Relative clauses: defining relative clauses

Relative clauses: defining relative clauses

Do you know how to define who or what you are talking about using relative clauses? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

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.


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.


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

Language level

Average: 4.2 (70 votes)
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Hello Rak Han,

The main clause generally contains the most important information which we want to convey. Relative clauses contain information about one particular item (a noun or noun phrase) in the sentence. Relative clauses are sometimes called 'adjective clauses' because they add descriptions in a similar way to adjectives.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by red_angel on Tue, 31/01/2023 - 01:09


Hello, the use of "who", "that", "which" etc. are clear to me in most cases. Well, until the moment which made me come here, there hadn't been any case of doubt. But I have come across a sentence in an English book which has confused me.
I am talking about the following sentence: "The term 'price sensitive' usually refers to customers or products who are highly sensitive to price changes."

I know that "who" or "that" is used for people and "which" or "that" for things. Therefore, I am surprised by this sentence and I am wondering if "customers or products who" is correct. I would never use it like that, instead, I would use "that" as "products" is the second noun used in the sentence. Normally "products who" would not fit together. I have not found a comparable sentence using a relative pronoun for both people and things in the same sentence. The explanations are always only adaptable for the clear cases referring to a person OR a thing. Of course such types of example sentences represent most of the cases.

Thank you in advance for your answer.

Best regards

Michaela M

Hi Michaela M,

It's an interesting example. As you pointed out, the issue is with choosing a relative pronoun to match "customers and products". Strictly speaking, "who" should not be used in this way, and I agree that "that" would be a more grammatical choice. However, people do occasionally use "who" in this way, and I would consider it acceptable in contexts of informal language use such as conversation or informal writing, where people do not always speak/write in perfectly grammatical ways.

As an alternative, after each noun we can add a suitable relative pronoun: ... refers to customers who or products which ... . This sounds relatively more formal in style.

I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by olga_v111 on Tue, 27/12/2022 - 18:01


Can you, please, comment on the following situation:
When we describe a photo. which variant is better to use?
- There is a girl WHO is playing basketball , OR
- There is a girl THAT is playing basketball

THAT sounds a bit strange to me, but I've read that it's possible to use when we speak about people. But I never saw it with continuous form and with description of photos. Will it be OK to use it on the exam?

Hello olga_v111,

Both forms are possible here. In defining relative clauses you can use that to replace who or which.

In writing I think which/who is more common, and that is more often used in speech. It's perfectly fine to use that in exams.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Yosem on Wed, 14/12/2022 - 00:38


Good day teachers. May I jump in and ask:
In there be sentences, should the relative pronoun must be "that"? For example,

There are three more papers that I have to write.

Can I use "which" in this sentence?' I'd appreciate your help.Thx.

Hello Yosem,

This is an example of a defining relative clause - one which makes clear what we are talking about (not just any papers but specific papers).

You can use either 'that' or 'which' here. I think 'that' is more common in speaking but neither has any strong style in terms of formality.

You can also miss out the relative pronoun altogether. When there is a subject in the relative clause (here, the subject in the relative clause is 'I') the relative pronoun can be missed out.


Here are the three possible sentences:

  • There are three more papers that I have to write.
  • There are three more papers which I have to write.
  • There are three more papers I have to write.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sefika on Wed, 23/11/2022 - 18:34


I would like to ask a question about the second sentence in the following paragraph, which is the last paragraph of the text titled "All in the memory...." in an English coursebook.
The paragraph is below:
"Memory loss can take many forms: cases of people who forget their identity and end up wandering the streets are, sadly, relatively common. Rarer cases include the man who lost his memory for faces and believed that a stranger was watching him every time he looked in the mirror, or the man who lost his visual memory, and could not recognize everyday objects, confusing a pen with a knife, for example."
Now is the question:
In the relative clauses in the second sentence, the simple past tense is used. Could we ascribe the use of the simple past to the hypothetical nature of the cases mentioned (" 'Rarer' cases")? In short, are these hypothetical present or real past cases?
Thank you in advance.

Hello Sefika,

This is an interesting question. I understand the second sentence to be referring to real cases, which means that the past simple refers to real past cases. It is true, though, that these real past cases serve as examples of other timeless hypothetical cases with similar characteristics.

But if I had to choose between real past cases or hypothetical ones, I'd say real past.

Hope this is helpful.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team