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.

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

Language level

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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

Permalink

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.