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How to Use Relative Clauses Correctly

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While relative clauses aren’t an essential part of English, they are certainly very helpful and you’ll come across them quite a lot!

So what do they do? Relative clauses are used to share a little extra information about something or someone in lots of different ways.

Read on to find out more about how relative clauses are used, and how to put them together correctly.

Using relative clauses with relative pronouns

A relative clause forms part of a sentence, and will always stand out from other clauses because of one characteristic – they start with a relative pronoun. These include the pronouns “who”, “that”, “which”, “whose”, “where” and “when.”

Each of these pronouns can be used to share specific kinds of information:

  • “who” is used to share information about a person, for example:

“I gave the bag to the lady who was standing on the stage.”

  • “that” can be used to share information relating to a person or a thing, for example:

“Can you return the book that I gave you last week?”

  • “which” can be used to clarify something about a thing:

“This is the car which he used to get away.”

  • “whose” is used to share information about something belonging to a person, for example:

“I don’t know whose parents haven’t replied back yet.”

  • “where” is used to express something about location, for example:

“I left him at the station, where we had first met.”

  • “when” is used to express something related to time, for example:

“Can you tell me when the bus will be arriving?”

Defining and non-defining clauses

While all relative clauses will use relative pronouns, there are two different types of clauses you might come across – depending on the kind of information being shared.

These are defining and non-defining clauses – let’s take a closer look at each of them!

Defining clauses are used to express something that is specific and defined. You might want to use these to highlight or single out a particular item from a group, or point out a specific person, or group of people you may be talking about.

For example:

“I picked the person who spoke the most clearly for the team.”

The defining clause in this example is “who spoke the most clearly for the team.” There are a couple of important points to notice here. The relative clause is part of the overall sentence, and there is no punctuation used to separate it from the rest of the sentence structure.

Another important point to note is that a defining clause shares something that changes the meaning of the sentence. If the clause was removed, it would have a quite a different meaning.

Let’s take a look at an example of a non-defining clause:

“My mother, who was born in France, goes on holiday twice a year.”

While the relative clause in this example follows the same rules, as a non-defining clause, it is separated out from the rest of the sentence with a comma at the start and finish. If it was taken out of the sentence entirely, the overall meaning of the sentence would still stay the same.

Your turn

Practice using relative clauses by looking at different examples in text, and writing your own as well. Try writing a clause with each different relative pronoun – and make sure that you work on both defined and non-defined clauses!