Relative clauses – defining relative clauses

Do you know how to define who or what you are talking about using relative clauses?

Look at these examples to see how defining relative clauses are used.

Are you the one who sent me the email?
The phone which has the most features is also the most expensive.
This is the video that I wanted to show you.
The person they spoke to was really helpful.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Grammar B1-B2: Relative clauses – defining relative clauses: 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

Relative clauses give us information about the person or thing mentioned. 

Defining relative clauses give us essential information – information that tells us who or what we are talking about.

The woman who lives next door works in a bank. 
These are the flights that have been cancelled.

We usually use a relative pronoun or adverb to start a defining relative clause: who, which, that, when, where or whose.

who/that

We can use who or that to talk about people. that is more common and a bit more informal.

She's the woman who cuts my hair.
He's the man that I met at the conference.

which/that 

We can use which or that to talk about things. that is more common and a bit more informal.

There was a one-year guarantee which came with the TV.
The laptop that I bought last week has started making a strange noise!

Other pronouns

when can refer to a time.

Summer is the season when I'm happiest.

where can refer to a place.

That's the stadium where Real Madrid play.

whose refers to the person that something belongs to.

He's a musician whose albums have sold millions. 

Omitting the relative pronoun

Sometimes we can leave out the relative pronoun. For example, we can usually leave out who, which or that if it is followed by a subject.

The assistant [that] we met was really kind.
   (we = subject, can omit that)

We can't usually leave it out if it is followed by a verb.

The assistant that helped us was really kind.
   (helped = verb, can't omit that)

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Grammar B1-B2: Relative clauses – defining relative clauses: 2

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Language level

B1 English level (intermediate)

Submitted by melvinthio on Wed, 17/08/2022 - 10:44

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Hi Jonathan,
Are my following interpretations correct ?

[1] Those parents of the students who are protesting against the school policy are called by the principal (this means the parents who are protesting).

[2] The parents of those students who are protesting against the school policy are called by the principal (this means the students who are protesting).

I'd appreciate your help whether my above interpretations are right.

Best regards,

Hi melvinthio,

Yes, I agree with your interpretations. In [1], it doesn't make sense to say "Those" unless the speaker means that the parents are protesting, and the reverse is true in [2].

However, in my view the part in sentence [1] where it says "the students who are protesting" could easily be misunderstood. Rewording [1] would make the intended meaning clearer, e.g., "The students' parents who are protesting ..." or perhaps simply "Those parents who are protesting ..." (if the rest of the text can make clear that "parents" here refers to the parents of the students in question).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Victoria7 on Thu, 28/07/2022 - 21:24

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Good afternoon, I'm struggling with these pair of sentences because I don't understand why we should use which and where respectively:
1. We went to a shop which I never want to go back to.
2. We went to a shop where a latte cost 3 dollars.
I know the difference between each relative but I can't make them fit into these sentences. Thank you in advance!!

Hi Victoria7,

You actually have two different items here. Which (plus who, whose and that) is a relative pronoun. Where (plus why and when) is a relative adverb.

Both relative pronouns and relative adverbs introduce relative clauses, which function like adjectives to add extra information about a noun or noun phrase. However, grammatically they are a little different in terms of how we use them.

Relative pronouns stand for nouns or noun phrases. In your first sentence the relative pronoun 'which' stands for 'a shop'. Just as you need to say 'to a shop' you need to say 'to which', and this is why you have 'to' at the end of that sentence. You could also put the 'to' before the relative pronoun (We went to a shop to which I never want to go back), but this makes the sentence extremely formal.

Relative adverbs give extra information about the noun or noun phrase. There is no need to use 'to' here, just as we don't need to use 'to' when we use 'where'.

