Welcome to EUROCENTRES blog

Who, That, Which When – What Are Relative Clauses?

Image representing students learning how to say "said" in other ways

Chances are, you’re probably already somewhat familiar with using relative clauses, even if you don’t know what they’re called.

Because they’re a really common part of the English language, and are used in all sorts of contexts to give someone some extra information.

So how can you spot a relative clause, and how exactly are they used? Read on!

How to spot a relative clause

How can you tell if you’ve got a relative clause?

The easiest way is to see what is a the start of the clause – if  it contains any of the pronouns “who”, “that”, “which”, “whose”, “where” or “when”, then it is most likely a relative clause.

So why do these words feature at the start of these clauses?

These particular pronouns are relative pronouns. They’re used to define or give identity to a noun that was previously named – and the role of the relative clause is to provide more defining information about this noun.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

“Here is the book that I told you about.”

“She is the woman who won the award.”

“This is the couple whose house you’ll be staying in.’

“Today is the day when everything will change!”

In all of the above examples, the information given after the relative pronoun helps to define the noun mentioned before in greater detail.

Adding extra information

In some cases, you can use relative clauses differently instead. This might seem confusing at first, but it’s actually quite easy to tell the difference!

Instead of defining a noun, you can sometimes use relative clauses to give additional information about it – a little bit like an aside. These are known as non-defining clauses.

Let’s take a look at some examples!

“My teacher, who only studied a few years ago, is already one of the best in his field.”

“My friend’s company, which makes beauty products, just won an award.”

As you can see in the above examples, the relative clause – starting with a relative pronoun – gives some extra information about the subject in the sentence, but is not part of the narrative of what is being described. Instead, the relative clause is kept separate in these cases, with a comma just before the clause, and at the end of it.

You can also use non-defining relative clauses at the end of a sentence. For example:

“I’m going to stay in Paris for a while, where my family lives.”

An important point to remember is that the pronoun “that” can’t be used to describe information about a person – it can only be used to describe other objects. For people, you must always use the pronoun “who”.

Your turn

Relative clauses are a great way of being more informative in your communication – you can add all kinds of extra details into your sentences and make things more interesting!

To get used to using the different pronouns and working with defining and non-defining clauses, it’s really helpful to carry out practice examples. Try writing out different examples in each group, and get familiar with them!