Relative pronouns and relative clauses

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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Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 14/05/2014 - 23:19

In reply to by Kiranpanajkar

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Hello Kiranpanajkar,

We can use 'that' for people or things in defining relative clauses, but not in non-defining relative clauses.  Both of your examples are defining relative clauses so you can use 'that' in those sentences.

For more information on defining relative clauses see this page.

For more information on defining relative clauses see this page.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nguyên Cát on Sun, 04/05/2014 - 17:20

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Dear Teachers, In question numbered 5: " They had four children, all of ............... went to university", why don't we use "who or that" instead of "whom" ? And I don't know when we use comma "," before relative pronouns. I'm looking forward to receiving your explanation. Thanks.
In this case, I think we concerned about a non defining clause so the correct answer is only "who". Is that right?

Hello Nguyên Cát,

The phrase 'all of whom' here is not part of a relative clause, but is a different kind of structure comprised of a quantifier (here 'all') and a preposition + object (here 'of whom').  Similar phrases include 'some of whom', 'many of which', 'none of them' etc. We can use 'that' in this kind of phrase, but only to mean 'what I have just said'.  For example: 'All of that you must remember'.

'Whom' is the object form of 'who'.  In modern English it has become accepted, and even quite common, to use 'who' as an object in many contexts.  However, there are still some constructions where 'whom' is the only acceptable option, and this is one such phrase.

We use commas around non-defining relative clauses.  You can find more information on these here, and more information on defining relative clauses here.

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by afsalrahiman on Tue, 22/04/2014 - 09:30

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Who are you looking for? or Whom are you looking? which is correct.

Hi afsalrahiman,

"Who are you looking for?" is correct, and "Whom are you looking for?" is also correct, though whom isn't used much anymore except in formal situations. Most of the time, you'll hear the first question, not the second one.

When it is used, whom must refer to the object of a verb or preposition - in this question, it is the object of the preposition for.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by almutarjim on Tue, 08/04/2014 - 19:08

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join the sentence using which or who: I didn't like the main character. He was played by John Smith.

Hello almutarjim,

Both 'who' and 'which' are possible in this sentence.  It depends on whether the speaker sees 'character' as a person (which is quite possible - we often talk about characters in books or films as if they were real people) or a thing (also possible, as 'character' is an element of a book or film like 'plot' or 'script').  In other words, both are possible and which is used will depend upon how the speaker chooses to see the topic.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sdgnour2014 on Mon, 07/04/2014 - 17:19

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Hello teacher, I understand that the sentence in English consist of Noun phrase and verb phrase. The sentence which I was reading here , makes some problem in understanding to me. The sentence is: The house that Jack built. The house................ ( the house is Noun phrase ( It's OK ) But the rest of the sentence is difficult to understand it. Which part of speech? And where is the verb phrase?

Hi sdgnour2014,

"The house that Jack built" is not a complete sentence in English, precisely because it lacks a verb phrase. Actually, all of that phrase is a complex noun phrase composed of "the house" plus the relative clause "that Jack built". "built" is a verb, but since it is part of the relative clause "that Jack built", which is itself part of the entire noun phrase, it doesn't count as a verb.

As for what it means, this phrase refers to a house. The house was built by a person. That person is Jack.

I hope this helps!

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by bimsara on Thu, 03/04/2014 - 12:05

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Hello, I like to know about the examples which were mentioned above by Ravi. I like to know about the examples which Ravi mentioned above. Are these two sentences grammatically correct? Thank you.

Submitted by Kirk on Fri, 04/04/2014 - 07:11

In reply to by bimsara

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Hi bimsara,

In both sentences, "I like" should be changed to "I would like", but otherwise they are both correct.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sdgnour2014 on Wed, 02/04/2014 - 13:42

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Hello, is this sentence AND the use of whose is correct? 1- This is to certify that, Mr John , whose working/worked in this company in the period between 10/5/2012 to 10/10/2014 is a good behavior and devotion in his work.

Hello sdgnour2014,

No, it is not correct.  You need to use 'who worked'.  The sentence should also say 'showed good behaviour and devotion to his work', and the comma after 'that' is unnecessary.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by EMM92 on Mon, 31/03/2014 - 22:07

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When having a sentence like; "But, in which health experts call an ominous portent, progress has stalled in 2004 and in recent years the death rate has risen in Mississippi and several other states" - where you know the which whould be replaced with the Word what.... How do you explain that? I mean, grammatically correct?