 

You can replace a relative adverb with a relative pronouns plus a preposition (where > to which, in which, at which etc depending on the context; when > during which, before which, after which etc)

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by artantiina on Mon, 11/04/2022 - 16:35

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Please help me to answer them.
Underline the noun clause in each sentence. In the space provided, indicate the function of Noun clause (as subject, object, or complement).
1.Where they stay is unknown. __________
2.I don’t have any idea who they really are. _____________
3.The lecturer gave whoever wanted it the paper __________
4.She isn’t much interested in what the class is studying _____________
5.That is what I’m going to say to you__________________
6.What he said to us was crystal clear ______________
7.I don’t know how long it will take to get to you ______________
8.Give whoever suggestions the answer_______________
9.The teacher sent the paper results to whoever was interested ______
This is what I told you about _____

Hi artantiina,

Sorry, we try not to answer questions like this here, because we might be doing students' homework for them! But if you have a more specific question, let us know.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Giao Huynh on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 06:51

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Hello everyone, Can you help me with this one?
The children are my students. They are playing soccer over there. (Combine the sentences using Relative Clause)
1. The children who/that are playing soccer over there are my students.
2. The children are my students, who are playing soccer ovet there.
3. The children who/that areny students are playing soccer over there.

Which one(s) is/ are correct? Thank you so much!

Hello Giao Huynh,

I'm afraid we don't generally provide help with answers to questions from other sources. We're happy to explain the rules and tendencies of English but if we start just providing answers to these kinds of questions we'll end up doing users' homework and tests for them, and that's not our role!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter. Thank you so much for your effort to reply to my question. I understand what is implied in your answer. To clarify, I am an English teacher, and the question is included in one of our tests for our/my students. The thing is, there has been debate among us teachers over the answers to the questions. And my side is that:
1. The children who/that are playing soccer over there are my students: CORRECT.
2. The children are my students, who are playing soccer over there: INCORRECT: non-defining relative clause is used to add information to a Noun in a complete clause in terms of grammar and meaning, which this one does not satisfy. Plus, instead of saying this, we had better say: “My students are playing soccer over there.” The students are obviously children.
3. The children that/ who are my students are playing soccer over there: INCORRECT: Anyone’s students can be students, not just my students. Therefore, this defining relative clause in the sentence has no use of defining the noun “the children”. Plus, if there are two clauses in a sentence, one generally (they are my students) and one specifically (they are playing soccer over there) indicates some noun, we’d better use the more specific one (they are playing soccer over there) as the Relative Clause.

From my side, I have just presented what I understand about the use of Relative clause in general, and in this case particularly. The other side, however, concluded that all were correct. Honestly, I came up with seeking for help from your group, a prestigious one, in order to find out the right thing to teach our students. So can you still please help?
Thank you,

Giao

Hello again Giao,

Thank you for the explanation. From time to time students try to use LearnEnglish to get answers for their homework so we are quite careful about this - as a teacher yourself I'm sure you understand.

 

With regards to the sentences:

1. I agree that the first sentence is correct. This is fairly standard defining/restrictive relative clause identifying which children we are talking about.

 

2. Again, I agree here. However, this sentence is difficult. In terms of grammatical construction it is fine but it is very awkward conceptually. 'The children' already points out the people we are talking about, so it makes no sense to then point them out again with a non-defining relative clause. You could, however, think of a context in which you might say something like this. For example, imagine I show a photo of some children. I might say 'The children (i.e. the ones in the photo) are my students. Then I notice that they are playing soccer and I add this information. However, we would usually signal this explicitly in some way. For example:

The children are my students - who are playing soccer over there, in fact / actually / now that I look / by happy chance / right this moment.

Without this explicit signal that you have just noticed something new I don't think the sentence works.

 

3. The third sentence is correct. Imagine a context in which there are several groups of children. You want to identify the group which is formed of your students. To do this you use a defining relative clause:

 

The children who are my students are playing soccer over there. [as opposed to the children who are not my students, who are playing tennis]

 

I hope that helps to clarify it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by HieuNT on Sat, 22/01/2022 - 14:08

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Hello LearningEnglish team,

In these examples:
> Summer is the season when I'm happiest.
> That's the stadium where Real Madrid play.

Can we omit the pronouns "when" and "where"? Or is it ungrammatical to do so?
> Summer is the season I'm happiest.
> That's the stadium Real Madrid play.

