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 (61 votes)

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

Submitted by CeCe99 on Tue, 25/10/2022 - 06:26


Dear teachers,
Could you assist with below sentences:
1. Did everyone taking (who took) the trip get sick?
2. It would reduce the rate of traffic accidents occurring (which occurs) every day?
Are these reduced relative clauses correct or should I keep them unreduced?
Thank you.

Hello CeCe99,

Yes, those are correct. If it were me writing, I would keep them unreduced, but I'm afraid I don't have a logical explanation -- it's my stylistic preference.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by melvinthio on Tue, 04/10/2022 - 05:56


Hi Jonathan, I would like to ask for your help for my following questions.
I've seen these sentences from English teaching examples :
[A] The man wanting coffee is over there (= who wants...).

[B] The girl living next door works at a bank (= who lives...).

[1] Are the above sentences grammatically correct ?

[2] As far as I know, if the subject of a sentence refers to someone or something definite (a particular person, thing, etc) like the above sentences, the present participle clause (-ing form) usually only has a progressive meaning.
Is my assumption right ?

[2] Based on the sentences above, are the following sentences grammatically correct, using definite subjects with non-progressive meanings ?

C) The workers understanding the rules didn't protest (= who understood...).

D) The student having the best mark is awarded (=who has....)

I would be grateful if you could help me with your clear explanation.

Best regards,

Hello melvinthio,

1. Sentences A and B are a bit awkward, but are grammatically correct.

2. A non-progressive meaning is also possible. For example, in a sentence like 'Anyone speaking without permission will be punished', 'speaking' = 'who speaks'.

3. Yes, C and D are correct, though in general I'd recommend using the relative clauses ('who understood', 'who has').

Hope this helps.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Good day sir. May I jump in and ask:
2. When is a non-progressive meaning possible since sometimes there are awkward sentences when reduced adjective clauses are used?
3. Would you say we should use relative clauses in C and D because this usage is unnatural though correct or they may confuse readers with the tenses being used?
Thank you for your help.

Hello CeCe99,

2. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with any simple explanation of this. This is not to say that such an explanation doesn't exist, but rather that I don't know of one. It's also important to consider the communicative context, as this influences the most appropriate forms and the meanings they are meant to carry.

3. It's a question of style, i.e. yes, they sound a little unnatural to me. I don't think proficient speakers would be confused by the tenses -- though again, this depends on the context.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team