Hello EMM92,

The correct word here is indeed 'what'.  You can think of two variations here:

'But, in a situation which health experts call...'

'But, in what health experts call...'

'What' here is replacing a noun ('the situation') which is required for the sentence to make sense.  It is tempting to see this as a relative clause with a relative pronoun 'which' referring to 'progress...', but in fact the reference here is to 'situation', and without this no relative clause is possible; instead we must use 'what'.

It is similar to these simpler examples:

'In the sentence which I said...'

'In what I said...'

I hope that helps to clarify it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Manmeet singh atal on Mon, 10/03/2014 - 11:29

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SIR, Could you please , clarify me what is difference in have and had words and would and could ,with some examples. Thanks Manmeet

Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 11/03/2014 - 08:33

In reply to by Manmeet singh atal

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Hello Manmeet singh atal,

These are words which have many uses - as full verbs (have and had), as modal verbs (would and could) and as auxiliary verbs in a whole range of different verb foms (have, had, would and could).  There are literally dozens of different uses for these words, so it's not really possible for me to list and exemplify them all, nor is it a useful way to analyse the language.  For example, it is useful to see the past perfect (formed with had + past participle) as part of a group of verb forms for talking about the past, not as part of a group of verb forms using 'had'.

Perhaps you can provide us with particular sentences you have come across which you would like to explain, and we'll go from there.  It would also be helpful if you could post your question on a related page (this page is devoted to relative pronouns, not verb forms), so other LearnEnglish users can see when they are looking for related information.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by falkenberg 2666 on Sat, 22/02/2014 - 17:28

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Hello,I wrote asking about relative pronouns. I has seen a test and believed that there were errors in the test. Still do. However,I too made a mistake in my comment to you: " "At midday,(1)...........Mary eventually finished the letters,she turned to her boss...." " I said that the word for space 1 was "when". However,I said that it was an interrogative adverb,when it is,I believe, in fact(in this context) an adverb of time.Thanks. Oh, am I right?

Submitted by falkenberg 2666 on Sat, 22/02/2014 - 16:13

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In an English test I saw this: Complete the following text using relative pronouns(Altogether ten). I believe that in four of the ten spaces it is not possible to use a relative pronoun. Am I right? Here they are: "At midday,(1)...........Mary eventually finished the letters,she turned to her boss."(2).......should I address it to,Mr Brown or Miss Smith?"she asked. " Don´t ask silly questions!" he growled. " Just write "To(3)..........it may concern" at the top". Mary was surprised. However,she did not ask her boss,who was doing a crossword,(4).............he wasn´t working like everyonre else." Surely the answer to number one is "when", which here is an interrogative adverb,the answer to number 2 is "Who" ,which is an interrogative pronoun.The answer to 3 is"whom" which is a personal pronoun(dative case),and the answer to 4 is "why",which is an interrrogative adverb. Hope to hear from you. Thank you in advance.

Hello falkenberg 2666,

I think this is a question better addressed to your local English teacher - our role here is to help our users with the materials on this site, not materials from other lessons or other sources.  However, briefly, I would answer as follows:

1) when/as

2) who/which ['which' can be used in certain contexts to refer to people]

3) whom

4) so/because

To use 'why' in the last gap you would need to use the phrase 'which was why'.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your prompt reply. What I am saying is that in none of the four spaces provided is it possible to use a relative pronoun. Could you just confirm that,if possible,please. Again,thanks for your reply. Cheers.

Hello falkenberg 2666,

As far as I can see, it is not.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by cedriclegneks on Fri, 14/02/2014 - 23:17

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when do we use whom?

Hello cedriclegneks,

'Whom' is the object form of 'who' but it is relatively rarely used in modern English and can sound quite old-fashioned.  For example, we can say:

Who did you give it to?          or          To whom did you give it?

You spoke to who?          or          You spoke to whom?