Many thanks,
Hieu Nguyen

Hi Hieu Nguyen,

We can omit "when", but not "where". However, omitting "where" is sometimes done in the phrase "the place (where)", e.g. "If we go back to the place (where) we started, we'll find the right way." or "I tried to find the place (where) I met her but I couldn't find it again."

I hope that helps.

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Mr. Jonathan R,

Thank you for your answer! However, for me, "the place" can replace "the stadium" in the example:

> That's the place/the stadium where Real Madrid play.

Then why can't we leave out "where" in that example? Is this some kinds of conventions in English?

Also, is it acceptable that we omit "when", "why" or "where" when possible in more formal contexts (like in writing)?

Hieu Nguyen

Hi Hieu Nguyen,

If you only look at the structure of the sentence, then yes - "the place" can replace "the stadium". But language use is not only a matter of structure/grammar. Words have individual characteristics too, including how they combine with other words in common phrases, and these cannot be described with grammatical rules. For whatever reason, it has become relatively common to omit "where" after "the place", but not after "stadium" or other words denoting places. It's a matter of vocabulary usage too, not only grammar.

Yes, it is acceptable to omit relative pronouns in formal writing. However, in more precise writing (e.g. technical reports or legal writing, or when you just want to express yourself clearly), it may be better not to omit them, to ensure maximum clarity of meaning. (Precise writing is not always formal writing.)

I hope that helps.

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again Mr. Jonathan R,

Thank you for your detailed explanation. I get it now.

Hope you have a good day, sir.

Submitted by chicavampiroruarrr on Mon, 17/01/2022 - 15:22

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Dear Kirk, first of all, my class and I love your name and we think you’re very slayyyy! But your exercises aren’t done correctly, because it only shows a certain number of questions to different people. I got 10 questions out of 16, my friend got 8 questions out of 16 and my other classmate got 13 questions out of 16. Please fix your error.
Thank you for your attention, xoxo 💋

Hello chicavampiro,

I'm glad to hear it!

Regarding your question, in each exercise, you have to choose 16 options (this is what '16 items remaining' means), so the questions can have one, two, or three correct options.

For example, in Grammar test 1, for the first sentence, 'who' and 'that' are both correct; for the second sentence, 'who', 'that' and '–' are correct. You have to tick the boxes for all of these answers.

You can also see the correct answers: after you press the 'Finish' button, press the 'Show answers' button to see them.

Hope this helps you and your friends and classmates.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by haovivu128 on Thu, 16/09/2021 - 10:31

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Hello sirs, Could you help me correct them? Thank you in advance. Defining relative clauses: *0 = no relative pronoun. 1. who (subject): That's the man who/that teaches me Math subject at the school. 2. who/whom (object): The man who/whom/that/0 I admire the most is my father. 3. which (subject): The books which/that are the bestsellers over the world are the “Harry Potter” Novels. 4. which (object): Where are the tickets which/that/0 I bought yesterday? 5. whose (human): That’s Justin whose sister works at the office with me. 6. whose (animals; things): These are rooms whose equipments are used for the particular activities. 7. where (places): The place where we got married is Notre Dame Catheldral Church. 8. when (times): We’re going to remember the moments when we stayed together.

Hi haovivu128,

You did a good job :) The relative pronouns and relative clauses are correct. But I do have a few other corrections:

  • 1: instead of 'Math subject', it should just be 'Math' (or 'Maths').
  • 3: It should be 'bestsellers', without 'the' before it.
  • 6: 'equipment' should be uncountable, not countable (so the verb should be 'is', not 'are').

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by BobMux on Tue, 20/04/2021 - 16:44

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Hello the LearnEnglish Theam, Could you please help me understand defining relative clause better. Here is the sentence: A substance in the tank which is used by the farmers ... Is the tank used by farmers or is the tank?

