? Is one better than the other?
Relative clauses in English
There are various ways of supplying more information about a noun in English. Frequently we use adjectives (e.g. a helpful teacher) and often other nouns (e.g. a university teacher). Relative clauses are another very common way of supplying more specific information about a noun referring to a person, thing or group, e.g.
In the examples above, the relative clauses are in bold. As the examples show, relative clauses are most commonly positioned immediately after the noun that they refer to and often begin with a relative pronoun such as who, that or which. Who is used to refer to people, which is used to refer to things, and that is used to refer to people or things. Relative pronouns do not have masculine, feminine or plural forms. A relative pronoun like who or that can be used to refer to a man, a woman or a group of people, e.g.
Relative clauses can also be used after some pronouns. They are quite common after indefinite pronouns such as something, someone, anything, anyone, everything and everyone, e.g.
Relative clauses are also sometimes used after words like some, many, much, all, or those which can function as pronouns, e.g.
Relative pronouns as subjects and objects
A relative pronoun can act as the subject or object of the verb in a relative clause. Compare:
When a relative pronoun is functioning as the subject of the verb in a relative clause and is referring back to a person or people, the relative pronouns who or that are used, e.g.
I paid the man that delivered the flowers.
When the relative pronoun acts as the subject and refers to a person, the relative pronoun who is used more frequently than the relative pronoun that.
When a relative pronoun is functioning as the subject of the verb in a relative clause and refers back to a thing or things, the relative pronouns which or that are used, e.g.
When a relative pronoun is functioning as the object of the verb in a relative clause and refers back to a person or people, the relative pronouns who, that or whom are used, or the relative pronoun is left out altogether (this last case is sometimes technically referred to as a zero relative pronoun), e.g.
They were a group of college friends who I hadn’t seen for several years.
I’m afraid Annabel is someone that I really dislike.
He was a distant cousin whom she had never met.
Whom is rather formal and is only used in written English and formal spoken English. The relative pronoun who is often used instead. However, if the relative pronoun occurs immediately after a preposition, whom must be used, e.g.
Most people tend to avoid this however by using who and placing the preposition at the end of the clause, i.e
Note that as a general rule, when the relative pronoun refers back to a person and is functioning as object of the verb in the relative clause, the relative pronoun that and the zero relative pronoun are more common in informal contexts than the relative pronoun who. So the following examples are also likely:
When a relative pronoun is functioning as the object of the verb in a relative clause and refers back to a thing or things, the relative pronouns which or that are used, or the relative pronoun is left out altogether (zero relative pronoun), e.g.
This is the kind of flour that we usually use.
Note that if a relative pronoun occurs immediately after words such as much, all, little and none functioning as pronouns, that is used and not which, e.g.
These ruins are all that remain.
Prepositions in relative clauses
The relative pronouns which and whom can function as the object of a preposition, as illustrated by examples such as:
However, this use sounds rather formal, and it is much more common to place the preposition towards the end of the clause rather than before the relative pronoun, e.g.
and very often the relative pronoun is left out altogether, e.g.
Note that if the verb in the relative clause is a phrasal verb which ends with a preposition, this preposition can never be placed in front of the relative pronouns which or whom, e.g.
If the relative pronoun is functioning as the indirect object of the verb in the relative clause, the prepositions to or for are used, e.g.
Relative clauses with whose
A relative clause with the relative pronoun whose can be used to talk about something which belongs to a person or an animal, or something or someone that is associated with a person, e.g.
Help is needed for families whose homes were flooded.
That must be the cat whose tail got cut off.
The relative pronoun whose can sometimes be used to refer to countries, organizations or other nouns which imply a group of people, e.g.
I’d prefer to use a bank whose services are reliable.
But whose is not generally used to talk about something belonging to or relating to a thing. For instance, an example like:
would sound less natural than, e.g.
The noun after whose can be the subject or object of the verb in the relative clause, e.g.
It can also be the object of a preposition. The preposition can come either before the relative pronoun whose or at the end of the clause, e.g.
The second example, with the preposition at the end, is less formal and more likely in spoken English.
Note that whose should not be confused with who's which means either who is or who has. Compare:
Relative clauses with when, where and why
When can be used as a relative adverb in a relative clause after the word time or other nouns which denote periods of time such as year, day, summer, e.g.
Where can be used as a relative adverb in a relative clause after the word place or other nouns which denote places such as house, street, room, eg.
This is the room where my grandfather was born.
Note that place names (e.g. proper nouns such as Manchester) are never followed by the relative adverb where.
Where can also be used after some specific nouns such as situation, point and stage, e.g.
In formal English in particular, relative adverbs when and where are sometimes replaced by a preposition + which, e.g.
Why can be used as a relative adverb after the noun reason, e.g.
The relative pronoun that or the zero relative pronoun can also be used after reason instead of why, e.g.
That’s the reason that I left my job.
Non-defining relative clauses
The relative clauses we have discussed so far are often referred to as defining relative clauses. This is because they supply information which is needed in order to identify a particular person or thing – they define exactly who or what we are referring to. A second type of relative clause exists in English. This kind of relative clause, usually separated by commas, gives additional information about a person or thing. Unlike in a defining relative clause, this information is not absolutely necessary in order to identify who or what we are talking about, it does not define, but adds information. Such relative clauses are often referred to as non-defining relative clauses, compare:
Non-defining relative clauses have a variety of uses in written English. As well as adding descriptive information, they are often used to indicate that one event happened after another, e.g.
Sometimes non-defining relative clauses are used to make a comment about the whole situation described in the main clause, rather than someone or something mentioned within it, e.g.
She felt really nervous about the interview, which was understandable.
The form of non-defining relative clauses
When the relative pronoun refers back to a person and is the subject of the non-defining relative clause, who is used, e.g.
When the relative pronoun refers back to a thing and is the subject of the non-defining relative clause, which is used, e.g.
When the relative pronoun refers back to a person and is the object of the non-defining relative clause, who or whom are used, e.g.
As in defining relative clauses, whom is rather formal and would only be used in written English or formal spoken English.
When the relative pronoun refers back to a thing and is the object of the non-defining relative clause, which is used, e.g.
Note that, unlike in defining relative clauses, there is no zero relative pronoun, i.e. the pronoun cannot be left out when it is functioning as the object of the relative clause. Compare:
A distant cousin, who/whom she had never met, was meeting her for lunch. (non-defining)