I hope that answers your question.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by wilson2103 on Thu, 13/02/2014 - 16:07

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Hi, I have a question. I was viewing the sentence: This is George’s brother, with whom I went to school. But, I'm really confused. I don't know why it isn't: This is George’s brother, with whom I went to the school. Is it a incorrect sentence? Thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 13/02/2014 - 20:45

In reply to by wilson2103

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Hello wilson2103,

I'll be happy to answer the question, but I'd like to request something first.  Your question, and the answer to it, will be useful to other users but they are unlikely to find this information on this page, which is about relative pronouns.  Could you post the question again, on a page related to articles?  That way it will be easier for others to find it and make use of it.

Best wishes and thank you in advance,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by falkenberg 2666 on Sat, 22/02/2014 - 16:47

In reply to by wilson2103

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When we speak of certain places as regards their function(what the place was meant for) we do not use the definite article "the". For example. school= a place where we go to to learn(some anyway) prison= a place where criminals are sent,hospital=a place where people who have severe illnesses go. So, we say, The man(a criminal) was sent to prison. But, we say: The son(not criminal; we hope) went to the prison to visit his dad. Or, Ann´s father( as a patient) was sent to hospital because he had to have an operation. But, Ann(as a visit) went to the hospital to visit him. There are,as usual,exceptions(this is English) For example, They went to the cinema last night.

Submitted by Safaa S. on Sat, 18/01/2014 - 22:23

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Hi;

Now I read the comments of Mr.Peter dated 22 Dec. 2013 on How long page I don`t now if you will consider me as  'intermediate' learner, but I know that i have to try doing the free test of IELTS but every time I said to myself I have to finish the grammars section first but really it`s hard to finish it.so what you advice me to do?

 

Best Wishes

 

Safaa

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 19/01/2014 - 21:23

In reply to by Safaa S.

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Hi Safaa,

It's not necessary to finish any section here before you move on to something else.  You should consider what you need, what your strengths and weaknesses are and what will be most helpful for you.  Use the grammar section as a buffet: if you have problems with a particular area, or would like to revise it, then go to that area and work on it, but don't feel that it's necessary to complete all grammar exercises before you try something else.  Try one of the free IELTS tests on the British Council's Take IELTS pages to see what your level is and what aspects of English you need to practise; then you can come back to the reference and practice materials here to work on those areas.

I hope that is helpful for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Mr. Peter;

Thank you very much your reply is so helpful, because it help me to make a decision to start doing the free IELTS tests and move forward.

 

Excuse me; are people in Poland and the UK suffering too much of catching a cold?, in my home we have been watching everyday a group of channels the Knowledge ,the entertainment and the Lifestyle BBC Poland and I noticed that about 60% of advertisement spaces between programs about cold medicines and joint disease medicines.

 

Really those channels are very useful and interesting.

 

Best wishes 

Safaa

 

Hi Safaa,

I don't think Polish people suffer any more from colds than anyone else!  I suppose it's the season for it at the moment so perhaps that's why there are so many advertisments.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Safaa S. on Sat, 18/01/2014 - 21:51

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Hello;

In the Article 2 page in the Quick grammar section, I read this example about singular countable nouns have an article.

That’s the woman I met last week.

So I feel that usually I am writing many unimportant words because if I want to say this sentence may I say :That`s the woman who I met her last week.What is the right way I feel a bit confusion, although I am reviewing the grammars section by time. Is there any advice to me? :( or only I have to be more patient and every thing by studying and by time will be better .

 

I read the in spite of / despite / although page, with taking in our consideration the grammatical difference in the following sentence of each of them; can I say that there is no difference between them in meaning except it`s prefer to use despite and although in the beginning of the sentence and although is stronger than despite.

 

Best Wishes

 

Safaa

 

 

Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 19/01/2014 - 21:24

In reply to by Safaa S.

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Hello Safaa,

You can include or omit the relative pronoun in this sentence:

That's the woman I met last week.

or

That's the worm who I met last week.

However, the object of the verb 'met' is the relative pronoun, whether it is included or not, so we do not add 'her' to the sentence.  You can find the rules for when the relative pronoun can be omitted on this page but there are really two things to remember:

1) you can miss out the relative pronoun in defining, not non-defining relative clauses

2) you can miss out the relative pronoun when it is the object of the verb [in your sentence, the relative pronoun is the object of the verb 'met']

Can I ask you to post your second question on the despite/in spite of/although page?  It is very useful for other users to see such questions when they are reading the pages as it may be a question that they themselves have, and if the questions are on other pages then they are unlikely to be noticed.  We will answer the question for you then, of course.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Safaa S. on Tue, 07/01/2014 - 09:34

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Hello;

As you display the traditional grammar and what is used nowadays in this page and in other ones, so I understand that it`s preferred in our writing and speaking to use what is used nowadays, but in exams what should be mark or use? or which one the examiner will consider the correct one?  

