Relative pronouns and relative clauses

Learn about relative pronouns and relative clauses and do the exercises to practise using them.

Level: beginner

The relative pronouns are:

Subject Object Possessive
who who/whom whose
which which whose
that that -

We use relative pronouns to introduce relative clauses. Relative clauses tell us more about people and things:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
This is the house which Jack built.
Marie Curie is the woman that discovered radium.

We use:

  • who and whom for people
  • which for things
  • that for people or things.

Two kinds of relative clause

There are two kinds of relative clause:

1.  We use relative clauses to make clear which person or thing we are talking about:

Marie Curie is the woman who discovered radium.
This is the house which Jack built.

In this kind of relative clause, we can use that instead of who or which:

Marie Curie is the woman that discovered radium.
This is the house that Jack built.

We can leave out the pronoun if it is the object of the relative clause:

This is the house that Jack built. (that is the object of built)

Relative pronouns 1

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Relative pronouns 2

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Be careful!

The relative pronoun is the subject/object of the relative clause, so we do not repeat the subject/object:

Marie Curie is the woman who she discovered radium.
(who is the subject of discovered, so we don't need she)

This is the house that Jack built it.
(that is the object of built, so we don't need it)

2.  We also use relative clauses to give more information about a person, thing or situation:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy.
I met Rebecca in town yesterday, which was a nice surprise.

With this kind of relative clause, we use commas (,) to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

Be careful!

In this kind of relative clause, we cannot use that:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
(NOT Lord Thompson, that is 76, has just retired.)

and we cannot leave out the pronoun:

We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy.
(NOT We had fish and chips, I always enjoy.)

Relative pronouns 3

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Relative pronouns 4

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Level: intermediate

whose and whom

We use whose as the possessive form of who:

This is George, whose brother went to school with me.

We sometimes use whom as the object of a verb or preposition:

This is George, whom you met at our house last year.
(whom is the object of met)

This is George’s brother, with whom I went to school.
(whom is the object of with)

but nowadays we normally use who:

This is George, who you met at our house last year.
This is George’s brother, who I went to school with.

Relative pronouns 5

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Relative pronouns with prepositions

When who(m) or which have a preposition, the preposition can come at the beginning of the clause:

I had an uncle in Germany, from who(m) I inherited a bit of money.
We bought a chainsaw, with which we cut up all the wood.

or at the end of the clause:

I had an uncle in Germany, who(m) I inherited a bit of money from.
We bought a chainsaw, which we cut all the wood up with.

But when that has a preposition, the preposition always comes at the end:

I didn't know the uncle that I inherited the money from.
We can't find the chainsaw that we cut all the wood up with.

Relative pronouns 6

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when and where

We can use when with times and where with places to make it clear which time or place we are talking about:

England won the World Cup in 1966. It was the year when we got married.
I remember my twentieth birthday. It was the day when the tsunami happened.

Do you remember the place where we caught the train?
Stratford-upon-Avon is the town where Shakespeare was born.

We can leave out when:

England won the World Cup in 1966. It was the year we got married.
I remember my twentieth birthday. It was the day the tsunami happened.

We often use quantifiers and numbers with relative pronouns: 

all of which/whom most of which/whom many of which/whom
lots of which/whom a few of which/whom none of which/whom
one of which/whom two of which/whom etc.

She has three brothers, two of whom are in the army.
I read three books last week, one of which I really enjoyed.
There were some good programmes on the radio, none of which I listened to.

 

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Hello quickspot,

You are right on both points. 1 is not a complete sentence and in 2, 'which' should not be used.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Mon, 28/09/2020 - 13:30

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Hello. are the following sentences correctly written with commas? 1- The man, whom I borrowed some money from, was helpful. 2- The man, who I borrowed some money from, was helpful. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

These sentences could be correct, but in most cases the sentence would probably be without commas: 'The man who I borrowed money from was helpful'. It depends on whether you're using the phrase 'who I borrowed money from' to specify which man you're talking about.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Arjun Yadav on Sat, 26/09/2020 - 09:01

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Is "most of which/whom" and "many of which/whom" are same. Please explain to me.

Hello Arjun Yadav,

There is a slight difference in meaning and form, though in many contexts you could use either.

 

In terms of form, most of can be used with countable or uncountable nouns; many of can only be used with countable nouns; for uncountable nouns we would use much of.

 

In terms of meaning, most of means the majority of. In other words, most of means clearly more than half.

