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 (71 votes)
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Submitted by Just_An on Tue, 21/05/2024 - 12:17


Hello everyone,

I have a question about defining relative clauses. In the student's book my daughter study, there are two sentences:
1. The book which/ that I read was very interesting.

2. The play (that/ which) we saw was great.

The explanation for the first sentence is: Defining relative clauses give information that is essential to the meaning of the main clause so we cannot omit them.
For the second sentence it is said that we can only omit the relative pronoun when it refers to the object of the main verb.
I am not an expert that's why I see no difference in the two sentences - I can omit that/ which in both without changing the meaning of each sentence.

Please, advice :)

Thank you in advance,


Hi Just_An,

You are right, "that/which" can be omitted in both of these sentences.

I can't be sure without seeing the book, but it seems the first sentence is not talking about omitting the relative pronoun only, but about omitting the whole relative clause "which/that I read". It is emphasising that the whole clause "which/that I read" is inseparable from "The book".


LearnEnglish team

Thank you very much, Jonathan!

Yes, indeed, You are right!
As I read it again later on today, it says: "Defining relative clauses give information that is essential to the meaning of the main clause so we cannot omit them."
So, it is for the whole clause "which/ that I read"...

Thanks once again and all the best!


Submitted by effieblue67 on Fri, 17/05/2024 - 04:46


Hi everyone

just something that has been bugging me about defining and non-defining clauses. 

I had the following sentences, which gave me a bit of grief, to explain to students.

  1. The library which they knocked down yesterday was in very bad condition. (the answer states as defining)
  2. My garden which I love very much looks beautiful when all the flowers bloom. (the answer states as defining)

My view on number 1 is that the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Without it we would not know which library we are talking about however the students were saying that they would understand because it was in bad condition so they would know.

The second one surely should have been non-defining because the relative clause adds extra information which is not needed. So, I was thinking it's a mistake in the book!

Please let me know your thoughts.

Thank you in advance,


Hello Effie,

I agree with you. Unless the speaker of the second sentence has two or more gardens and is identifying which garden they are talking about (the garden I love very much, not the garden I'm not so keen on) I would say that this is clearly a non-defining relative clause.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by thebaongoc on Mon, 22/04/2024 - 13:58


Hello, I have a question about the difference between ""which" and" where". 

 Eg:- I know a great little restaurant .... we can get lunch

       - Jane can not remember the name of the restaurant.... she ate her favorite roasted duck.

 Why we use " Which" instead of "where". Thank you in advance!

Hi thebaongoc,

Good question! Let's compare some examples.

Using "where" adds a new subject (in capital letters, below), which does a new action (e.g. "we can get lunch"). The action happens in the previously mentioned noun ("a great little restaurant").

  • I know a great little restaurant where WE can get lunch.
  • I know a great little restaurant where THEY do really good pizza.
  • I know a great little restaurant where THE FOOD is amazing.

Using "which" adds further information about the previously mentioned noun, "a great little restaurant".

  • I know a great little restaurant which is by the sea.
  • I know a great little restaurant which has really good reviews.
  • I know a great little restaurant which isn't too expensive.

Note that these are not actions by somebody/something IN the restaurant. These are extra information ABOUT the restaurant itself.

People sometimes think that places always use "where" but, as you can see, this isn't true. It depends on whether you want to describe more about the place itself (using "which"), or show an action by somebody/something else that happens in that place (using "where").

Does that make sense?


LearnEnglish team

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Submitted by Annie293 on Thu, 21/03/2024 - 04:00


I have a question relating to this topic. Please help! 
Which of these is correct? Combine 2 sentences into one using Relative Clause 

      1. The professor works in my university. She is from German. 
-> (a) The professor who works in my university is from German. 
-> (b) The professor who is from German works in my university. 

(a) or (b) is correct? It really confuses me. I don't know which clause should go first, especially when the "The professor" and "She"  are both subjects of the sentences. 

Hello Annie293,

First of all it should be 'from Germany' not 'from German' - 'Germany' is the name of the country, while 'German' is the adjective. We would also say 'at the university' rather than 'in...'

Other that that, both sentences are grammatically correct in terms of structure. However, I think the first one (a) is better. The reason is that defining relative clauses (which you have here) serve to identify the thing you are talking about so that new information can be provided. For example:

The man who lives next door is getting married.

Here the relative clause 'who lives next door' identifies the man. It represents shared knowledge - something you already know - so that you can tell which man I am talking about. The main clause gives you new information - something you did not know. We can apply this to your example and ask which piece of information is probably known and which is new. The most likely answer is that you know the professor works at your university but you did not know that he/she is from Germany. Therefore the first sentence (a) is most likely.

The second sentence (b) would be used if, for example, you had a group of professors from different countries and you wanted to say which of the professors you are talking about. Not a very likely situation, I think.



The LearnEnglish Team