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Relative clauses in English – tips and activities

Type: Reference material

Tips and suggestions for teaching relative clauses in English.

Relative clauses 

Present and past participle forms (e.g. talking, made) can be used without a pronoun or auxiliary to form a participle relative clause, e.g.

Do you know the boy talking to Thomas?

The participle relative clause underlined in the example has the same meaning as a defining relative clause with the relative pronoun who, e.g.

Do you know the boy who is talking to Thomas?

A participle relative clause with an -ing (present participle) form can be used like a defining relative clause to identify which person or thing you are referring to, e.g.

The house has three bedrooms. The bedroom overlooking the garden … (= which overlooks the garden)

-ing participle clauses also often show what someone or something is, or was, doing at a particular time, e.g.

Who were those children waiting outside? (=  who were waiting outside)
Police investigating the robbery are asking people to come forward. (= who are investigating the robbery)


Participle relative clauses with an -ed (past participle) form are also used like defining relative clauses to identify a particular person or thing. They have a passive meaning, e.g.

The woman injured in the accident was expecting a baby. (= who was injured in the accident)
All cakes sold in the café are made on the premises. (= which are sold in the café)

It is also possible to use participle relative clauses as non-defining relative clauses which add information. Like other non-defining relative clauses, these participle clauses are surrounded by commas, e.g.

His first novel, published in 1965, was an immediate success. (= which was published in 1965)

John’s father, lying on the sofa, was trying to take a nap. (= who was lying on the sofa)

Activity: /hu:z/

The word /hu:z/ can be tricky for students as it can mean who is (contracted = who's), who has (contracted = who's) or whose. Here is a sample restricted practice exercise to differentiate between the three. The sentences in this exercise are all based around the topic of hotels. Teachers could make their own sentences.

  • The receptionist is the person /hu:z/ responsible for reservations.
  • Do you know anybody /hu:z/ worked in a hotel?
  • There is a 10% discount for guests /hu:z/ reservations are made on the internet.
  • Is there anybody in the class /hu:z/ stayed in a luxury hotel?
  • /hu:z/ luggage is this?
  • That’s the guest /hu:z/ plane arrived late.
  • The hotel manager, /hu:z/ not here today, is the person you need to talk to.

Answers

  • The receptionist is the person who’s responsible for reservations.
  • Do you know anybody who’s worked in a hotel?
  • There a 10% discount for guests whose reservations are made on the internet.
  • Is there anybody in the class who’s stayed in a luxury hotel?
  • Whose luggage is this?
  • That’s the guest whose plane arrived late.
  • The hotel manager, who’s not here today, is the person you need to talk to.

Activity: The place where and the day when

The relative adverbs where, when and why can be easily incorporated into a personalization practice exercise like the following.

LIFE CHANGING MOMENTS

Can you remember ...

  1. A day when you made a big decision?
  2. A person who had a big influence on you as a child?
  3. A place where you learnt something very important?
  4. A reason why you have your current job?
  5. A reason why you didn’t choose a different career?
  6. A time when you had to choose between two important things?
  7. A moment when you felt that history had been made?
  8. A time when you didn’t worry about the future?
  9. A place where you met someone very important to you?

Choose three of these memories and tell a partner about them.

Example

I remember the place where I first met my wife very well. It was a ...

A variation which gives learners more control over the content is the following:

Complete the blanks with information that is true for you.

  • ___ is the day in my country when___.
  • ___ is a person I know who ___.
  • ___ is the room in my house where ___.
  • ___ is a time of year when ___.
  • ___ is the part of my town where ___.
  • ___ is the reason why ___.

Now rewrite the words from the first column on a blank piece of paper. Work with a partner. Show the words to your partner, but not the sentences. Can he/she guess why these things are important?

Activity: Interpretations

Because the information imparted can be very different depending on whether or not the relative clause is defining or non-defining, it is an ideal situation to check different possible interpretations of a sentence. Here are some examples of this kind of exercise. Teachers can make their own examples using names or contexts familiar to their students. 

Read the sentences. Then decide which option, a or b, is correct.

  • My sister, who lives in Los Angeles, is a designer.
    a) I have one sister.
    b) I have more than one sister.
  • The athletes who tested positive for doping were suspended.
    a) All the athletes tested positive for doping.
    b) Some athletes didn’t test positive for doping.
  • Flat screen televisions, which are very expensive, have a better image quality.
    a) All flat screen televisions are very expensive.
    b) Some flat screen televisions are cheap.
  • The teachers at this school who arrive late for class will be suspended.
    a) Only some teachers arrive late for class.
    b) All the teachers in the school arrive late for class.
  • The company president who works in Berlin is moving to London.
    a) There is only one company president.
    b) There is more than one company president.

Variation

Give students the follow-up sentences, a or b, and read the main sentences aloud. This way you can emphasize the pausing and intonation of the non-defining relative clause.

Activity: Elaborate the sentences

This is a creative sentence building exercise to practise non-defining relative clauses. Divide the class into small groups. Give each group one of the sample sentences below. Their job is to add one or more non-defining relative clauses to the sentence. Ask groups to compare, reading out their final versions.

1. The princess kissed the prince.
2. The doctor had a glass of whisky.
3. The mayor drove a very expensive Jaguar.
4. The football team’s captain cried after the match.

Here are some examples of what might emerge from sentence 3:

The mayor drove a very expensive Jaguar, which he had bought with the taxpayer’s money.
The mayor, who was rich before she won the elections, drove a very expensive Jaguar.
The mayor drove a very expensive Jaguar, which was a gift from a prominent businessman.
The mayor, who was a communist in the past, drove a very expensive Jaguar.
The mayor, who had connections with the city’s mafia, drove a very expensive Jaguar.

Teachers can make their own sample sentences for students to elaborate.

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