Many of is a little less specific. It simply means that the speaker sees the number as large. It does not necessarily mean that it is more than 50%, though it most often will be.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Risa warysha on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 10:08

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Hi sir, I read news yesterday. One of the sentences said "Disposable masks contain plastics which pollute water and can harm wildlife who eat them or become tangled in them" Could you please tell me why it used "who eat them ..." since I checked dictionary and found 'wildlife' is animals? Why didnt it use 'which' instead? Thank you,sir
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Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 13:51

In reply to by Risa warysha

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Hello Risa warysha,

Like you, I would use a different pronoun here, like 'that' but not 'who'. Strictly speaking, it's not correct to use 'who' here. I'm afraid I don't know why the writer used it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by willleong on Tue, 15/09/2020 - 04:53

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I have doubts with the following two sentences, which one is correct? Or both? Mr. Chan is the chef who is preparing a banquet for us. Mr. Chan who is preparing a banquet for us is the chef. Thanks

Hello willleong,

The first is correct.

With a couple of commas around the non-defining relative clause ('Mr. Chan, who is preparing a banquet for us, is the chef.'), the second one is also correct. But it's not correct without the commas.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nimispencer on Fri, 04/09/2020 - 10:57

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Hi, I've got a question. Is the sentence below correct ? "The school where all the local children attended shut down because its water supply contained toxic chemicals." The use of (where) as a relative clause is correct ?? Thanks

Hello Nimispencer,

No, I'm afraid that's not correct. The relative pronoun 'where' replaces a preposition + 'which'. In this case, you have the verb 'attend', which is not followed by a preposition, and so it's not correct to use 'where'. What I'd recommend here is 'The school the local children attended was shut down ...'

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nbu2316 on Mon, 31/08/2020 - 21:37

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Hello Mr. R, I would like to ask you what kind of relative clause is to be found in the following sentences: 1. "There are a few stages which are common to both and seem obligatory for the category of letter and some for the genre of Complaint letter irrespective of register." In this case, I would say that "which are common to both and seem obligatory for the category of letter and some for the genre of Complaint letter irrespective of register" is the RC defining stages -> therefore, it is an Object RC. 2. "There are several different methods of instruction, all of which focus on a particular area of language learning theory and suggest particular methods of teaching , some more controversial than others." The RC "of which focus on a particular area of language learning theory and suggest particular methods of teaching, some more controversial than others" defines the word 'all' what in turn refers to "several different methods of instruction". But is it then again an Object RC or a Subject RC (so that 'all' is the subject of the sentence)? 3. "She has been a very willing and communicative case study, who in spite of a certain initial shyness has been extremely forthcoming about her experiences to date." The RC "who in spite of a certain initial shyness has been extremely forthcoming about her experiences to date" defines 'case study'. As "a very willing and communicative case study" is a subject preticate and not an object, what kind of RC is this then? Is it a subject or object RC? Thank you very much in advance! All the best, Nehir.

Hello nbu2316,

In your first example the relative clause is a defining relative clause and refers back to 'stages', as you say. The sentence is rather awkward, however, and does not appear to be particularly well written in my view.

 

In your second example the relative clause is non-defining and refers back to 'several different methods of instruction'. The relative pronoun is the object of the preposition 'of' within the clause, but the phrase 'all of which' is the subject in the relative clause. 

You can read a liitle about phrases such as 'all of which' in the second point under Overview on the relevant wikipedia page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_relative_clauses

 

Your third example contains a non-defining relative clause which refers back to 'case study', as you say. The relative pronoun 'who' is the subject within the relative clause.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much for your explanation. All of the examples are taken from a corpus so that they sometimes really are rather awkward, but, however, I can't change them. While working, I came across with other examples that confused me. Therefore, I again would like to ask you for help. One example is in case of the following sentence: "Further, as speakers use unusual words in a pattern because they resemble other words used in that pattern, that is, by analogy with a more typical word, any pattern is subject to variation so that while it may be said that a certain group of words occur in a certain pattern it can not be said that they are the only ones to occur in that pattern." Here, I would like to ask, whether the clause introduced by 'that is [...]' is a relative clause or not and if so, that does it refers to? I have many clauses of this type in my corpus and I don't know whether I have to mark them as relative clauses or not. Thank you very much in advance! Kind regards, Nehir.