Best Regards

(Excuse me, what is the difference between Regards and Wishes in ending emails or comments)

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 08/01/2014 - 10:15

In reply to by Safaa S.

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Hello Safaa,

I suppose you are referring to the use of who for whom. Whether or not this is acceptable on an exam depends on who is marking the exam. If you are wondering about official English exams such as the IELTS or some of the Cambridge exams, who is considered correct. You could also use whom (as long as you use it correctly), but it's not necessary to do so - the current use of who is correct.

Both Best wishes and Best regards are common closings for emails in a neutral register. They essentially mean the same thing.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jeany on Thu, 28/11/2013 - 02:49

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But we do not use that as a subject in this kind of relative clause.

Sorry ,I can  not understand the sentence above. Can you give me more information about that? In what situation , we can not use the relative pronounce "that". thanks 

Hi jeany,

There are two types of relative clauses: 1) relative clauses that identify a person or thing, and 2) relative clauses that simply tell us more about a person or thing. The first examples above (the house that Jack built) are identifying relative clauses (type 1) and the other examples (My mother, who was born overseas, has always been a great traveller) are non-identifying clauses (type 2).

The sentence you ask about in the explanation simply means that the relative pronoun that is not used in non-identifying relative clauses (type 2) - in these relative clauses, only who or which is used.

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by emanhz85 on Thu, 07/11/2013 - 10:36

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Dear all i do no know when to use who and whom?? what i had understood that they are the same but who more common nowadays.. that is right ?? please answer me thanks

Submitted by Peter M. on Wed, 13/11/2013 - 10:01

In reply to by emanhz85

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Hello emanhz85,

'Whom' is the object form of 'who', so it can be used when we are talking about the person that something was done to, rather than the person doing the action.  For example:

Paul spoke to Andy.

Paul is the subject; Andy the object.

To ask about Paul [the subject], we can say: 'Who spoke to Andy?'

To ask about Andy [the object], we can say 'To whom did Andy speak?'

You are correct that nowadays people tend to use 'who' in all sentences.  Most people would say that the second sentence above (with 'whom') sounds old-fashioned and rather unnatural; they would be much more likely to say 'Who did Andy speak to?'

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sampat on Wed, 06/11/2013 - 14:30

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Hello Dear users of this site and Administrator of this site.there are some relative pronoun in English language likewise who whose which that etc. can we say? How we use them?

Hello sampat,

You are correct that those are examples of relative pronouns.  This page has exactly the information you are asking for!  As it says, we use relative pronouns

  • after a noun, to make it clear which person or thing we are talking about

or

  • to tell us more about a person or thing:

Take another look at the examples provided and I think you'll see that they answer your question very thoroughly.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Seng Poline on Mon, 28/10/2013 - 12:18

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its very useful for us

Submitted by M'nel on Sun, 13/10/2013 - 20:36

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well, it's awkward I think that saying "I met a man that has a sisiter who knows you" It's a long sentence !

Submitted by engmichel on Fri, 11/10/2013 - 07:41

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I would like to ask whether this phrase is grammatically correct : "I met a man who his sister knows you "
Hello engmichel, I'm afraid that sentence is not grammatically correct. I think the sentence you have in mind is this one: 'I met a man whose sister knows you.' I hope that clarifies it for you. Best wishes, Peter The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by aavi on Thu, 15/08/2013 - 20:04

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I have a confusion about 'that'. What are the conditions in which it can not be used? Because from tutorial I am not getting a clear idea and it  seems like ' that ' can be used everywhere interchangeably.

Hello aavi,

I think the page here lists very clearly when 'that' can be used, and when it cannot be used ('But we do not use that as a subject in this kind of relative clause' - i.e. we do not use 'that' in non-defining relative clauses).

Is there any particular example you have a question about?  We will be happy to help you with any concrete issues.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team