Hello BobMux,

It's not clear in this case whether the farmers use the substance or the tank. Usually the context will make it clear, but sometimes you have to ask for more information to know for sure.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Kirk, Your explanations are always clear and easy to understand.
Profile picture for user Quynh Nhu

Submitted by Quynh Nhu on Sat, 27/03/2021 - 00:40

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Can you tell me the difference in the grammar between these two sentences: I can't remember who told me I can't remember the person who told me. In what cases "who" can stand alone (don't need a noun before it) Thank you

Hi Quynh Nhu,

It depends on which structures can go with the verb. The verb here is remember, and remember can be followed by a question word (as in your sentence 1) or a noun phrase (as in your sentence 2). It can be followed other structures as well, e.g. a that clause and an -ing verb - see this Cambridge Dictionary page for examples.

Other verbs may have different structures. With meet, for example, it's possible to say I would like to meet the person who helped me but not I would like to meet who helped me.

I hope that helps!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ayman hijazin on Fri, 19/03/2021 - 15:27

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Good evening LearnEnglish team, I'd like to know your answer to this question about relative clauses, fill it and explain your answer please. Salma handed her glasses, ________ were broken, to her PE teacher. All the best, Ayman

Hello ayman hijazin,

I'm afraid we don't provide answers to questions and tasks from elsewhere. We're happy to provide explanations of how the language works and to explain our own materials, of course. If we answered questions like this we'd soon end up doing users' homework and tests for them, which isn't really our role!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by aymanme2 on Thu, 04/03/2021 - 19:52

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Hello, sirs I'd like to know your answer to this question, please. The employer ___I work for is a successful organisation. a) who b) that c) whom I see 'THAT' is the best option here. Yet, what about the other ones, especially I read somewhere that we can use 'who' with nouns like 'factory , company ......'

Hello aymanme2,

Both 'that' and 'who' are possible in this sentence. I wouldn't say either is better; both are fine. As you say, we can use 'who' for things which we see as comprised of people: companies, organisations, teams, nations etc.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your response, sir. What about 'whom'? Could it work as an object, too?

Submitted by BobMux on Sun, 21/02/2021 - 04:56

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Hello The LearnEnglish Team, I would be greatful if you could help me with the sentence below; Germans are good at dealing with time-management, wich is often spoken and adviced to have by motivators and most successful people, which i really want to get I think that in this sentence both non-defining (which is often spoken and.....) and defining (which i really want to get) relative clauses are used. Actually, Is it possible to use both clauses( defining and non-defining) in a single sentence?

Hello BobMux,

To be honest, I'm not completely sure if it's possible to use both sorts of relative clauses in the same sentence. What I can say with confidence is that I wouldn't recommend it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by sisi on Fri, 19/02/2021 - 16:52

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Hello, can you explain me why in the sentence: They ate at a restaurant ___ serves only vegan dishes. We can't put Where? Because we are talking about a place

Hello sisi,

You need to use a pronoun in the gap as it is the subject of the verb 'serves'. 'Which' is a pronoun, but 'where' is actually an adverb. If you use 'where' then you need to add a subject after it:

They ate at a restaurant which serves only vegan dishes.

They ate at a restaurant where they serve only vegan dishes.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Olli T. on Sat, 30/01/2021 - 10:03

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Good morning LearnEnglish team, Is there any fixed rule concerning the position of participle adjectives, i.e. whether they are placed before or after a noun? Take the term "1kg of fish caught", for example - is the postponed position of the adjective "caught" (as a reduced relative) binding, acc. to English grammar rules, or is it just formal style and the term "1kg of caught fish" would also be fine? The only source I found is "Advanced Grammar in Use" from Cambridge University Press, Unit 69 (B) regarding "participle adjectives and compound adjective, e.s". The author gives examples of such adjectives - some of them are typically found directly before the noun, others are usually go directly behind the noun, and the third group of adjectives may be placed before or after the noun. Many thanks in advance for your assistance.

Submitted by Gab07 on Wed, 27/01/2021 - 18:11

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Hello, I study relatives clauses in my English course and I don't know where I put commas and my sentences aren't correct "my brother is dating Mary who I can’t handle" "the people he works for no longer live in Belgium" "the house which is on the corner of the street is wonderful "The girls who tom goes out with is very beautiful

Hello Gab07,

Non-defining relative clauses have commas before the relative clause, while defining relative clauses do not. Thus, the key is to indentify if your sentence is a defining relative clause or a non-defining relative clause:

relative pronouns and relative clauses

> defining relative clauses

> non-defining relative clauses

 

In brief, if the relative clause identifies the noun and is necessary for the sentence to make sense, it is a defining relative clause. If the relative clause simply provides additional but not essential information, it is a non-defining relative clause.