Hello again nbu2316,

The phrase 'that is' here does not introduce a relative clause. It's a variant on the phrase 'that is to say', which means something like 'in other words'. It's a lexical device used to introduce a paraphrase or a clarification.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by phong on Sat, 29/08/2020 - 22:11

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Hi Team, Please let me have some questions: 1. I had an uncle in Germany, from who(m) I inherited a bit of money. In sentence 1, why are we using comma (,) in this sentence? Is it correct if we replace "a" by "the" in this sentence so we will have "I had the uncle in Germany, from who(m) I inherited a bit of money." 2. I didn't know the uncle that I inherited the money from. In sentence 2, why are we using "the" instead of "a" in this sentence? In these cases, I am getting confused when to use "a" or "the" and when to put comma. Please help me understand. Thank you! Regards, Phong
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 30/08/2020 - 08:59

In reply to by phong

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Hello phong,

The reason a comma is used in your first example is that the construction beginning 'from whom' is a non-defining relative clause. In other words, it adds extra information but does not identify the subject (uncle).

If the sentence did not have a comma it would suggest that you have several uncles in Germany and are identifying which uncle you are talking about.

We would not use the here as the speaker is clearly introducing their uncle for the first time.

 

In your second example, the is used because the speaker has clearly spoken about the uncle before. Your first mention would be to let the listener know you have an uncle in Germany; after than you might tell them that you didn't know that uncle.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by SonuKumar on Tue, 25/08/2020 - 10:36

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Sir, I have helped her, which is a good thing. Is the second sentence a relative clause or not ? If yes then can I use 'that instead of which' in the second sentence ? I think If I write the same sentence with 'that', I need to write it seperately as one sentence. Like this: I have helped her. That is a good thing or I have helped her and that is a good thing. But If the second sentence is a relative clause which I'm not sure about why can't I write the two clauses as one sentence using 'that instead of which' ? Here are a few more sentence examples. She is a good girl which is way I like her. She is a good girl that is way I like her. I think I need use a comma in both sentences and the word 'and' in the second one. but why ? Four injured were rushed to hospital yesterday three of whom have died. Four injured were rushed to hospital yesterday three of them have died. Now again I think I need to use the conjuction 'and' in the second sentence or I could write it seperately as one sentence but can I not write the way I have written them above ?
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Submitted by Jonathan R on Tue, 25/08/2020 - 14:05

In reply to by SonuKumar

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Hi SonuKumar,

  • I have helped her, which is a good thing.

Yes, the underlined part is a relative clause. But, it's a non-defining relative clause (see point 2, above, and this page for more explanation and examples. It's different from the other type, defining relative clauses, described in point 1, above).

For this type of relative clause, that cannot be used instead of which

  • I have helped her. That is a good thing. 
  • I have helped her and that is a good thing.

Both the sentences above are correct. But in these sentences, that is a subject pronoun (not a relative pronoun like which). 

  • She is a good girl, which is why I like her.
  • She is a good girl, and that is why I like her.

Yes! The corrections you suggested are right. I've made the corrections in the sentences above. Here again, in the first sentence there is a non-defining relative clause: which is why I like her. Notice that there must be a comma before a non-defining relative clause.

  • Four injured were rushed to hospital yesterday, three of whom have died.
  • Four injured were rushed to hospital yesterday and three of them have died.

You're right that and is needed in the second sentence. In the first one, it's correct if the comma is added (to make the correct structure for the non-defining relative clause, underlined).

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Yes Sir, It does make sense and clarify the matter. Thank you very much indeed for your help!

Submitted by Anisha00329 on Wed, 19/08/2020 - 04:38

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one or other means one of two people or things, when it does not matter which you are referring to - Would the formal version be "it does not matter to which you are referring" She sits on a “reputation committee”, a subgroup of the company’s executive committee, which is chaired by the chief executive. - does "which" refer to "reputation committee" or the "executive committee"? The government has received more than 2,000 submissions, mostly opposing the proposal. - As I understand the use of relative clauses and participial clauses, when we are referring to the noun which is at the end of a sentence, it would be better to use relative clauses rather than participal clauses, which tend to refer to the whole of the previous sentence. Since "most opposing the proposal" refers to the submissions, would it be better to say "which mostly oppose the proposal". Thanks for your help teachers.

Hi Anisha00329,

I'll try to answer your questions in turn.

  1. Yes – that would be a very formal way to say one or other. But, note that one or other isn't marked for any particular style, so it's perfectly fine to use it in formal writing or speaking. Also, it's just a phrase (i.e. part of a sentence), while your suggestion is a full sentence.
  2. It refers to reputation committee. But, if you deleted the comma after executive committee, then it would refer to executive committee. So, the comma makes a small but important difference!
  3. Yes! It would be better to use the relative clause here, for the reason that you said.

