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How to Use Relative Clauses

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Relative clauses are always helpful to know how to use! Put simply, they’re a useful way of giving some more information about something as part of the same sentence.

But how do you construct a relative clause, and how do you use them correctly? Let’s take a closer look!

What is a relative clause?

A relative clause is a phrase or clause that can be combined with an existing sentence to provide extra information about what is being described.

This means that instead of having two sentences, you can combine them into one – giving a much smoother and more seamless effect.

For example, you could say:

“He had his birthday party at the club. It is his favourite place.”

Or you could combine them by saying:

“He had his birthday party at the club, which is his favourite place.”

Two types of relative clauses

You can use relative clauses in two different ways, depending on the meaning of your sentence.

Defining relative clauses will define a specific noun that is being talked about in the sentence:

E.g. “My younger sister who lives in France is coming to visit.”

In this example, the noun “sister” is defined, and is referred to using a relative pronoun, “who”.

There are a few different relative pronouns that you can use in defined relative clauses, including:

–       who: used to describe a person

–       whose: used to describe belonging or possession

–       which or that: used to describe objects

To construct a defined relative clause, you must use a relative pronoun, and it takes the role of the subject in the sentence. It can come after the object.

E.g.

“The girl who hadn’t eaten fell asleep on the train.”

The other type of relative clause is a non-defining clause. This is used when you are giving extra information about something, but it is not necessary or essential to defining it.

For example – the following could be used as both a defined relative clause or a non-defined relative clause:

“The book which has an orange cover must not be left out on the shelf.”

This example is a defined relative clause – it is necessary to identify the book with the specific coloured cover.

“The book, which has an orange cover, must not be left out on the shelf.”

This example is non-defined – the additional clause “which has an orange cover” is not as important in this case – the book itself is the most important part!

Non-defined relative clauses are usually easy to spot in written English. Take a look at the example above – what difference do you see?

It’s the extra commas that frame the clause! When speaking, you would normally have a slight pause at these points, instead.

Your turn

Relative clauses might seem a little complicated – and the difference between the two types is very subtle! But with practice, you’ll soon get the hang of them.

The best way to learn is by reading and writing lots of examples – see if you can spot clauses in anything that you read, and try to practise using your own as well!