Number one for English language teachers

Relative clauses in English - article

Type: Reference material

An article on ways to approach teaching relative clauses in English.


Introduction

One of the most (in)famous prescriptive 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?

There are very few things of which he is afraid.
There are very few things which he is afraid of.

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?

The man whom she married was a notorious drinker.
The man who she married was a notorious drinker.

 
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.:

The teacher who looked after our class today doesn’t normally work here.
The flowers that I bought yesterday have already died.
The book which she is referring to is no longer published.

In the examples 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.:

I met a woman/man who lives near your sister.
Do you know the young boy/girl that offered you a seat?
They were the builders who fitted our kitchen.

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.:

Anna is someone that I really admire.
Is there anyone who knows how this machine works?
Everyone who has worked with her will miss her very much.

Relative clauses are also sometimes used after words like some, many, much, all, or those which can function as pronouns, e.g.:

Like many who were taking the exam, I felt very nervous.
A small bar of chocolate was all that we had to eat.


Relative pronouns as subjects and objects

A relative pronoun can act as the subject or object of the verb in a relative clause. Compare:

She’s the only person who offered to help. (who is subject)
She’s the only person who Janice offered to help. (who is object)

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.

I met a woman who knows your sister.
I didn’t trust the builders who fitted our new kitchen.

When the relative pronoun acts as 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.:

I’ve bought a new oven that comes on automatically.
There are systems which are much more reliable.

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.

Did you know the woman you were chatting to in the park? (zero relative pronoun)

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 (see also section 3 below), whom must be used, e.g.:

* the man with who she lived
the man with whom she lived

Most people tend to avoid this however by using who and placing the preposition at the end of the clause, i.e:

the man who she lived with

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:

the man that she lived with
the man she lived with

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.:

On the dining room wall was a photograph which my sister had taken.

This is the kind of flour that we usually use.

You could put the stones you’ve collected into that bucket. (zero relative pronoun)

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.

There wasn’t much that they could do to help.

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:

the room in which we are standing
an achievement of which I am very proud
the man with whom she lives
the article to which he is referring

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, as in e.g.:

the room which we are standing in
an achievement which I am very proud of
the man who she lives with
the article which he is referring to

and very often the relative pronoun is left out altogether, as in e.g.:

the room we are standing in
an achievement I am very proud of
the man she lives with
the article he is referring to

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.:

* This is just something with which I have to put up.
This is just something which I have to put up with.

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.:

the girl (who/that)I lent my jacket to
the person (who/that) I poured a drink for


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.:

Is she the woman whose bag was stolen?

Help is needed for families whose homes were flooded.

That must be the cat whose tail got cut off.

He had a sister whose name I’ve forgotten.
She’s the friend whose brother went to boarding school.

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.

It was a small country whose population was steadily rising.

But whose is not generally used to talk about something belonging to or relating to a thing. For instance, an example like:

She handed me a box whose lid was damaged.

would sound less natural than, e.g.:

She handed me a box which had a damaged lid.

The noun after whose can be the subject or object of the verb in the relative clause, e.g.:

…a country whose population was steadily rising (subject)
…a woman whose bag was stolen (object)

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 friend in whose car I was travelling…
…the friend whose car I was travelling in…

Note

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, cf:

  • …a friend who’s using my car (‘…a friend who is using my car’)
  • …a friend whose car I’m using
     

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, etc. e.g.:

I remember the day when I first met her.
Wasn’t that the summer when we took the boys camping?

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, etc.

This is the room where my grandfather was born.

Is that the place where you do all your homework?

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.:

Eventually I reached a stage where I began to enjoy my work.
He found himself in a situation where he was unable to pay off his debts.

Register note

In formal English in particular, relative adverbs when and where are sometimes replaced by a preposition + which, e.g.:

I remember the day on which I first met her.
This is the room in which my grandfather was born.
Eventually I reached a stage at which I began to enjoy my work.

Why can be used as a relative adverb after the noun reason, e.g.:

That’s the reason why I left my job.

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.

That’s the reason 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:

I could see two girls standing on the platform. The girl who was carrying a small child got onto the train. (defining relative clause)
I could see two girls standing on the platform. One of the girls, who was carrying a small child, got onto the train. (non-defining relative clause)

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:

She called out to the man, who ran off.
I picked up the model, which fell apart in my hands.

Sometimes non-defining relative clauses are used to make a comment about the whole situation described in a 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.:

The woman, who later died in hospital, has not yet been named.

When the relative pronoun refers back to a thing and is the subject of the non-defining relative clause, which is used, e.g.:

This new project, which begins in September, will cost several million pounds.

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.:

Her previous manager, who she had never liked, retired six months ago.

Edward’s brother, whom she later married, never spoke to his parents again.
Register note. 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.:

This bar of chocolate, which he devoured immediately, was the first thing he had eaten in two days.

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, cf:

He was a distant cousin who/whom/that she had never met. (defining)
He was a distant cousin she had never met. (defining)

A distant cousin, who/whom she had never met, was meeting her for lunch. (non-defining)Anchor Point:bottom

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Readers' comments (6)

  • But...some verbs can take wh- clauses inc. to explain,to decide,to consider!

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  • Longman p16 What - instead of the thing/s that to introduce a noun clause. what may be considered to be a relative pronoun here: What matters most is good health. What made him do it? I wonder what made him do it?

    However - I explained what my solution was. - does that fit? I presume what is followed by the predicate. Is that right? My students try to put it in question form.

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  • Re Perry's comment - I explained what we needed to do. I explained what my solution was.
    I think a comparison of noun and rel clauses would be very helpful.

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  • same comment as Gladiator - technical information but no teaching hints.

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  • Useful technical information about RC, but no content addressing specific approaches to teaching this language item.

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  • I would like to hear somones's views on the possible similarites and differences between noun clauses and relative clauses. For instance, What they did was simply wrong. He knew that what they did was wrong.

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