I hope that helps!

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Natavan Gojayeva on Mon, 17/08/2020 - 05:47

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Hello thank for sharing this material. My question is, according to Cambridge Objective Advanced preposition cannot be used before "who" but "whom" can be used. If we want to use preposition with "who", it is supposed to be at the end of the clause. But here it says, who/whom can be used with the same way. Could you please explain that a little further? Many thanks in advance.

Hi Natavan Gojayeva,

Yes, in moden usage of British English, who is often used instead of whom. Here are some examples to compare:

  1. Whom should I talk to?
  2. To whom should I talk?
  3. Who should I talk to?

1 and 2 are traditionally regarded as correct. In some varieties of English, it's not recommended to end a sentence with a preposition, so 1 and 3 would be regarded as incorrect. Version 3 uses who instead of whom (which is traditionally incorrect), but this would be the most commonly used version (in British English, at least) and few people would consider it an error. Speakers would only use 1 and 2 if they were making a special effort to speak correctly.

As you can see, it's a bit complicated :)

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello thank you very much for your explanation. But my confusion is, here in the explanation "from who/whom" is correct to use. But in advanced cambridge it say preposition+whom is correct otherwise preposition has to come after the clause if we use "who/that" E.g. She spoke to a professor that/who she is friendly with. She spoke to a professor with whom she is friendly. I hope I could explain. Thank in advance for taking time to read my post.

Hi Natavan Gojayeva,

OK, I see now. I agree with the Cambridge book you mentioned, and that is what is traditionally regarded as correct.

But, we can also consider how language is used in real life, which does not always follow what is traditionally regarded as correct. The examples above using who(m) are a description of what people actually say (in speaking, especially), even though it might be considered incorrect. 

So, it's good to be aware of the "correct" forms if you are taking an exam, or writing or speaking in a situation where correctness is important. But in everyday, casual conversation, all the forms described above are acceptable. 

I hope I've explained it more clearly now?

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by VegitoBlue on Sun, 28/06/2020 - 00:35

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"Lindsey plays field hockey now, but last year she was on the soccer team". The coordinating conjunction "but" in this sentence is meant to connect two main (independent) clauses, each of which should rightfully be able to stand on its own given that they are main clauses. My question is that since second main (independent) clause "last year she was on the soccer team" uses a relative pronoun "she", which links to "Lindsey" in the first (main) independent clause, how can the second clause be considered a true (main) independent clause which can stand on its own? And if indeed for this reason the second clause can no longer be considered as a true (main) independent clause, then doesn't this mean the use of the coordination conjunction "but" is not justified since a coordinating conjunction's role is primarily to link two (main) independent clauses?

Hello magnuslin,

The pronoun she requires a referent but that does not mean that it cannot be used in an independent clause. The referent can be in a different sentence, even a sentence which another person said, or it can be something extra-linguistic such as a picture of a person which is visible to the speakers.

More fundamentally, a sentence does not have to make sense to be grammatical. You can create perfectly grammatical sentences which make no sense at all.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by kangmingoon on Fri, 26/06/2020 - 17:27

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Hello every one . I have a setence combined like this. Dr. Smith is a good surgeon. He lives next door. >Dr. Smith is a good surgeon who lives next door. (Is this right?)

Submitted by Alaa El Baddini on Wed, 24/06/2020 - 06:06

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She is the best girl ... I have ever met Why the answer is that not whom

Hello Alaa El Baddini,

Whom is the object pronoun but is disappearing from use in modern English. Nowadays it is only required when it directly follows a preposition (so we say to whom, for whom and with whom rather than to who, for who and with who).

In other contexts, even if whom is grammartically possible, it can sound very unnatural. This is the case in your example. Whom is not grammatically incorrect, but it is not the normal choice in modern English and sounds rather unnatural.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timothy555 on Sun, 21/06/2020 - 13:39

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Hi, When a relative clause is introduced with relative adverbs such as when, where and why, is the clause still considered a relative clause? or must relative clauses always be introduced by relative pronouns which refer to nouns (i.e. the relative clause introduced with a relative pronoun, serves to give more information about the noun that the relative clause modifies)? Also, when used this way, it seems that oxford lexico dictionary describes such "when, where or why", as relative adverbs...for example use of "when" in "Tuesday is the day when we have pizza". But it seems to me that "when" here is modifying day (a noun), so why is it that some people call "when" a relative adverb, while others see "when" here as an "adjective" since it modifies a noun (i.e. day)?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Mon, 22/06/2020 - 07:52

In reply to by Timothy555

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Hi Tim,

Yes, the relative clause is still a relative clause. It is usually called an adverb relative clause.