 

For example:

"my brother is dating Mary, who I can’t handle"

the relative clause does not tell us anything essential to identifying Mary - it does not tell us 'this Mary and not the other Mary - so it is a non-defining relative clause and a comma is used.


"the people he works for no longer live in Belgium"

Here, the relative clause gives us essential information. It tells us which people you are talking about. Without the relative clause the sentence would make no sense as it would refer to all people or people in general.

 

I hope that helps. We don't provide answers for tasks from elsewhere, so I'm not going to give you the answers to all of the questions. The explanation should help you work out the others for your self, I hope. Good luck!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Maryami123 on Wed, 09/12/2020 - 19:34

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Hi I had a question, could we only omit which, that and who or could we also leave out whose and when? Thank you
Profile picture for user Peter M.

Submitted by Peter M. on Thu, 10/12/2020 - 07:58

In reply to by Maryami123

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Hello Maryami123,

No, we do not omit whose, where and when from relative clauses.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yigitcan on Thu, 26/11/2020 - 19:15

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Hello team, I am confused about this sentence '' I love this film. It's a classic romantic-comedy where two heroes end up failing in love and getting togather after some problems, of course.'' Why we use '' where'' clause? Romantic-comedy isn't place.

Hi Yigitcan,

Actually, we can use where figuratively, to refer to something which can be imagined as a space containing other things. In this example, the romantic comedy film contains characters and story events. We often use where like this to refer to situations, processes and stories. There are more examples on this page in the Cambridge Dictionary.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you teacher also In this sentence;can we use ''which'' instead of ''where''?

Hi Yigitcan,

Yes! Instead of where, you can use which, but it must be together with in

  • It's a classic romantic comedy in which two heroes end up failing in love ...

That's because the clause (two heroes end up failing in love) is an action/event that happens in (i.e. inside) the romantic comedy. The clause doesn't describe the romantic comedy (as in, for example: It's a classic romantic comedy which has two heroes).

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nbu2316 on Sun, 08/11/2020 - 20:07

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Hello! I'm not sure whether I'm right here but there is one thing I always come across which makes me struggle. For the context: For my current study I have to analyze a sample of academic text and extract all relative clauses I can find with regard to a classification table by Roland et al. (2007). In most cases, this is not hard, but then there are sentences (as follow) that confuse me: "The contexts in which the utterances were produced will also be an influential factor with different conversations possibly dictating specific language, relevant to the task being carried out, to the speakers" Here, I think to have two different relative clauses: 1) in which the utterances were produced (a full passive relative clause defining the subject of the main clause), and 2) being carried out (a reduced passive relative clause defining 'the task') While the first case seems to be very clear and simple, I am not sure about the second one as in the results of another analysis, these kind of sentences were regarded as non-relative clauses. Therefore, I would like to ask if defining clauses such as the second example above belong to the category of relative clauses or not. Note: According to Roland et al. (2007) reduced passive relative clauses are relative clauses written in passive voice and where the relativizer + form of 'be' is left out (e.g. This is the dog which was attacked by the cat. -> This is the dog attacked by the cat.). I THANK YOU SO MUCH in advance for your help. Kind regards, Nehir
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 10/11/2020 - 07:47

In reply to by nbu2316

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Hello Nehir,

As you say, I think the first one is clear here: it is a relative clause headed by a relative pronoun introduced by a preposition (in which); you could instead use the relative adverb where, though stylistically this would be less suitable.

 

The second example is also a relative clause, but is reduced. The full (non-reduced) form would be as follows:

...relevant to the task which was being carried out, to the speakers...

I think the other way this could be seen is as a participle clause. However, participle clauses have an adverbial function rather than adjectival, and in your sentence the function is clearly adjectival.

You can read more about participle clauses on this page:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-intermediate/participle-clauses

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team