 

You need to distinguish between the adverb (when, where, why) and the clause as a whole. The function of the adverb is to head the clause and act as a connector with the rest of the sentence. The function of the clause as a whole is adjectival, as you say. In other words, the relative adverb is part of an adjectival clause.

You can often replace the relative adverb with a preposition and a relative pronoun:

Tuesday is the day on which we have pizza.

 

Adverbs are perhaps the broadest category of word in English and sometimes the category is controversial for this reason, being seen as a catch-all category whose members have an extraordinary range of functions. You can see some of these under these links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Adverbs_by_type

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Timothy555 on Fri, 12/06/2020 - 14:43

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Why are relative clauses also called adjective clauses?

Hello Tim,

Relative clauses provide information about a noun (or noun phrase) so their function in the sentence is adjectival. That is why they are sometimes called adjective clauses.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Erwin Smith on Thu, 11/06/2020 - 18:12

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Hello I have a question concerning the relative pronouns "who/whom". (who) is used as a subject of a verb and (whom) as an object of a verb or preposition. When I was doing an exercise about determining whether the relative pronoun a subject pronoun or object pronoun I found these sentences: 1. Do you know the girl who I danced with? 2. This is the man who Barbara visited in Scotland. I think they should normally be with (whom) not with (who). I know that it is used in spoken or informal language but what about formal or Academic English, is it correct to use (who) instead of (whom) when it functions as an object? thanks in advance!
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Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 12/06/2020 - 09:15

In reply to by Erwin Smith

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Hello Erwin Smith

That's correct -- in informal situations, and even in some formal ones, people often use 'who' instead of 'whom'. There's quite a bit of variation in formal and academic writing and speaking -- sometimes you see or hear 'whom' and sometimes 'who'. It's difficult to give advice without knowing more about your situation, but you might perhaps use 'whom' in writing but 'who' in speaking.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by OlaIELTS on Sun, 07/06/2020 - 23:52

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It's really great.

Submitted by heoquay193 on Thu, 07/05/2020 - 09:03

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I got confused whether or not there's a comma here: I have a friend (,) who collects stamp. I think "I have a friend." is grammatically correct and it can stand alone as a full sentence. Is the comma necessary? Thank you.

Hello heoquay193,

Although we don't have the context, I think it is clear that this is a defining relative clause (identifying which friend you have in mind) rather than a non-defining relative clause (providing extra but unnecessary information). Defining relative clauses are not separated by a commas, so no comma should be used.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed2020 on Sat, 02/05/2020 - 05:16

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I think these examples are like that: 1- A stunt person is someone who ''stands in'' for an actor during dangerous scenes. Defined 2- A computer-graphics supervisor who needs advanced technical knowledge often spends millions of dollars on computer graphics. Non-defined 3- A stagehand is the person who moves the sets of stage in a theater production. Defined 4- A movie producer who controls the budget decides how money will be spent. it is defined as well, because people do not know about this job. Am I right?

Submitted by Ahmed2020 on Sat, 02/05/2020 - 05:08

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Hello Teachers I have a question which has been puzzled me a lot. When it it comes to the different now types, is there any difference between them? For example are common, proper, abstract collective or job titles like ''stagehand'' or ''computer-graphics supervise'' must always be defined on Non-defined? I will appreciate providing examples.

Hello Ahmed2020,

I think you're a little confused with the terminology here. Defining and non-defining in the context of this page refer to relative clauses, not to nouns. They describe particular grammatical constructions:

> defining relative clauses identify the particular item being described (more here)

> non-defining relative clauses give extra, non-essential information about the item being described (more here)

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nguyen Quoc Cuong on Mon, 27/04/2020 - 21:49

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Hello. I'm not clear which of these two sentences is dramatically correct. 1. The works that involve person-to-person interactions... 2. The works that involves person-to-person interactions... Thank for your explanation in advance.

Hello Nguyen Quoc Cuong

The first one is grammatically correct: the verb 'involve' agrees with the plural noun 'works'. In 2, 'involves' would agree with the subject 'work', but not 'works'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team